SC pulls up Centre, States for failing to tackle drought

Finds "lack of will" to save people, driving them to suicide, starvation

May 11, 2016 11:41 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Women walk across the dry reservoir bed next to the Gunda Dam at Gunda in Botad district of Gujarat.

Women walk across the dry reservoir bed next to the Gunda Dam at Gunda in Botad district of Gujarat.

In a scathing 53-page verdict on the “lack of will” shown by the Centre and States in combating drought and saving lives, the Supreme Court on Wednesday pronounced the Centre guilty of “washing its hands of” a national disaster that consumed one-fourth of the country.

It also pulled up Gujarat, Bihar and Haryana for adopting an “ostrich-like attitude” towards declaring drought and driving their own people to suicide, starvation and mass migration.

The Bench of Justices Madan B. Lokur and N.V. Ramana issued a slew of directions on tackling the drought situation on a petition filed by NGO, Swaraj Abhiyan. Among the steps it suggested were a National Disaster Response Force and a Disaster Mitigation Fund.

‘No adequate relief’

The PIL plea had alleged that parts of 12 States such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana and Chhattisgarh were hit by drought and the authorities were not providing adequate relief. The court found that the total population in the districts affected by drought is about 33 crore.

“Can we afford to ignore the plight of such a large population?” the Supreme Court asked the government. It accused the Centre of taking refuge in the concept of “federalism” to pass the buck to the States for declaring and managing drought and providing only financial aid.

“The ostensible purpose of introducing this concept [of federalism] is to enable the Union of India to wash its hands of in matters concerning drought declaration and to give enough elbow room to a State Government to decide whether to declare a drought or not,” a Bench led by Justice Madan B. Lokur observed in the verdict.

Meanwhile, States such as Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana, the court observed, were not even willing to acknowledge, leave alone address a drought. “A candid admission does not imply a loss of face or invite imputations of ineffective governance – it is an acknowledgement of reality. An ostrich-like attitude is a pity. The sound of silence coming from these States subjects the vulnerable to further distress,” Justice Lokur wrote.

Robbed of right

The failure to declare drought by these States has robbed the poor of their fundamental right to dignity of life, the Supreme Court held.

It clarified that a drought definitely falls under the definition of ‘disaster’ under Section 2(d) of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 and lashed out at the government for not even trying to enforce the statute.

The court noted how the Manual for Drought Management of November 2009 and the National Disaster Management Guidelines for Management of Drought remain paper tigers.

Citing individual States, it pointed to Gujarat, which declared drought in a total of 994 villages only from April 1, 2016 when others had already completed their field assessments between August and December 2015.

“The adverse or negative impact of a delayed declaration of drought affects the common person, particularly women and children, and postpones the assistance that is needed. It also puts an undue strain on the resources of the State and the Union governments,” the court said.

In a ‘state of denial’

It said Bihar is still in a “state of denial” about drought, while Haryana shows a “total lack of any concern for the situation on the ground. “Frighteningly most of Haryana is in the grip of a severe or moderate or mild drought,” the court observed.

The court asked the government to: establish a National Disaster Response Force with specialist cadre in six months; set up a Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months; frame National Plan on risk assessment, risk management and crisis management in respect of a disaster; and update 60-year-old Drought Management Manual keeping in mind “humanitarian factors” like migrations, suicides, extreme distress, the plight of women and children.

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