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The Indian Express: Top stories: Full story
Friday, May 4, 2001

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The Indian Express North American Edition


Midsummer’s nightmare

It’s not drought but political lassitude that kills

Since almost all power, all decision-making, and all information flows from urban centres, it is easy for politicians and administrators to pretend that everything is going on just fine. Yet, every now and then, a shocking image or an account of a tragedy breaches — somewhat miraculously — the silence barrier and shakes the legendary apathy of the urban animal. Last year, around same time, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot was extremely upset with the media for having blown the drought in his state out of proportion. But if, instead of playing the role of the injured innocent, he had learnt a few lessons from that reversal, his party colleagues may not have had to spend so much time this summer fobbing off charges that there are starvation deaths occurring in the state. Truly is it said that it is not the lack of water or food, but administrative lassitude, that kills. The story of the deaths of two young brothers in Singlakundi village of Rajasthan’s Banswara district may not have been starvation deaths in the technical sense of the term, but it is the spectre of starvation that had forced their parents to leave them to cope as best they might, while they themselves went in search of work in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.

The story is similar across the state’s border. Gujarat’s chief minister Keshubhai Patel, although he had himself photographed bursting crackers over last November’s Supreme Court verdict giving the go-ahead for the Narmada dam, seems to be supremely unconcerned about whether any water, forget the Narmada waters, is reaching the Saurashtra hinterland. According to reports, 45 of the 50 main check dams in Amreli, Saurashtra’s worst affected district, have gone dry and water comes by for some 15 minutes a week. Again, this is not a sudden development. It is for the third consecutive year that drought has had this region in its grip. One more year of failed rains could well mean the wiping out of a once prosperous community. Indeed, one resident of Amreli put it starkly to this newspaper, ‘‘We cannot survive another drought year.’’ The hopelessness the statement encapsulates is a reflection of people’s lack of faith in their administrators.

Last year, several regions in the country experienced what was termed as the worst drought in a century. A whole year later, when the situation is even more dismal — Gujarat and Rajasthan have been experiencing drought for the third year in succession — politicians and their babus continue to adopt a knee-jerk response to it, rather than evolve sustainable good practices. What’s worse, bureaucrats tend to look at drought relief as unproductive expenditure, a wasteful drain on the exchequer. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Jean Dreze, the well-known developmental economist, has pointed out, drought relief has to be regarded as sound economic investment, since a family’s resource base and its capacity to fend for itself in the days ahead are crucially dependent on it. By extension, the resource base of an entire community, an entire village, could hinge on the alacrity and efficiency with which the administration ensures that adequate drought relief reaches people.

Express Columnists

© 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. All rights reserved throughout the world.