The famine that need not be

'In some dry regions of India, drought relief is known as the "third crop". And everyone knows who gets the lion's share'
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The Independent Online

Indian drought: with one phrase and a handful of gruesome photographs, the image-building work of a decade has gone for a burton. Hotmail and Pentium, beauty queens, Hi-Tech City, the world's biggest film industry - screw them all up, chuck them in the waste basket. It's back to the future now: long-horned cows with sticking-out ribs, pinched-looking geezers in turbans and dhotis, desert sands, wheeling vultures.

Indian drought: with one phrase and a handful of gruesome photographs, the image-building work of a decade has gone for a burton. Hotmail and Pentium, beauty queens, Hi-Tech City, the world's biggest film industry - screw them all up, chuck them in the waste basket. It's back to the future now: long-horned cows with sticking-out ribs, pinched-looking geezers in turbans and dhotis, desert sands, wheeling vultures.

It is in a sense right and just that an Indian drought should be back in the headlines. Because drought never really went away. While the local fashion models tramped the catwalks and the Korean car companies set up assembly plants and the middle class started to make real money, drought, with its medieval imagery of suffering, was only in abeyance. Twelve years of good monsoons allowed the outside world to forget about it. But it took only a couple of poor monsoons to remind us what a vulnerable giant India is.

In one obvious sense, that vulnerability is permanent. Most of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the worst affected states, is desert. Much of central India is scarcely better off. The huge Deccan plateau of Andhra Pradesh, semi-arid scrubland littered with enigmatic heaps of granite, will never look like the Garden of Eden. "The whole central backbone of India is dry," one expert expresses it. "A huge part of this country is plagued by drought."

And yet India's modern droughts are neither natural nor inevitable. As much as they are the product of harsh environment and capricious weather, they are the outcome of bad policies, corrupt and opportunistic special interest groups, and the stealthy transformation of drought from a human catastrophe into a national industry.

To appreciate what an unnatural, non-inevitable phenomenon India's drought is, consider Cherrapunji. As trivia buffs know, Cherrapunji, in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya, once held the record for being the wettest place in the world, with a total of 23,000 millimetres falling in one outstanding year. Even in an average year it receives an impressive 11,500 millimetres of rainfall.

But Cherrapunji, too, is suffering from drought; it has become an annual occurrence. As in most of India, the town's rainfall is concentrated in the monsoon months, from June to September. "In those months it is difficult to go outside," says one resident. "But the really difficult months are between October and March. That's when we have to save every drop of water as if we were living in the Sahara." The paradox that one of the wettest places in the world should suffer from chronic drought has two explanations, which are two sides of the same coin.

On the one hand, the people of Cherrapunji make no effort to save or store the water that comes slashing down during the monsoon. It merely gets them sopping wet, then streams down the steep hillsides, taking any remaining topsoil away with it.

And their fecklessness is explained by the fact that they have become completely dependent on the provision of the local Public Health Engineering Department for their drinking water. The Phed has installed community taps at street corners across this town of 70,000 people. But the water these taps deliver is not remotely sufficient. "Every morning there is a mad scramble to collect whatever water comes down the pipeline," explains a local school teacher.

The unlucky ones who come late have to walk miles out of town to hillside springs for their supply - as if they were living in the sandy wastes of Rajasthan. The local people's idea of water harvesting consists of finding a leak in a municipal pipe and putting their pots underneath it.

The absurdities of Cherrapunji's drought are repeated in varying ways and degrees right across the country. There are four things that typically go wrong, four steps to disaster.

Due to migration, dislocation and changes in work and lifestyle, people give up the frugal approaches to the management of water resources that were once found all over the country. They vest all their trust and expectation in the authorities - who, very inadequately, deliver.

But the authorities are not disinterested. Because there is not enough water to go round, its provision becomes a political prize, fought over by venal politicians and bureaucrats, just as they scrap over the provision of railway lines and factories. Water does not go to those most in need of it, but to those with political muscle.

The result is grotesque waste and disparity in provision, with some regions (parts of Maharashtra, for example) receiving such abundant supplies that, though categorised as semi-arid and drought-prone, they can produce sugar cane, one of the thirstiest crops on the planet; while others receive so little that scenes like those we have witnessed over the past week are played out, with cattle abandoned to die, villagers lowered into the bowels of dried-up wells by ropes, women walking miles to fill their pots, and peasants, reduced to indigence by the loss of their animals, setting off into the wilds with nothing, merely hoping to survive.

And it is when the suffering begins to bite that the fourth and final piece of this cruel jigsaw slots into place. Gross disparity in provision produces suffering when the water begins to dwindle. Suffering produces gruesome photographs and television footage, then politicians begin to scream about government apathy - and finally there is a head of steam behind the issue, and the drought industry springs back into life.

That is what has happened in India this week. Fifty million poor farmers, we learn, are under threat in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and so the mighty sticking plasters of relief are being mobilised and sent on their way: fleets of tankers full of drinking water, trains full of food grains and animal fodder, all grinding towards the disaster zone, tens of millions of rupees released as if by magic from India's near-bankrupt exchequer, some of which, ultimately, may help to allow certain peasants to stay alive, but a very great deal of which will get lost en route.

This is the way of India; they've had more than 50 years of practice. In some dry regions it has become so familiar that drought relief is known as tessra fasl, "the third crop". And everyone knows who gets the lion's share of the harvest.

None of this is tenable, none of it sustainable; and given the threats posed by population explosion and global warming, it is time India woke up and realised it.

Fortunately, India is also a land of radical thinkers and courageous social activists, and as this year's drought bites there are a number of voices speaking out with great eloquence about what must be done in the longer term to banish drought.

The solutions are not exotic or expensive. The buzz words are water harvesting and water table management. They are not hard to put into effect, either. Local communities with minor rivers running through them can build small check dams to prevent precious rainwater spilling away; they can channel the water that they dam into irrigating their fields and replenishing their wells.

One of the leading exponents of this approach, Anil Agarwal, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, speaks of flying recently by helicopter from Delhi to Alwar in Rajasthan and seeing nothing but barren fields the whole way. "But suddenly," he says, "we came across green and brown fields and realised that we had reached the oasis of the Arvari watershed, where several villages, over the last five to 10 years, built hundreds of rainwater harvesting structures."

It's not difficult; but it requires a revolution in attitude. Above all it requires communities to give up their hapless dependence on a flawed and corrupt state, and to begin seizing the initiative for themselves.

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