New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday hit the reset button on drought management, directing the government to abandon the existing system and evolve a transparent, rules-based framework.

The new policy will prescribe a standard methodology and time-frame for declaring drought. The court also directed the Union government to set up a National Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months.

“There is no need to continue with colonial methods and manuals that follow a colonial legacy," the order said, driving home the gravity of the situation to policymakers, as more than a quarter of the country’s population continue to be affected by drought.

Prescribing this paradigm shift in drought monitoring and management, the apex court rapped state governments for showing an “ostrich-like attitude" and denying reality. The apex court mandated the formulation of a national plan.

Further, it asked the centre to use modern technology for early determination of drought and take into account humanitarian factors such as migration, suicides and the plight of women and children while formulating policies.

“The problem is not lack of resources or capability, but the lack of will," said the bench comprising justices Madan B. Lokur and N.V. Ramana, quoting freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the opening lines of the judgment.

The court said that Wednesday’s order was only the first part and that it proposes to give more directions later in the week.

The judges criticized Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana for their hesitancy in acknowledging drought and failure to disclose the reality on the ground.

“An ostrich-like attitude is a pity, particularly since the persons affected by a possible drought-like situation usually belong to the most vulnerable sections of the society."

“The sound of silence coming from these states subjects the vulnerable to further distress," the order said.

The order said that Gujarat admitted to a drought towards the end of the hearing in April, but that Bihar and Haryana continue to be in denial.

The court also directed the centre to be proactive rather than introducing “the concept of federalism" to delegate responsibility and saying its only role is to provide financial assistance to states.

“Surely, if a state government maintains an ostrich-like attitude, a disaster requires a far more proactive and nuanced response form the Union of India. Therefore, in such a state of affairs... Where does the buck stop?" the court asked.

The case came up before the apex court by way of a public interest litigation filed by non-profit Swaraj Abhiyan, which had asked the court to intervene in the prevailing drought situation in the country and direct governments to implement employment and food security schemes.

“The order will have far-reaching significance in changing the legal and conceptual framework of looking at a drought and, foremost, it is a recognition that drought is a national disaster," said Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and co-founder of Swaraj Abhiyan.

“We are expecting that the court will pass orders on short- and medium-term substantive relief measures in its next orders," he added.

In its order, the court asked the government to implement provisions of the National Disaster Management Act and ensure that a national policy for drought is framed under it.

A national plan had not been formulated even after 10 years of the Act coming into force and the centre must act immediately, it said.

The court also ordered that the existing drought management manual of 2009 be revised by the end of the year. The manual should clearly indicate the time frame for declaring a drought and also lay down specific parameters (such as rainfall, crop loss, etc.) and their weightage for arriving at a decision.

“The elbow room available to each state enabling it to decline declaring a drought should be minimized," the court said.

Standardized nomenclature will also be required, the order said. Citing the example of Gujarat, it said the state uses terms like “scarcity" and “appears to be hesitant to use the word drought".

Urging the use of technology like drones and satellite imagery for early determination of drought, the order said that there is no need to continue with colonial methods and legacies.

The revised drought manual and the national plan must also provide a future plan of prevention, preparedness and mitigation, the order said.

In its order, the apex court asked the Union agriculture secretary to urgently meet the chief secretaries of Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana and persuade them to declare a drought in parts of the states as deemed necessary.

“There is no loss of face or prestige or dignity in the state government declaring a drought if it is warranted, although succour to the distressed might be too late in the day," the order said.

The 2015 south-west monsoon, which irrigates over half of India’s crop area, recorded a 14% deficit, while the previous year saw a 12% deficit. So far, 266 districts in 11 states have been declared drought-hit, the centre told Parliament last month. A total of 330 million people in 10 states are affected, it informed the Supreme Court earlier.

“What we need now are urgent relief orders. The courts should sense the emergency as governments are slow to respond, and the plight of the drought-hit will disappear from public discourse once the monsoon starts," said Devinder Sharma, agriculture policy analyst and convenor of Kisan Ekta, a confederation of farm unions.

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