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The Hindu on : Wanted, sensitivity

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Thursday, May 18, 2000

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Wanted, sensitivity

By Harish Khare

DROUGHT IS a cruel thing. Combined with drinking water scarcity, it becomes an even more cruel thing. Large parts of India are in the grip of a cruel drought. We have been rudely jolted out of our collective reverie about economic abundance, booming stock markets, cyber revolution and venture capitalism. Just when we thought that we had entered the New Economy's fast lane, we are suddenly being forced to come to terms with evidence of starvation, destitution and deprivation so familiar in the Old Economy. Our best and most creative minds may be busy fixing cricket matches, rigging beauty pageants and manipulating the stock exchange, the not-so-imaginative and no-longer-so- much- appreciated delivery system of the old state order is being pressed into service to provide relief for the drought's victims and to ensure that large tracts of the country do not slip into stark starvation.

And though the vacuous young things with television cameras have moved on to another story, the drought story is far from over. The drought began months before it was discovered by the media and will remain a fact of life for months, at least till the next monsoon. In any case, the drought is too serious a matter to be tackled by the by-now-familiar techniques of ``media management''. To the extent the current drought has come after a string of good monsoons its harshness is not yet all that acutely felt, certainly nowhere comparable to the kind of widespread deprivation that was experienced in 1987-1988. But it would certainly not do to overlook the clash of mindsets - priorities, objectives and ideals that policy-makers should pursue - that the current drought has so depressingly brought to the fore. The unsettled equation among state, market and civil society has become even more unsettled; in particular, the obligation of the state to ensure an equitable allocation of collective resources has become decisively crucial.

Take the case of Gujarat, arguably India's most prosperous State, traditionally given to worshipping market gods, much before it turned into a national rage. Without the hype that the Chief Ministers in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka find so irresistible, Gujarat has been quietly pursuing the agenda of privatisation, especially since the early 1990s. Today, the same Gujarat finds itself having to re-orient itself to deal with a drought-like situation in Saurashstra, Kutch and the northern districts such as Sabarkantha and Banaskantha; in the process, the political leadership and the bureaucracy perforce have to disengage themselves from the meretricious cyber-agenda, and, instead, fine tune the delivery system of the welfare state.

Indeed the theory and practice of ``relief work'' is deeply rooted in the mai-baap Government, enjoining the state to look after drought victims. A drought takes a toll of its victims in more ways than one. The marginal farmers are reduced to working as agricultural labourers, and the agricultural labourers are forced to look for ``relief'' work; both incur heavy indebtedness to the village moneylender, and eventually the marginal farmers find themselves constrained to sell off their land holdings to big and richer farmers. The back-breaking work at ``relief sites'' adds to the physical enfeeblement; the ``minimum wages'' simply do not cover the cost of minimum nutrition intake. During a recent visit to ``relief sites'' in Sabarkantha district, this writer found that those working were able to afford only roti, onion and mirchi.

The depleted and weakened bodies are already exhausted; all they can think of is the munificence of the rain gods and the benign benevolence of the local bureaucracy.

And it has been claimed that as early as last August the State Government was fully mindful of the implications of a failed monsoon, and claims to have drawn up, at least on paper, extensive plans to cope with the vagaries of a drought. It was, however, inevitable that the lower level bureaucracy simply could not readjust itself adequately enough to the hurriedly-revived old role of a welfare arrangement. For instance, at the relief site the ``workers'' are not only to be paid wages, to be quantified according to an elaborate slab-system, they are also to be provided with nutritious food and to be medically examined once a week. Suddenly the lower level bureaucracy which had imbibed Gandhinagar's trickled-down insensitivity to pro-poor concerns and a hypersensitivity to the preferences of the ``industry'', is now being asked to look after a workforce of over eight lakh men and women.

The crucial question is: if the State Government knew more than six months ago that there would be a shortage of water and fodder why was it not possible for it to take steps that would have mitigated hardship? Admittedly, the Chief Minister chaired various meetings where officials presented contingency plans; yet the evidence suggests that commensurate efforts were lacking. The most obvious explanation has to be of the mindset. The bureaucratic leadership has been obsessively hobnobbing with select industrial houses and entrepreneurs, not all of them endowed with ethical or even corporate wholesomeness. At the Gandhinagar sachivalaya no one has time for the social sector; the brightest and the most ambitious of the IAS officers want to be in with this or that businessman.

Over the last few years, this mindset has trickled down to the district-level administration and when the crisis manifested itself in full poignancy inevitably there was a crisis of confidence. The most disconcerting lesson of the present drought is that it has revealed the extent to which the people have lost faith in the local administration and its sensitivity to their concerns. The enhanced media attention has simply aggravated the crisis of confidence. Perhaps the moral of the story has to be that bureaucratic and administrative ethos cannot be compartmentalised, with those at the top juggling the cyber constituency and those at the district level pretending to be catering to the human concerns.

The drought has also brought to the fore the limits to civil society's capacity to mitigate suffering on a large scale. Though Gujarat has a long record of community self-help, and the State is inundated with a network of pinjrapoles (cattle camps that function round the year), this tradition got grounded as fodder was not available within the State and only the Governmental bureaucracy could ensure movement of large quantities of alternative fodder (such as sugarcane) across the inter-State lines.

There has to be a rethinking on the unregulated play of market forces in the agriculture sector. The craze for cash crops such as jeera and groundnuts has played havoc with water tables; and, to make matters worse, successive State Governments have given in to the rich farmers' demand for cheaper and cheaper electricity, and who, in turn, have been plundering this common resource in a most selfish and thoughtless manner. Not only have these polices sharpened the social and economic cleavages, there is now a virtual paucity of water for drinking and irrigation. Sooner or later, the state will have to enforce the principle of use of collective resources for collective good rather than individual greed.

Above everything else, we cannot pretend to be a nuclear power, a regional policeman, a cyber powerhouse, and an industrial economy if we are not able to deal with drought and starvation. Water riots and water trains do not exactly inspire, at home and abroad, confidence in the rhetoric and demands of a presumably- globalised economy. It may not be possible to resurrect the old welfare state but there is no alternative to old-fashioned sensitivity, in word and deed.

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