Court addresses state apathy
Since the Modi government took office, it has been on a collision course with the courts. The executive has often accused the judiciary of interfering in its affairs. Across recent cases of judicial appointments, public advertisements or call drops, one can present arguments in favour of the government. Judicial overreach is indeed a constitutional matter that requires greater deliberation and the courts must refrain from interfering in certain cases. But what happens when the executive does not fulfil the responsibility entrusted to them in the face of a looming crisis? On Wednesday, the apex court directed the Centre to consider drought as a disaster and constitute a national response force along with a consolidated fund within six months to deal with the drought crisis.
In times of drought, the apex court ruled on Wednesday, the “buck will eventually stop with the Government of India”, even though the Centre argued that it was up the state governments to declare droughts. The court asserted the need to strike a balance between federalism and constitutional duty. The Centre’s invocation of federalism to avoid any responsibility smells of irony, considering recent developments in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Although one can get into the nuances of how much responsibility lies with whom, the fact is that the Centre failed to do its own bit. Both the Centre and many state governments have woken up to the reality of a devastating drought many months after the end of the monsoon. It is not as if the warning signs of the current distress in rural India weren’t apparent earlier.
In a country that has been affected by back-to-back droughts, it is amazing that governments have not planned in advance to deal with drought more than 10 years after the Disaster Management Act came into force. During court proceedings, the Centre admitted to not fulfilling many of its statutory obligations. For example, it has not come up with a National Disaster Policy required under the Disaster Management Act. Moreover, there were delays in the release of financial assistance to states under the National Disaster Response Fund. It also admitted that the famed National Disaster Response Force did not have the requisite expertise to deal with droughts. Experts on the ground contend that the figure released by the Centre on the number of people affected by drought is not even accurate. The Centre’s figure of 33.6 crore people affected by drought nationwide is an underestimate. An accurate count raises it to more than 50 crores.
The current response to droughts in India is focused on the immediate with governments seeking to spend as little as possible while avoiding deaths. State policy essentially moves from one crisis to another. Post Independece, India has introduced certain entitlements that have alleviated some of the suffering induced by droughts: Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Public Distribution System and Mid-Day Meal scheme. In addition, the ability to forecast and track droughts have been significantly developed, especially in the past decade. Despite the availability of these resources, governments continue to adopt outdated methods.
“Evidently, anticipating a disaster such as a drought is not yet in the “things to do” list of the Union of India and ad hoc measures and knee-jerk reactions are the order of the day and will continue to be so until the provisions of the Disaster Management Act are faithfully implemented… risk assessment and risk management also appear to have little or no priority as far as the Union of India and the state governments are concerned,” the apex court said on Wednesday. Let’s take the example of MGNREGA.
In a scathing column for The Hindu, Yogendra Yadav, a founding member of Swaraj Abhiyan, slams the Centre for its apathy towards MGNREGA. “At the end of the fiscal year 2015-16, the governments owed more than Rs 12,000 crore as ‘pending liabilities’ which needed to be cleared before payments could be made in 2016-17,” he noted. “It also turned out that the Central government was violating its own Master Circular in not releasing the full first tranche for MGNREGA amounting to over Rs.45,000 crore (while the much touted total budget for it is Rs.38,500 crore) that was due in the first week of April.” To the uninitiated, the jobs scheme has often dispersed funds to dig wells and ponds in drought-hit areas. It helps generate income for people at a time when work is difficult to find. On the mid-day meal scheme, Yadav accused the government of gross apathy.
“The government’s counsel said that the state was not under any legal compulsion to offer additional dal (lentil) and edible oil in ration or milk or egg in the mid-day meal scheme as demanded by Swaraj Abhiyan,” he said. “The government claimed that there was enough fodder for cattle and that all necessary steps had been taken to resolve drinking water shortage.” The government’s claims are outright falsehoods, as numerous news reports have stated. But state governments should not be left off the hook either. In fact, they deserve as much, if not more scorn, than the Centre. The drought-stricken region of Bundelkhand, which lies across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, is a testament to their failure.
According to a survey by Swaraj Abhiyan, approximately 75 percent of drought-hit villages in the region have witnessed no government intervention for three months, even though vast sections of its populace continue to suffer under famine-like conditions. And then one witnessed the ugly spectacle of the Centre and UP government trying to score political points over a water train that was meant for Bundelkhand. The unfortunate emphasis on optics over disaster mitigation is probably a reflection of the appalling lengths to which the political class has gone. “State governments continue to be caught unawares by a natural disaster that seems to have become an annual phenomenon; long-term projects to deal with scarcity are thin on the ground and people who cannot produce ration cards slip through the cracks of Uttar Pradesh’s food distribution scheme,” read an editorial on Scroll.in. If that was not bad enough, states like Gujarat, Haryana, and Bihar refused to even acknowledge that there was a drought in the first place, despite recording substantial shortage in rainfall. With the apex court intervening and ordering both the Centre and state governments to act, one does hope that the political class has been shamed enough to address the concerns of millions suffering from drought.