Everybody Loves a Good Drought



P. Sainath

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Drought is, beyond question, among the more serious problems this country faces. Drought relief, almost equally beyond question, is rural India’s biggest growth industry. Often, there is little relation between the two. Though relief can go to scarcity areas, those most in need seldom benefit from it. The poor in such regions understand this. That’s why some of them call drought relief teesra fasl (the third crop). Only, they are not the ones who harvest it.
A great deal of drought ‘relief’ goes into contracts handed over to private parties. These are to lay roads, dig wells, send out water tankers, build bridges, repair tanks –– the works. Think that can’t total up to much? Think again. The money
that goes into this industry in a single year can make the withdrawals from Bihar’s animal hus-bandry department look like so many minor fiddles. And the Bihar scam lasted a decade and a half. The charm of this scam is that it is largely
‘legal’. And it has soul. It’s all in a good cause. The tragedy, of course, is that it rarely addresses the real problems of drought and water scarcity.
In 1994–5 alone, the rich state of Maharashtra spent over Rs 1,170 crores on emergency meas- ures in combating drought and on other water-related problems. This was more than the com-bined profits in the previous year of the leading companies all across the country in the organised sector of the tea and coffee, cement, and auto- mobile industries. Their profits after tax came to Rs 1,149 crores, according to a report the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy.


In August 1995, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao inagurated an anti-drought project in Orissa. This one will involve spending Rs 4,557 crores in six years (over Rs 750 crores a year) on just a few districts, including Kalahandi, Bolangir, and Koraput. Every paisa of that huge sum would be worth spending if it actually fought scarcity and built better infrastructure. That, however, is most unlikely in part because the main causes of the problems these areas face do not even begin to get addressed.
In theory, drought-prone blocks come under a central scheme known as the Drought-Prone Areas Programme (DPAP). But bringing blocks into the DPAP is now a purely political decision. The central allocation for the DPAP may be nom-
inal. But once a block is under the DPAP, a pha- lanx of other schemes follows bringing in huge sums of money. The same blocks then get money coming in under the Employment Assurance Drought relief is rural India’s biggest ‘growth’ industry

Only the poor don’t harvest the ‘third crop’ –– drought relief

Scheme (EAS), anti-desertification projects, drinking water missions, and a host of other schemes. Well, some people do benefit. In several states, official data on DPAP show us many interesting things. In Maharashtra, the
number of DPAP blocks was about 90 a few years ago. In 1996, 147 blocks were under the DPAP. In Madhya Pradesh in the same period, the number of DPAP blocks more than doubled from roughly 60 to 135. In Bihar,  here were 55 DPAP blocks when Rameshwar Thakur become a union minister in the early 1990s. His home
block in Bihar came under the scheme. Today, there are 122 DPAP blocks in that state. All this has happened during a period where there have been several successive good mon- soons.
 There has been scarcity too for some peo- ple, but that’s a different story. Kalahandi’s major problem, as the reports in this section show, does not arise from poor rain- fall. Water resources experts and administrators would largely agree that, barring problems of erratic timing and spread, most Indian districts  could get by on around 800 mm of rainfall annu- ally. The lowest rainfall that Kalahandi has had in the past 20 years was 978 mm. That is way above what some districts get in ‘normal’ years, Otherwise, Kalahandi’s annual rainfall has been, on an average, 1,250 mm. In 1990–1, the district had 2,247 mm of rainfall. Besides, Kalahandi produces more food per person than both Orissa and India as a whole do. Nuapada, the worst part of old Kalahandi, and now a separate district, got 2,366 mm of rainfall in 1994. In Palamau, too, average rainfall is not bad. The district gets 1,200–1,230 mm of rain in a normal year. In its worst year in less without experiencing the same damage.
Surguja’s rainfall seldom falls below 1,200 mm. In some years it gets 1,500–1,600 mm. That’s roughly four times what California gets. And California grows grapes. Yet, all these districts have problems relating
to water that are quite deadly. Very different ones from those the funds an abundance of rainfall-but where one section, the poor are never consulted or asked to participate in designing the ‘pro- grammes’ the anti-drought funds bring. Once it was clear that drought and DPAP were linked to fund flows in a big way, everyone want-
ed their block under the scheme. In many cases, the powerful are not only able to bring their blocks under it, but appropriate any ‘benefits’ that follow. Take Maharashtra. Around 73 per cent of sugar cane produced in the state is grown in DPAP blocks! And sugar cane is about the most water-intensive crop you can get. Secondly, the area under irrigation in Maharashtra is pathetic:
just inching towards 15 per cent of cropland. But in the DPAP blocks, in one estimate, it is 22 per cent –– nearly 50 per cent higher than the state average. Annual rainfall in Lonavla near Pune seldom falls below 1,650 mm and cannot touch 2,000 mm. Lonavla is a DPAP block. The many hundreds of crores spent in
Maharashtra on relief and on irrigation over the years have not led to any appreciable rise in land under irrigation. In the DPAP blocks are small farmers who really feel the pressure. The water is cornered by both the rich and the strong.Governments kid themselves that by throwing
money at such regions, the small fish, who have big votes, can be pacified. In reality, the lion’s share of funds going there is again appropriated by the powerful. And irrigation water? About 2 per cent of farmers in the state use around 70 per cent of it. Drought is a complex phenomenon. You can have an agricultural drought, for instance, even when there is no meteorological drought. That is, you can have adequate rainfall and still have crop failure. Or you can have hydrological drought, with marked depletion of rivers, streams, and springs and a fall in groundwater levels. The rea- sons for these are well known but seldom addressed. It is so much nicer to  ust put the Kalahandi’s major problem does not arise from poor rainfall

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whole thing down to nature’s vagaries. It also works this way because so many forces, at dif- ferent levels, are  ither integrated, or get co- opted, into the drought industry. The spiral from the drought scam touches the  lobal stage before returning.
Here’s how: Take any one district. Say Surguja (it could be any other). The peasants face many water-related problems. Block-level forces –– contractors and politicians –– take up ‘the cause’. The complaint, typically, is: Our block got far less funds than the others. The collector is ignoring us. That’s why, it is happening.
Well, two things are happening, really. One, the peasants of Surguja face serious problems that are intensifying. Two, specific forces are making a pitch at the district headquarters for bringing more funds to the block. The local stringer of a newspaper (based in, say, Bilaspur), takes up the theme: the collector
is neglecting ‘our block’. Most newspapers pay their stringers a pittance. Some stringers get as little as Rs 50 a month. So only those with other sources of funds can work in this capacity. In
many parts of these districts, you will find that the stringer is often a small shopkeeper, a petty businessman.
If contracts for various ‘public works’ come to the block or district, the stringer might be among the beneficiaries. This is not true of all, but does apply to quite a few stringers. I met many intel- ligent, resourceful people among them. They are bright, have an ear to the ground, react quickly to situations. Quite a few of them are also small contractors. So are many block-level politicians. (So are many national politicians and newspaper owners, but that’s another story)
Reports of raging drought put pressure on a district administration strapped for resources. Some of the stories have strong elements of truth, though death counts are often exaggerat- ed.The collector calls his friends: the district level correspondents. He explains that his district gets far less from the state capital than other,
neighbouring ones. This could well be true. The collector is also pitching at the state capital for a better share of the resource cake. Reports of ‘stepmotherly treatment’ of Surguja, or whichev- er district it is, start appearing in newspapers in the state capital.
This embarrasses the state government. How does it respond? While doing what it can locally,
it also pitches at the Centre for more funds to deal with the drought. State governments often
bring down correspondents from mainline jour- nals to the state capital. These reporters then set
off on a guided tour of the ‘affected areas’.Governments often have vehicles reserved for
the purpose of press tours. And often, a seniorofficial goes with the journalists to the trouble
spots. The sophisticated writers of the urban press
are superior to the local press when it comes to the heart-rending stuff. The drought becomes a
national issue. Copy full of phrases like ‘endless stretches of parched land’, accompanied by pho-
tographs, reaches urban audiences. (Now parched land is not necessarily a symbol of
drought. You can have it in very wet places if you drain a pond. And you can have an acute water
shortage in seemingly green areas. But parched land makes better copy and pictures.) This is true
of the English press. The (vernacular) language press has serious problems, but is closer to the ground.
If it is, say, mid-May when reporters reach the affected region, the searing heat will impress
some. With your skin and hair on fire, it is easy to believe there has been drought in the area
since the dawn of time. There could be flooding here two months hence, but that doesn’t matter
now. Unlike the quick-on-the-uptake local stringers, the national press is seldom clued in on
ground reality. There are, of course, manyreporters who could handle the real stories of the
place. They do not often get sent on such tr ips.
Those are not the kind of stories their publia- tions are looking for. Every editor knows that
drought means parched land and, hopefully, pic-tures of emaciated people. That’s what ‘human interest’ is about, isn’t it?  The state has made its pitch at the Centre. The Centre is unfazed. It uses what it considers examples of responsible reporting (that is, reports that do not vilify the Centre) to advan-
tage. It makes its own pitch for resources. International funding agencies, foreign donors,
get into the act –– UNDP, UNICEF, anyone who can throw a little money about. The global aid
community is mobilised into fighting drought in a district that gets 1,500 mm of rainfall annually.
The reverse spiral begins.Donor governments love emergency relief. It forms a negligible part of their spending, but  There are many reporters who could handle the real sto-ries of the place. They do not oftenget sent on such trip

