Spectre Of Drought

Updated: Jul 29 2002, 05:30am hrs
With a wayward South-West monsoon this year, the spectre of drought haunts this nation. Whether or not the declining trend in the amount of rainfall received since 1999 has intensified, the scanty rainfall so far this year has made for the worst dry spell in recent memory. As many as 320 out of 524 districts in the country have been affected by this calamity, with those in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Punjab and parts of Tamilnadu being the worst hit. As usual, the government has taken its own time to be persuaded of the widespread nature of the phenomenon and has belatedly announced a relief package. This includes extending benefits under the Calamity Relief Fund to all farmers in drought affected states; extending the deadline for making claims under the Crop Insurance Scheme; suspending farm loan recoveries; asking sugar mills to speed up payments of cane arrears and so on. While pledging more funds, the Centre has also turned down the demand of the political opposition for centralising the management of drought — as that is the responsibility of the states. How soon the rest of the relief package kicks in thus depends on how fast the states are able to gather reliable information on drought conditions in their affected districts. Only when a clearer picture emerges, can funds, seeds for alternative crops and fertiliser be released.

Clearly, the onus is on the affected states to speed up surveys and inspection of crop damage instead of rushing to the Centre with demands for funds. Only they can declare a particular district as drought hit if at least 50 per cent of the crop is damaged. UP thus has declared drought in 20 districts, Karnataka in 150 talukas and Orissa in 29 out of 30 districts. The CRF is shared in the ratio of 75:25 between the Centre and states and constitutes a ready availability of funds to meet relief expenditures. But the states can receive their full Central share only when they comply with the mandatory requirements laid down by the Eleventh Finance Commission. The upshot is that adequate funds indeed are available for drought relief, but is this all there is to the problem An impression is unavoidable that the Centre too can use this occasion to reorient its various rural employment schemes and help the states launch a massive Food for Work programme. A major problem has been the poor utilisation rates of various rural employment schemes during the first six months of the fiscal. With widespread drought conditions, this is indeed the time when demand for wage employment opportunities would be high in the countryside. An ambitious Food for Work Programme — which has a 50 per cent foodgrain component — can easily kick off as foodgrain stocks with the government are overflowing. Employment to farm labour will improve their entitlements and enable them to survive India’s worst drought in a decade.