Climate Change

Supreme Court judgment on drought a paradigm shift

Various acts, policies and programmes related to irrigation, water harvesting, crop insurance and food security have not helped people in dealing with drought 

By Vineet Kumar
Published: Friday 13 May 2016

In a recent move, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to formulate a national plan on drought management at the earliest and revise the current drought manual.

This came after Swaraj Abhiyan, a Delhi-based non-profit, filed a PIL (public interest litigation) in the backdrop of drought declaration in nine states across India.

The opening line of the judgment by the Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and N V Ramana in response to the PIL read as, “The problem is not lack of resources or capability, but the lack of will.”

Quoting Lokmanya Tilak in response to the PIL filed by Swaraj Abhiyan, the Supreme Court categorically asked the petitioner whether it was a political party.

The response the apex court received was that it was an unregistered non-profit and not a political party. The Supreme Court said since Swaraj Abhiyan was not a political party and that the humanitarian concern was uppermost in its PIL, we proceeded to hear the petition on its merit.

States do not own up drought

While hearing the petition and directing the Centre to formulate a national drought management plan, the Supreme Court added that Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana governments were hesitant to even acknowledge, let alone recognise, a possible drought-like situation or drought by not disclosing the full facts about the prevailing condition in these states.

The apex court made it clear that this ostrich-like attitude was a pity, particularly since the people affected by a possible drought-like situation or drought usually belong to the most vulnerable sections of the society.

The judgment is being seen as a landmark decision, indicating a paradigm shift in the way drought is handled in the country.

The Supreme Court said that ironically, towards the fag end of the hearing, Gujarat finally admitted the existence of drought in five of its districts—a fact that could have been admitted much earlier.

However, Bihar and Haryana still continued to be in a denial mode, the apex court added. It said drought required a far more proactive and nuanced response from the Centre.

Directives to the Centre

The Supreme Court gave a set of directives to the central government. It said that the National Disaster Response Force with its own regular specialist cadre was needed to be constituted (as required by section 44 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005) within six months to tackle drought. Unfortunately, no such force has been constituted till date. The apex court directed that the National Disaster Mitigation Fund is required to be established (as required by section 47 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005). Unfortunately, no such fund has also been constituted till date, the Supreme Court noted.

The apex court has directed the formulation of a national plan relating to risk assessment, risk management and crisis management in respect of a disaster (as required by Section 11 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005) at the very earliest and with immediate concern. Such a plan has not been formulated over the last 10 years.

The Supreme Court has given a set of directives to the central government to tackle drought
Credit: Vikas Choudhary

It also directed the secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, Government of India, to hold a meeting with the chief secretaries of Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana to review the apparent drought situation with all the available data, and if needed, persuade the states to declare drought.

The apex court said that the Centre must provide for the future in terms of prevention, preparedness and mitigation in a revised drought manual and national plan.

Innovative methods of water conservation, saving and utilisation (including groundwater) should be seriously considered and experts should be associated in the exercise, the Supreme Court said.

It further insisted on the use of modern technology to make an early determination of drought or a drought-like situation. There is no need to continue with colonial methods and manuals that follow a colonial legacy, the apex court.

It said that the drought management manual has to be revised and updated on or before December 31, 2016 with the following inclusions:

  • Necessary weightage has to be given to each of the four key indicators. State governments seem to give greater weightage to the area of crop sown out of the cultivable area and not to rainfall deficit
  • The time limit for declaring a drought should be mandated in the manual
  • The elbow room available to each state enabling it to decline declaring a drought (even though it exists) should be minimised
  • The nomenclature should be standardised as also the methodology to be taken into consideration for declaring a drought or not declaring a drought

These directions will force governments to declare drought in a much more scientific and time-bound manner. Currently, there were reports that some states have declared particular regions as drought affected and left regions which were facing actual water scarcity. Usage of modern technology will ensure that no area is missed from the government’s eye, the apex court said.

Standardisation of declaration of drought will further minimise such errors. Declaration of drought is based more on political considerations than on scientific and systematic analysis, experts said.

Ensuring food security

The Supreme Court said the mechanism for enforcing several provisions of the National Food Security (NFS) Act has not been established or constituted by the Centre. It further directed the drought-affected states to establish an internal grievance mechanism and appoint a district grievance redressal officer in each district as per the NFS Act within a month.

It also directed these states to constitute a state food commission for the purpose of monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the NFS Act, and that all households should be provided with their monthly entitlement of foodgrains. No household in a drought-affected area should be denied foodgrains as required under the NFS Act, the apex court said.

The Supreme Court also gave directions related to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). It directed the Government of India to ensure that compensation for delayed payment was made over to the workers whose wages had been delayed beyond 15 days.

The Supreme Court is trying its best to ensure that states do not get any scope in delaying declaring a drought, even though it exists, and implements the NFS Act in drought-hit regions.

Actual implementation of these directives can pave the way forward for a paradigm shift in state governments’ approach in dealing with drought. This way governments will not be able to ignore a large section of the population affected by drought and will have to respond to the situation in a more scientific and well-planned manner.

Various government acts, policies and programmes, especially related to irrigation, water harvesting, crop insurance and food security, have not helped people in dealing with drought or a drought-like situation.

According to experts, the impact of drought, which we are facing in India currently, would have been much lesser if we had planned and implemented the required measures in advance.

Traditional water harvesting structures, if protected, could have played a greater role in dealing with drought, experts feel.

Today, if you go to any village in the country, chances are that you will find that traditional water bodies have either been encroached upon or mismanaged. Acts, policies and programmes related to waterbodies’ conservation exists on paper only.

In practice, even if activists raise the issue of encroachments upon waterbodies, the response of the local administration is poor.

Rapidly increasing population, unplanned development and corrupt and ineffective local administrative system are some of the major causes behind the deteriorating state of waterbodies.

Similarly, if we look at the performance of crop insurance schemes, we will find that these have not been able to help the farmers.

Expert analysis shows that the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna will not be able to provide adequate help to farmers in distressed regions such as Bundelkhand and Marathwada which faces successive natural calamities.

Farmers in these regions may not be able to get any claim even if the crop loss is more than 50 per cent. At a time when the country is passing through one of its worst droughts in decades, it is high time that we become proactive and deal with such natural calamities in a prepared way to lessen the negative impact on the poor.

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