makes for great advertising. (Emergencies of many sorts do this, not just drought. You can run
television footage of the Marines kissing babies in Somalia.) There are more serious issues
between the rich and poor nations –– like unequal trade. Settling those would be of greater
help to the latter. But for that, the ‘donors’ would have to part with something for real. No. They
prefer emergency relief. So money comes into Delhi from several
sources. The next step in the downward spiral is for the central departments to fight over it.
Nothing awakens the conscience like a lot of money. One department or ministry remembers it
has a mission to save the forests of the suffering district. Another recalls a commitment to man-
age its water resources. Then there are all the hungry Rs 30,000-a-
month consultants to be clothed and fed. Projects are drawn up with their assistance for fighting
drought in the district. Or for water resource management, or for anything at all. Studies of
water problems are vital. But some of these are thought up simply because there are funds now.
(The collector and a lot of peasants in the district could probably tell you a great deal about the real
water problems. But they’re not ‘experts’.) The money goes to the state capital where the
struggle over sharing it continues. At the dstrict level, the blocks pitch for their share. Contractsgo out for various emergency works. A little money might even get spent on those affected by the water shortage. But it cannot solve their problems. The next year the same problems will crop up all over again because the real issues were never touched. At the end of it, many forces including well- meaning sections of the press have been co-opted into presenting a picture of natural calamity –– too often, into dramatising an event without
looking at the processes behind it. The spiral works in different ways in different states. But it
works. And yet, so many people do suffer from water-related problems. Several of India’s more troublesome conflicts are linked to water. It may have taken a back seat, but the sharing of riverwaters was a major part of the Punjab problem. The ongoing quarrel between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is over the Cauvery waters. (Some of India’s tensions with Bangladesh have their basis in water sharing disputes.) The struggle over water resources operates at the micro village level, too, in many ways –– between villages,
between hamlets within a village, between castes and classes.
Conflicts arising from man-made drought are on the rise. Deforestation does enormous dam-
age. Villagers are increasingly losing control over common water resources. The destruction
of traditional irrigation systems is gaining speed. A process of privatisation of water resources is
apparent in most of the real drought areas (take the water lords of Ramnad, for instance). There
are now two kinds of drought: the real and the rigged. Both can be underway at the same time,
in the same place. As the reports that follow seek to show, they often are.

Reprint from Everybody Loves A Good Drought, C orporate Finances: Industry Aggregates, CMIE,
Novermber 1994, Bombay.

Conflicts arising from man-made drought are on the rise 
For other articles that reggularly flow from P sainaths pen

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