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.

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