Government is attacked over drought strategy

Crisis in India: As the opposition criticises what it says is a tardy response, forecasts offer little hope of respite from heat, dust and death
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Leaders of India's political parties, after a two-hour meeting last night with the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, resolved to tackle the drought that has much of the country in its grip as a "national challenge", according to the parliamentary affairs spokesman, Pramod Mahajan.

Mr Vajpayee also announced a slew of measures to address the crisis. Special trains bearing water, fodder for animals and grain would be dispatched to the worst-affected parts, principally in the north-west of the country.

Some 30m rupees (£430,000) was released from the Prime Minister's relief fund to the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

An impression of earnest activity was, in other words, created to counterbalance the onslaught mounted by opposition politicians who have castigated the government for its sluggish response to a crisis which officials in Rajasthan claimed to have seen coming more than six months ago.

But the prospect of the crisis dropping off the political agenda at any time soon looked as remote as a timely shower of rain in the Rann of Kutch, the drought-stricken marshland near the Pakistan border in Gujarat which has been enveloped for the past 48 hours, as if its water problems were not misery enough, in a violent dust storm.

In the Rajya Sabha, the Indian parliament's upper house, politicians described how in Gujarat 900 out of a total of 1,000 villages were in the grip of the drought.

In the central state of Andhra Pradesh, better known recently for the setting up by Microsoft of a research lab in the state's new High-Tech City, 18 out of 22 districts were affected.

And from the southern city of Bangalore came a warning that this drought could run and run. A private forecasting centre in Bangalore, the Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation, which has a good track record of accurate long-range forecasting of India's summer monsoon, predicts that this year the entire country will face a deficit in rainfall, with only 789mm of rain, significantly less than last year (840mm), which was, in turn, much less than 1998 (932.5 mm).

India's hundreds of millions of poor farmers are desperately dependent on an abundant monsoon for survival.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire nation depends on it. In Delhi, for example, as in much of the west of the country, there is practically no rainfall at all for nine months of the year. Unless the rain really comes crashing down during July, August and September, the country is in trouble. For 12 years in succession India had been blessed with abundant monsoons. But now its luck appears to be turning for the worse.

The bad monsoon news is augmented by other danger signs. The ferocity of the April heat this year, 7C hotter than average in the capital, for example, indicates that global warming has well and truly begun in South Asia and will have consequences much more drastic than in more uniformly affluent countries.

Yet the activity inside the Indian government over the past few days cannot conceal the absence of long-term preparation for the water crisis that has now arrived.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has frequently driven home the idea that democracy makes the sort of famines that were a regular feature of the Indian scene under the British Raj politically unacceptable and, as a result, they do not happen - relief always arrives.

But, however adept it is at throwing together emergency relief at the last minute, Indian democracy seems to have little aptitude for developing the sort of longer-term policies which might render desperate emergency measures unnecessary. The decision by the party leaders last night to draw up a long-term policy aimed at nipping such crises in the bud is belated recognition of what has been lacking.