New Delhi: The impact of two consecutive years of deficit rainfall—damaged crops and barren farms—is rapidly developing into a full-blown water crisis as the country prepares for the onset of a summer that is expected to be marked by frequent heat waves and higher-than-normal temperatures.

The matter reached two courts of law on Wednesday where judges upbraided authorities at the centre and in states for what they said was their failure to take adequate measures to remedy the drought situation, and for the “criminal wastage" of scarce water for coming cricket matches.

“You have failed to recognize the problem in the country. Can you really look at the situation in Latur and Marathwada and say that the country is not facing a severe drought situation?" the Supreme Court told additional solicitor general Pinky Anand.

The court’s strong observations came during a hearing on a public interest litigation filed by Swaraj Abhiyan, a non-profit group, seeking relief for drought-hit regions in the country. The plea sought a timely disbursement of crop loans, drought compensation, help in procurement of subsidized cattle fodder and formulation of an integrated water policy.

The court also asked the central government to not treat the case as an “adversarial issue" between the petitioners and the government. “Nobody is saying you (government) haven’t done enough. We are only saying that more needs to be done."

A bench comprising judges Madan. B. Lokur and N.V. Ramana told the centre to list measures taken under the national food security law and the rural employment guarantee Act that are meant to benefit drought-hit areas.

The central government told the Supreme Court that it will release over 11,000 crore within a week to clear wage arrears under the rural jobs guarantee scheme for 2015-16.

As per the government’s own submission in court, a sum of more than 8,261 crore is due in unpaid wages and about 3,686 crore for material used for work under the scheme.

The centre in September increased the number of assured work days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act from 100 a year to 150 in drought-hit areas.

However, on 10 February, the centre told the court that as of 25 January, only a small fraction of rural households had actually availed themselves of the 100 days of employment under the scheme in 2015-16.

The percentage of rural households completing 100 days of work ranges from a low of 2% in Uttar Pradesh—one of the worst-hit states—to 3.7% in Chhattisgarh, 4.5% in Madhya Pradesh, 4.6% in Odisha, and 5.5% in Karnataka. Some of the better performing states are Telangana (7.3%), Andhra Pradesh (8%), Jharkhand (8.2%) and Maharashtra (12.2%). The national average is a dismal 4.8%.

“Rural employment is a demand-driven statutory right. The government cannot make a budget allocation and say we won’t spend more than this," said Yogendra Yadav, founding-member of Swaraj Abhiyan.

The court in this case has repeatedly asked the centre and state governments to list what steps they have taken in the face of acute drought.

“Your allocation on the food security law is fine, but what additional steps have you taken during drought?" asked the court.

During the hearing in this case, the court discussed a host of issues on the agrarian crisis, including compensation for farmers in distress, crop insurance schemes, shortage of drinking water, and distribution of foodgrain.

The petition has sought the distribution of pulses, edible oil and sugar through the public distribution system as per the national food security law of 2013.

The National Food Security Act places an obligation on the state to provide 5kg foodgrain to each person in a household every month, which many states are yet to implement.

“Only Maharashtra has asked for additional foodgrain and we have provided over half a million tonnes of foodgrain," the centre told the court.

The centre also told the apex court: “In the absence of sufficient domestic availability of the items, their supply under the public distribution system is difficult to ensure."

The last time India experienced back-to-back droughts was in 1986-87. It was only the fourth time in a century that the country has had to battle two consecutive years of scant rainfall.

The agriculture ministry told Parliament on 4 March that 2,806 farmers had committed suicide in 2015 due to “agrarian reasons." Maharashtra recorded the highest number of suicides (1,841), followed by Punjab (449), Telangana (342), Karnataka (107) and Andhra Pradesh (58).

The southwest monsoon, which irrigates over half of India’s crop area, recorded a deficit of 14% in 2015, the second straight year of sub-par rains; in 2014, the rain deficit was 12%.

Since then, 10 states have declared drought—Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Rajasthan.

Meanwhile, the Bombay high court on Wednesday heard a public interest litigation questioning whether Indian Premier League (IPL) matches should be held in Mumbai in the middle of an acute water shortage.

The petitioner, non-profit Loksatta Movement, said that nearly 6 million litres of water will be used for maintaining cricket pitches in the three venues for IPL matches in Maharashtra.

The high court chided state authorities, saying: “Are people more important or the IPL? Who wastes water like this? This is a criminal wastage."

What’s worse, temperatures across India will likely soar higher than normal between April and June, with the north-west set to experience a particularly hot summer, the India Meteorological Department said in its maiden summer forecast last week.

Data from the ministry of water resources show that at end-March, water levels in 91 major reservoirs in the country were at just 25% of capacity.

The situation is acute in the western parts of the country. Water stored in reservoirs in Maharashtra and Gujarat was at 21% of their capacity, compared with the decadal average of 44%. In southern India, in drought-hit states such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, water levels were at 17% of reservoir capacity, compared with the decadal average storage levels of 29% of capacity.

Experts said the situation this time around is worse than the last countrywide drought in 2009. “The crisis that is manifest in Maharashtra is symbolic of what is wrong with India’s water priorities," said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

He added that the next two months will be the most difficult phase of the water crisis. “In July last year, the situation was clear as six states faced deficit rains. Both the centre and state government have failed to reduce non-essential water use and prioritize drinking water for humans and livestock."

Sayantan Bera, Jyotika Sood and PTI contributed to this story.

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