India's drought relief starts to get through

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The Independent Online

The Indian government's plan to relieve the worst drought for a century finally swung into action yesterday while thousands of people desperate with hunger and thirst fled the worst-afflicted regions.

The Indian government's plan to relieve the worst drought for a century finally swung into action yesterday while thousands of people desperate with hunger and thirst fled the worst-afflicted regions.

In Jodhpur the first relief train arrived with 200 tankers of water which will be trucked to Rajasthan's parched countryside. The state authorities said 400,000 people had been hired for emergency work schemes. A trainload of fodder is expected today and ships carrying water were on their way to the coast of Gujarat.

But if the inhabitants of a village called Mokalashani get so much as a sniff of the water, the fodder or the work, they will be mighty surprised. It is a small place, with 500 or 600 people. It is not remote: Jodhpur, the second-biggest city in the state, which has plenty of water thanks to the Rajasthan Canal, is an hour away. But the people here are about as desperate as you can get.

Every village in western Rajasthan is a potential victim in time of drought, so the government built water tanks in most villages, hooked up to pipelines. Mokalashani has one too but the expert eye of my local companion spotted something wrong: the structure was disintegrating. Villagers confirmed it was a ruin. Built 10 years back, pipes fed it for a few days, then never again.

So what do you do? It is 43 degrees Centigrade in the shade and the most vital staple of life has gone. The answer is that you dust off the wisdom of the ancients. When these villages were established, settlers made a hedge againstdrought: in the beds of the seasonal ponds they dug wells, which they lined with stones for durability. But when the government waved its wand and shot pipelines out into the Rajasthan Desert, these practices fell into disuse.

Now, for want of alternatives, Mokalashani's women are rediscovering the wells, or bheri. But this year's drought is so bad that they too are almost dry. Many village women have given up and set off in search of better sources. Apart from being so depleted, the water in Mokalashani's bheri is not even potable. It is dirty and can only be used for watering animals and washing.

The only way to get drinking water is from water barons, who bore wells on their land or use intimidation to plunder common sources, then fill up tankers to sell. Near Jodhpur they charge 150 rupees (£2) a tanker but in Mokalashani it is 300 rupees.

One day soon, if the people of Mokalashani have not given up and fled, an official will arrive to set up a famine work programme. As subsistence farmers the villagers have no cash coming in but by working in such a programme for eight days they will be able to afford one tanker of drinking water, enough to last one family about a week.

But in Mokalashani no such scheme is operating. The only way to get cash is to mortgage land and house and sink into debt. In many poor, drought- prone parts of the Indian countryside a time of drought presents bigger and ruthless landowners with a perfect opportunity for expanding their land-holding when their poor neighbours, faced with the challenge of merely staying alive, are in no position to argue about the terms of a loan.

This helps explain why tens of thousands of poor farmers have abandoned the cattle they can no longer feed or water. They place a tilak, a red "third eye" spot, on the cow's forehead and thread a string round one ear to indicate that they yield the holy animal to any gaushala, cow sanctuary, which may take pity. But the normal end of such cows is as a heap of bones in a dusty field, picked over by dogs and vultures. Such remains can already be seen outside Mokalashani.

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