Fixing the drought

To uplift the poor it is important to understand the root cause of poverty

Published: Wednesday 31 January 2001

For a large part of the year anybody who was anybody in India talked about match fixing in cricket. When Parliament was in session there was a hue and cry over the Ayodhya issue but hardly a whisper in the corridors of power over drought. Ayodhya and match fixing became issues for nationwide debate. But not the drought. Therefore the prime minister's Christmas gift of Rs 2,600 crore worth of foodgrain to the poorest of the poor in the country comes as a welcome surprise. But is this measure sufficient to tackle the drought? Is it even targeted to tackle the problem?

We have a strange situation. On one hand there is drought and food scarcity -- starvation deaths are reported from many regions -- and on the other is foodgrain piled up to the tune of 40 million tonnes, 20 million tonnes more than required, expected to go up to 60 million tonnes. This will strain the storage capacity of the Food Corporation of India to the seams. The government has very limited options. It can throw the foodgrain into the sea, allow it to rot in the open, or launch a scheme to benefit the poor.

But has anybody bothered to think about the implementation of the scheme, meant to distribute grain to the poorest of the poor? How do you identify the poorest of the poor? How do you dole out the foodgrain to the needy. It is going to be impossible to achieve when the government has made a complete mess of the public distribution scheme. Everyone knows the food doesn't reach the needy. It would help if the prime minister learns a few lessons from the handing of the drought of the 1980s.

Employment and food must be linked to the principle of entitlement, whereby the poor can demand work for foodgrain in return. This should be linked to natural resource regeneration. This would strike at the very roots of rural poverty, which is a creation of ecological degradation. Any programme meant for their uplift has to take this into consideration.

To tackle food shortages brought about by drought a short-term measure would be to adopt an immediate food for work programme. This should be given top priority. The programme should promote water conservation, rainwater harvesting and prevention of land degradation. These measures are basics for drought-proofing for India. The task is to create local food security. The people of India can very well meet their needs without relying on government doles. What they need is control over their natural resources.

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