From where I sit: Drought, saving and spending

September 3, 2009

How bad is the drought in India? The evidence of a crisis in the countryside - farmers forced to sell their cattle, shortages of water and fodder, failure of crops - has been vividly described by P. Sainath, the respected rural affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper and author of the bestseller Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

Cattle are being taken out of villages by the truckload, something the country has not seen for 25 years, and drought has been officially declared in 246 districts in ten states.

Because of the scale of the crisis, the question of how the parameters of drought are defined in India has become a matter of discussion in university classrooms.

History students, for instance, are interested in how these parameters have changed.

If you go back 100 years, the Irrigation Commission took the view that any year in which rainfall fell below 40 per cent of the average was a drought year.

Today, three types of drought are recognised:

  • a meteorological drought, in which rainfall is either deficient or scanty (20 per cent or 60 per cent below normal)
  • a hydrological drought, in which there is a depletion of surface water
  • an agricultural drought, in which there are crop shortfalls.

At present all three types of drought conditions can be found in many parts of India.

While the changing definitions are a matter of academic interest, a more pressing concern is how the Government plans to deal with the current drought.

My colleagues in the Delhi School of Economics have pointed out that while the drought is unlikely to be as severe as that of 2000-01, the government reaction has been slow and it now needs to move swiftly to put specific measures in place.

They hope that this advice will be taken seriously by Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, who is himself an economist who taught at the Delhi School in the 1970s.

But what has caught public attention even more than the Government's plans, or lack of them, is the way in which the Congress Party is aiming to capitalise on the drought.

On 20 August, every national newspaper carried a story about the party ordering a 20 per cent salary cut for its elected officials because of the drought conditions.

This included members of state legislative assemblies and Members of Parliament belonging to the party.

Ironically, on the same day the newspapers also carried prominent advertisements issued by government ministries to mark the birthday of Rajiv Gandhi, the late Prime Minister.

The advertisements were on an extravagant scale - two of the leading English-language newspapers, The Times of India and the Hindustan Times, carried 26 advertisements between them - and must have cost vast sums of public money, cancelling out much of the savings that the salary cuts aim to make.

In this context, it occurs to me that it could be time for Sainath to write a sequel: he could call it Preaching Austerity and Practising Profligacy in the Time of Drought.

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