Indian supreme court censures federal states for ignoring drought

Judges urge ‘ostrich-like’ authorities to set up disaster fund to relieve 330 million affected

A farmer stands in his dried up cotton field in Nalgonda, in the southern Indian state of Telangana. Photograph: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

A farmer stands in his dried up cotton field in Nalgonda, in the southern Indian state of Telangana. Photograph: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

 

India’s supreme court has severely criticised the federal government for adopting an “ostrich-like attitude” to the country’s worst drought in decades, which is affecting more than 330 million people.

Earlier this week the court urged the authorities to set up a disaster fund to help drought-hit farmers and villagers suffering from crop losses and severe water shortages, following poor monsoon rains over the past two years.

Almost a quarter of India’s population of 1.25 billion, spread over 13 of the country’s 29 provinces, is affected by the drought, which has resulted in millions fleeing their homes in search of food, water and employment.

“An ostrich-like attitude is a pity, particularly since the persons affected by a drought-like situation usually belong to the most vulnerable sections of society” the two-judge supreme court bench ruled.

The sound of silence coming from the states concerned subjected the vulnerable to further distress, the court noted.

Responding to a petition filed by a non-governmental organisation, the court said the problem was not the lack of resources, but the lack of political will to implement relief measures.

Knee-jerk reactions

The court observed that many disaster-affected states such as Haryana in the north, Bihar in the east and Gujarat in the west were not even willing to acknowledge the drought.

Sparse monsoon rains, the principal water source for most of India, have prompted water rationing as temperatures soar to over 40 degrees.

Armed guards have been posted at reservoirs and water trains dispatched to the worst affected Marathwada region in Maharashtra province. Reservoir levels in drought-hit states are down to less than 4 per cent, with the monsoons at least two months away.

“The media and the politicians have entered into a conspiracy of silence over the large scale drought that is likely to turn into deep famine, as reports of agrarian distress and migration of people to larger towns goes largely unreported,” said activist and columnist Seema Mustafa.

She said not a single meeting had been held by the relevant federal ministries to deal with the drought that needed “war-like” measures to counter it.

“Even if some steps are initiated, it will take at least 15 years, if not more, to provide basic relief to distressed populations in the drought-hit regions” she warned.

Officials, meanwhile, are optimistic about the upcoming monsoon which meteorologists forecast is expected to be well above normal.