Last week, I looked at the problems that country is currently facing due to drought and the challenges, which are ahead of us once it rains. I was reflecting on the reasons responsible for so much collective neglect. It doesn’t matter which political party in power, the apathy for long-term drought mitigation persists. The website of Department of Land Resources, Ministry of Rural Development doesn’t list minutes of any meeting of the steering committee after 2012. The decline in resource allocation for drought mitigation actually began sometime around 2010. The budget for watershed development programme was increased significantly after the committee chaired by Prof. Hanumantha Rao [and I was a member] gave its report in 1995. For next 10-15 years, the focus on watershed programme continued to be strong. However, the pressure from the big farmers lobby against employment programme started to affect the scale of employment for watershed as well as other purposes. During last five years, less than 50 days of employment was generated per household as against the target of 100 days [later increased to 150 days in drought prone areas last year]. Since the data is available at the official sites, policy makers are not unaware of the contradictions in this regard. During the Shodhyatra in Wardha in the month of May 2013, there were only two ponds we came across in about 150 kms., and both had water. That means it is possible to store rainwater in Vidharba to last till the next summer. Then why has the employment programme not been used to build more check dams, desilt the existing ponds, dig the new ponds at farm as well as larger community level? This neglect is not accidental. To ensure availability of cheap labour, forced migration of poor people is being orchestrated through a very active policy of indifference and apathy. The moneylenders must be thanking the government in power all these years for ensuring the continuance of their stranglehold on the poor farmers and labourers.
It might appear to be an exaggeration but I would still suggest that a kind of enclosure movement is taking place. Once the labour movement from Bihar and eastern UP slowed down, other regions had to be squeezed to fulfill the demand. How else can one explain excellent performance of decentralized in-situ water conservation in Saurashtra and near total absence of such efforts in Maharashtra and some other states? It is true that even in Gujarat, the civil society organisations played a very important role. Why such pressures are not emerging in laggard regions could be through cooptation of the leadership of the civil society organisations, political economic pressure of moneylenders and traders and their nexus with the politicians, ‘learned helplessness’ on the part of people themselves. How does one trigger a massive people programme to drought-proof the country in next five years?
First, focus the employment and watershed programmes on the hundred poorest districts where market wage rate is lower than the minimum wage rate. Second, allow public employment programmes to create water storage structures even on private lands. Third, the employment programmes should not focus only on labour based menial tasks. Instead, these should also include knowledge based employment programme which national advisory committee in the previous government completely ignored. Such programmes would imply mapping local biodiversity, other natural resources, local knowledge, institutions, culture, etc. Several palaces were built during the drought years to provide employment to people. In modern democratic India, employment programmes should create watershed structures but also expand markets for local knowledge, resources, institutions, skills, etc. The skill development programme should have been targeted at migrant labour so that they could get more valuable opportunities of employment.
One could argue that the experience of Champai, Mizoram may not be applicable to rest of the country. Every single house had rooftop water harvesting. The urban demand for water will have to be moderated. The export of virtual water [the water embedded in products and services] will have to be stopped. It takes more than 3000 litres to make one kg. of sugar. Later, when government gives subsidy on export, it is essentially exporting the virtual water. Unless we drastically reduce or eliminate cultivation of sugarcane in drought prone areas, we will not have made any durable dent on the problem.
Hard decisions are inevitable. The beneficiaries who are depriving others of water for even food crops will complain, protest and put pressure. The populism such as free water or free electricity can get votes in the short term but will cost the country a great deal in the long term. I hope that good sense will prevail, strong, decisive and empathetic leadership will emerge in different parts of the country to conserve, augment and distribute water fairly to its most efficient uses. Sugarcane is certainly not one of those. In the diabetes capital of the world, reduction in sugar supply will do a lot good to the public health as well.