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The Indian Express: Top stories: Full story
Wednesday, May 30, 2001

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The Indian Express North American Edition




How Gehlot sells drought relief

Sukhmani Singh

THERE is one thing the Rajasthan government excels in — the fine art of public relations, in window dressing reality so exquisitely that the dirt remains camouflaged. Whatever his detractors might say, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is an inspired salesman. Government expenditure on publicity and advertising has been more than doubled this year. With allegations about inadequate relief measures for drought flying thick and fast in the scorching heat, attention was gloriously diverted. At a recent PHDCCI summit of chief secretaries of the northern region in Jaipur, a succession of lavish presentations and hard-sell convinced outsiders beyond doubt that Rajasthan was the most innovative state in the country. A slick 34 page magazine printed in Bombay elaborated on all the unique projects initiated by the government — from education to greening of the desert. Ironically, at a time when most of the state’s famous lakes are reduced to shallow ponds, a scheme to introduce ‘‘houseboats’’ and water sports was unveiled by the tourism department. Ignorant first-timers to the state were enthralled.

Reality however vastly differs. Successive governments have made no attempt to address one of the state’s biggest problems — drought. True, it is a natural phenomenon but as bands of enterprising villagers have proved, its harmful fall-out can be averted simply by creating sufficient green cover and unearthing new water sources. But as the apocryphal saying here goes, ‘‘everybody loves a good drought’’. There is no genuine desire or effort on the part of the government to engineer permanent change. With somewhat monotonous regularity, every summer the government laments that its entire development efforts are neutralised by excessive expenditure on relief works. As part of these, malnourished women are roped into‘‘Food For Work’’ programmes, to construct roads and airstrips. Unused to hard manual labour, many of them collapse in the merciless sun. The whole exercise is rendered meaningless — the roads thus constructed are bumpy and uneven and disintegrate under the first monsoon rain. The next year they are again assigned the same work. If the money was utilised to create more water sources in their villages, it would reduce the severity of the next drought.

The latest CAG report is an eye-opener. Take for example, the much touted Million Wells or Jeevan Dhara scheme introduced in April 1988, to provide open irrigation wells to small farmers. After incurring an expenditure of Rs 74.68 lakh, the wells lie abandoned today. The reason: the failure of the District Rural Development Agency to conduct a proper survey of the terrain before starting work. In fact, some 204 wells were dug in hard, rocky strata where the possibility of underground water sources was, to say the best, frightfully remote. Again due to the defective and delayed execution of the ambitious Bari Mansarovar Irrigation project in Chittorgarh district, it was still incomplete. The project was scheduled to be completed by 1995 at an estimated cost of Rs 4.92 crore, but upto March 2000, a sum of Rs 11.81 crore had already been incurred, with no signs of early completion.

With environmental experts stressing the need for increased green cover in the state, a high-sounding Forestry Development Project was launched by the government in April 1995. Although by March 2000, Rs 136.19 crore had been spent, a whopping 3307 hectares remain barren. On 31 sites where plantation was blindly carried out, the survival rate was below 40 percent. Worse, CAG surveys reveal that in the case of anicuts or check dams constructed, the percentage of cement used was much below the prescribed limit.

In happy contrast, pioneer Lakshman Singh of village Laporia, district Dudu, mobilised villagers of some 20 hamlets to plant trees and create a large park in a common area. In a superb cooperative effort, each village in this consortium takes turns to water and maintain the park. Even the fruits off the local trees is shared equally. Thorough planning has transformed once arid wastelands into greenery, thus minimizing the perils of drought.

Is it too much to expect governments to follow this example, rather than squandering resources on relief works which as a villager puts it, send out the message, Bhooke pyaase road pe ghoomo. Till the next drought of course.

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