APR 22 2000
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Not a drop to drink

The fact that large areas of the country continue to reel under drought of varying degrees of severity, year after year, is an indictment of the failure of economic policy over half a century and more. Official statistics put the number of drought affected districts in the country during 1999-2000 at 126, spread over 11 states. This includes 26 of Rajasthanís 32 districts.
Interestingly, the Drought Affected Areas Programme in Andhra Pradesh covers only 11 districts, while 22 districts were officially recognised as drought affected in 1999-2000, an indication of the separation between official programmes and reality.
A situation in which large sections of the population, typically the poorest of the poor, have to survive with little or no water for days on end is hardly calculated to generate a groundswell of support for the reform process. Unless those at the bottom of the economic ladder perceive themselves as having gained from the reforms, the threat of a backlash will loom large.
It is undeniable that a large part of the problem can be solved by harnessing simple rain harvesting technologies which are optimally managed at the level of local self-government. But this should not be an excuse for the state to withdraw from the significant contribution it can make through public investment in irrigation and providing potable water. Particularly since the slowdown in public investment has not been matched by a corresponding increase in investment from the private sector.
What must not be overlooked, however, is the slowdown in public investment is itself the consequence of the failure to price water properly. Numerous studies have shown that the poor are not averse to paying for water as long as they are assured of proper supply. Unfortunately, politicians, driven by their desire to pander to vote banks and reluctance to focus on the long rather than the short term, have not hesitated to muddy the waters. The result is that large areas, which once had abundant supply of water, now reel under water shortage as funds available for investment have dried up.

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Not a drop to drink

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