Despite nearly 300 districts suffering from severe drought, little has been done by the union government in terms of relief efforts.
Although the union government has acknowledged the seriousness of the drought situation across the country – about 300 districts have been impacted – there is little evidence of any relief having been provided at the field-level. On comparing the current situation with the last such drought, experienced social workers say that the government response was better earlier.
At first glance, this appears to be a mistaken assessment as rural India is now under an employment guarantee legislation, the NREGA, which did not exist around a decade ago. So why do they believe that the overall situation has deteriorated?
The reason is twofold. Firstly, the NREGA is not being implemented according to the letter and spirit of the law. The violation is so severe that in some places no NREGA work has begun yet. Secondly, drought-relief work or food-for-work has not even been considered in the areas severely affected by the drought.
This has created a peculiar situation: drought-relief work has not being taken up on the understanding that the NREGA negates this need, but in reality the NREGA itself is not being implemented properly at many places. Without any benefit from the NREGA, drought-affected people are being denied the support of special drought-relief works as well.
It is important for the union government to address this issue. Can it initiate any special drought relief work in these areas? If not, then can the NREGA be scaled up to adequately cope with the prevailing situation?
Indeed, the government has released some drought-relief funds amounting to about 10,500 crore rupees to seven affected states until mid-January. More than half of this allocation was for two states – Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. But it remains unclear how these funds will be spent. There needs to be greater clarity and transparency in this respect to ensure that the benefits reach the people who need it the most.
However, the relief amount released is inadequate keeping in mind the reduced allotment for the NREGA in the budget for 2015-16, although the government insists that it has not made any cuts. This ignores the fact that if the allotments have to remain the same in real terms, then they need to rise at least to the extent of covering inflation.
As Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze and several other social activists and senior economists wrote to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on January 12, simply maintaining the 2010-11 allocation of 40,100 crore rupees and taking into account inflation would imply an allocation of 61,455 crore rupees in the 2015-16 budget. However, only 34,699 crore rupees were allotted, of which 6,429 crore rupees were required simply to meet the pending obligation of the previous year, with a promise to provide 5,000 crore rupees later if more resources were available. In terms of percentage of GDP, the allocation for the NREGA fell from 0.59% in 2009-10 to 0.25% in 2014-15.
The denial of adequate allocations is reflected at the field-level in the distress of the people, caused not only by the denial of work but sadly also by the denial (or very long delay) of wages for the work already performed by some at NREGA work sites several months ago.
It is important to note, that although the most distressed people in the country are being denied work and wages, there is no hesitation in announcing pay hikes for legislators and bureaucrats. This perpetuates the unequal concentration of wealth in the country.
The Centre and the governments in the drought-affected states should clearly announce their plans for providing adequate relief to affected farmers, farm-workers and other distressed sections.
On the plus side, the union government has announced what it claims to be an improved farm insurance plan. However, for any real reform of the farm insurance we first have to make an honest appraisal of how this has functioned in the past. A large number of farmers have complained that while insurance premiums were deducted from their bank accounts, at the time of severe crop damage, they did not get any payment or received a negligible amount. It appears insurance companies have earned huge profits while farmers have been cheated. These fears and suspicions can be done away with through reforms that can be taken up based on an honest appraisal of the scheme.