Callous governance deficit, not monsoon deficit, the real diagnosis
Published: 05th August 2012 12:00 AM
Last Updated: 05th August 2012 12:11 AM
In the third week of July, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia woke up to announce to the country that we are faced with ‘a monsoon deficit’. Only a week earlier, the Union agriculture minister prophesied that monsoon will make up in July and August, and there will be no drought. As of end July in northern and central India, the deficit was of the order of 45 per cent; in southern India about 25 per cent; and eastern India was slightly better placed. Indeed, if we take into account the heavy rainfall in the Northeast, there was a significant deficit in the rest of east India.
We are by now used to Ahluwalia’s highly optimistic periodical pronouncements about growth, inflation and rupee-dollar rates. We have also come to realise that these need not be taken seriously — indeed, none in the Government of India or elsewhere takes any notice. However, the oracle’s prognosis about a poor monsoon is ominous and needs attention.
It is a measure of the failure of successive governments at the Centre and in the states that the net irrigated farming area is currently only about 65 per cent. This means that the annual fortunes, indeed their very existence, of between a quarter and a third of Indian farmers are dependent exclusively on the whims of the rain gods. The number of farmers so involved, if counted as a country, would rank among the first 10 in the world in population terms. That this should be so 65 years after Independence is catastrophic evidence of callous neglect of the farmers’ needs over decades. The suffering of people and cattle in a year of severe drought will be incalculable. Surely, our plight today does not relate so much to this year’s ‘monsoon deficit’, as diagnosed by Ahluwalia, but to callous, insensitive and unconscionable ‘governance deficit’ over decades.
Campaigns in the past had been mounted for rainwater harvesting, check dams, bunds and contingency provision of fodder and water for cattle etc. The efforts, however, have been sporadic, casual, unfocussed and diffused. Neither the Government of India nor the state governments have given serious attention to these issues. While a severe drought is an act of god, lack of advance preventive measures and adequate irrigation facilities is through long-term neglect by governments.
Rajiv Gandhi had once pointed out that only 15 paise out of 100 reaches the intended beneficiary of rural development programmes — this has not been seriously contradicted. Leakages at the state secretariat, district and field implementation levels through rapacious politicians and officials is the order of the day. While nearly every department dealing with rural development is corrupt, the irrigation department in most states would lead the pack in this regard. (The recent allegations in Maharashtra of massive mismanagement of funds in the irrigation sector is a case in point.) The state, alas, is not alone to have this distinction. Even the 60 per cent or so area shown as irrigated in the official statistics is somewhat misleading and probably fallacious. Due to irregular and drastically curtailed power supply, pump sets and lift irrigation are effectively defunct; an unconscionably large number of so-called electrified villages are only for statistical purposes. Initiatives such as rainwater harvesting, as insurance for providing drinking water in drought years, have been relatively successful; much like the pioneering mid-day meals programme of Tamil Nadu, this programme needs to be adopted seriously in all the states.
It is an annual feature in India that come July, the cry of drought is heard in some parts. This year, a large area is affected. Within two months, newspapers and TV will be full of horror stories about ‘floods’ in many parts of India. We will see the spectacle of national and state politicians in helicopters ‘inspecting’ flood-affected areas — an annual meaningless ritual. It should be added that local officialdom and politicians welcome declaration of drought or floods, as this gives licence to open temporary works without full preparation, thus providing greater opportunities for leakage of funds. What we now witness is a picture of national long-term neglect of the basics in a largely agrarian country. It is nobody’s case that the rivers or the monsoons can be fully tamed but adequate advance preparation to preempt disaster situations has not even been thought of. We can only resort to prayers, often literally.
In the first two decades after Independence, the national policy was to direct resources, energy and development to focus on rural and agricultural sectors. Thereafter, the focus dramatically shifted, and in the past four decades, there has been near-criminal neglect of the interests of the rural agrarian community. President Pranab Mukherjee in his first speech spoke of the importance of catering to the need of the poorest man in India, and demolished the ‘trickle down’ theory in the Indian situation. Was it all political rhetoric — or an indictment of erstwhile policies, of which he was a part? Or does he really mean it? If he does, and if he can influence a dramatic change in policy, we will then have a wonderful President.