Fifty million face India's worst drought for a century

India's most catastrophic drought for a century is threatening the lives of 50 million people as a cruel heatwave scorches the bone-dry earth and destroys farmers' livestock by the thousand.

India's most catastrophic drought for a century is threatening the lives of 50 million people as a cruel heatwave scorches the bone-dry earth and destroys farmers' livestock by the thousand.

Two months before the monsoon is due, the position in the arid north-western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan is critical. The Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, has appealed to the nation for contributions to alleviate the crisis, "no matter how small the amount".

"In village after village, hunger stalks men, women and children," he said on Sunday. "More than 50 million people have been affected by the drought. They can only stare at the parched earth and hope that this year the monsoons will not elude them."

Thousands of cows are dying of starvation while their owners survive on the contaminated water of shallow wells. More than two-thirds of Gujarat's dams and reservoirs are empty, others have enough water for a fortnight at most.

But the crisis is not confined to the north of the country. Other states, including Orissa in the east - savaged last autumn by a "super-cyclone" that left thousands dead - and the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are also stricken after two years of inadequate monsoon rains. The southern Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Balochistan have been badly hit.

Summer has arrived in the subcontinent with brutal suddenness this year, pushing April temperatures some 7Cabove the average, with the mercury touching 42C, close on 110F, in Delhi this week.

The heat has turned the long-feared water shortage into an emergency, as wells and aquifers run dry. Now, hundreds of villages struggle to make do with a water supply that functions for only half an hour every fortnight. The lucky places get their water for between 15 and 30 minutes on alternate days.

Millions of thirsty people are resorting to drinking polluted water, which leaves them with diarrhoea and other stomach problems, sapping their vitality still further.

This is the desperate face of India that the "green revolution" and a decade of good monsoons persuaded the world to believe was a thing of the past. But wiser heads knew that internet billionaires and a stock market that was booming until very recently did not tell the whole story.

Last year's super-cyclone in Orissa exposed a familiar story of political and administrative frailty, as vicious storms lashed the coast, killing thousands. This year's drought - provoking a famine, too, across most of Rajasthan, the foreign tourists' favourite Indian state - shows up an equally weary tale of fecklessness and sluggish responses.

Much of Gujarat, the coastal state that produced Mahatma Gandhi, has roasting, bone-dry summers most years. But this year's drought is claimed to be its worst in 100 years. One image from Gujarat tells the story more vividly than words. In the village of Rajpar, in the scrubby, arid flatlands near the heart of the drought, there is a single big well on which the villagers depend.

In Rajpar they get their water the old-fashioned way, throwing down pots and buckets on ropes and hauling them up full. But now the water has dwindled to a puddle, faintly discernible 200ft below ground level. So a brave volunteer - usually a woman - straps a bicycle inner tube around her waist and the other villagers lower her all the way down to that enticing spot of liquid. Once she gets to it she fills the vessels that are thrown down.

In both Gujarat and Rajasthan, the authorities are resorting to transporting water by road, in tanker lorries and even by train to stave off disaster. But given the biblical scale of India's calamity, these are token gestures.

The effects of the drought are being multiplied by a spreading famine in Rajasthan. Like Gujarat, it is a chronically arid state, whose climatic fragility has been forgotten during the years of abundant rain. But now the realities are becoming too stark to ignore. Desiccated by a second year of drought, much farmland has given up the ghost and many farmers can no longer feed themselves. The ration shops where they could buy grain at less than cost have nothing for sale except paraffin and sugar. So the farmers must buy what little grain they can afford in the market, at market prices.

Such a crisis has been anticipated. A Rajasthan state government "food for work" scheme offers starving farmers the opportunity of labouring on government projects in return for food.

There is said to be enough grain in government godowns (warehouses) to keep them afloat. The hitch, horribly familiar in India, is that the state awaits the green light from central government.

Nowhere is the impending disaster more rich in ironies than in the small town of Pokhran in Rajasthan's Thar desert. India's nuclear test site lies near by. Damage caused two years ago by the nuclear tests that thrust India (quickly followed by Pakistan) into the ranks of the nuclear powers brought compensation. In Khetolai village, only 4km from the test site, a primary school has been built and the Dalits (formerly "Untouchables") have even been provided with a library.

Amid this improbable plenty, the village's farmers watch their milk cattle die: there is neither water nor food to spare for them. The people, too, go hungry. Only the vultures are glutted.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Estimator

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a major supplier of buil...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Engineer with SQL skills

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas