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Why is India drought-prone?/Professor P V Indiresan
Several consecutive years of drought is quite common in our climate. In the past hundred years, that happened several times. We had three consecutive years of drought in Gujarat in 1986-1989. In Karanataka, that drought lasted five six years.
Drought and famine are not the same. Professor Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner, never tires of pointing out that even in severe famine conditions, the availability of food is not less than 80 of normal. So, there is no cause for mass deaths that characterise famines. According to Sen, only democracies (but not dictatorships) have in-built protective systems that prevent famines. That is why even in our greatest crises, we have had no famines since independence but China has suffered acutely.
It is said that, God helps those who help themselves. Governments cannot be expected to do any better. Unfortunately, the media (particularly the TV) has been blaming the government, for everything, not encouraging the people to be self reliant. So it is possible that there will be less local initiative now than there has a decade ago.
We have had a record 11 years of consecutive good monsoons. Therefore we should now be prepared for some years of drought . It has been noticed that villages, with check dams, have staved off the drought. This is possible only with large dams.
In this connection, it is high time we call Ms Medha Patkar’s bluff. The present Gujarat famine has occurred precisely in those areas that were to be supplied with drinking water by the Narmada Dam. With single minded determination, Ms. Patkar has seen to it that the dam height does not rise to the level from which water can be drawn. So there is plenty of water in dead storage but not a drop to distribute. If the dam construction had been allowed to proceed on schedule, there would have been no crisis today. Ms Medha Patkar concern for the displaced is commendable but what is fair compensation is a matter of opinion. On the other hand, that people have no water to drink and could have had plenty if the dam had been constructed, is a matter of fact.
Ms Patkar has made out that her struggle is for human rights of displaced people and against the property rights of the beneficiaries. To be more accurate, she has been asserting the property rights of tribals against human rights of Gujarat peasants. In effect, she has been arguing, “This is tribal land, their property. They, and they alone, have the right over it. If, the river goes spate and causes flood havoc, that is not their concern. If, thereby, ninety per cent of the water waste into the sea, so be it. If millions and millions starve and many of them die, for want of water, that is their misfortune, no responsibility of the tribals”. In her blind zeal, she has inflicted much suffering on innocent people. The media chose to believe Ms Patkar and not the engineers. Both she and those who lionised her have much to answer for the current distress in Gujarat.
What next? It would be wise to get all villages in drought prone areas to build check dams (That is the most appropriate drought, relief program for the present crisis). The National Remote Sensing Agency should be called upon to locate the best locations for the purpose, and also for identifying precise locations for drilling tube wells. We should shift from the cultivation of water intensive crops like sugarcane to others that are less demanding. The Supreme Court should be asked to permit the completion of large dams quickly. There is no time to waste - the next monsoon (and possibly the next drought) is barely a year away.
Professor P V Indiresan
Former Director, IIT