A drought of action

India has a lasting infrastructure of public support that can, in principle, be expanded in drought years to provide relief. But business as usual seems to be the motto

Updated - September 12, 2016 03:24 pm IST

Published - April 27, 2016 12:35 am IST

Safeguard: “It is arguable that the PDS is even more important than MGNREGS as a tool of drought relief.” In Beed district in Maharashtra.

Safeguard: “It is arguable that the PDS is even more important than MGNREGS as a tool of drought relief.” In Beed district in Maharashtra.

> Droughts in India used to be times of frantic relief activity. Large-scale public works were organised, often employing more than 1,00,000 workers in a single district. Food distribution was arranged for destitute persons who were unable to work. Arrangements were also made for debt relief, cattle camps, water supply and more. The drought relief system was best developed in the western States of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, but the basic framework was much the same elsewhere even if its implementation often fell short.

This year, nothing like the same sense of urgency can be observed, despite 256 districts being declared drought-affected. To some extent, of course, people’s ability to withstand drought on their own has increased: incomes have risen, the rural economy is more diversified, and water supply facilities have improved. Also, a semblance of social security system has emerged in rural India, with permanent income support measures such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the Public Distribution System (PDS), midday meals and social security pensions. This also reduces people’s dependence on special relief measures in drought years.

None of this, however, obviates the need for active intervention in a drought situation. Despite rapid economic growth and some entitlements, the rural poor in India continue to live in conditions of appalling deprivation and insecurity. And in some respects, notably water scarcity, the impact of drought may be worse than before. Recent reports from Bundelkhand and elsewhere confirm that without emergency support, drought continues to plunge millions of people into intolerable hardship.

To some extent, the nature of the required interventions has changed. The simplest way of preventing starvation in a drought situation today is to intensify the permanent income support measures mentioned earlier, for instance by expanding employment under MGNREGS, providing special food rations under the PDS, and arranging for improved school meals. That may not be enough, but it would be a good start.

The MGNREGS funds crunch There are, however, no sign of this happening. According to official data, the MGNREGS generated 230 crore person-days of work in 2015-16. This essentially restored MGNREGS employment generation to the level it had reached before crashing to 166 crore person-days in 2014-15, when a new government took charge at the Centre. However, the Finance Minister had not provided for this recovery. The result was a mountain of arrears at the end of 2015-16 — more than Rs.12,000 crore. Yet the Finance Minister continued the unspoken policy (initiated by the previous government) of keeping the MGNREGS budget more or less constant in money terms year after year. If last year’s employment level is to be maintained this year, the Central government would need to spend at least Rs. 50,000 crore, rising to more than Rs. 60,000 crore if arrears are to be cleared — a legal obligation since MGNREGS workers have a right to payment within 15 days. Yet the allocation for MGNREGS in this year’s Budget is only Rs. 38,500 crore. Unless the Central government accepts the need for a large injection of funds, MGNREGS employment is all set to contract again, or wage payments will be postponed — both would be a disaster in a drought year as well as a violation of people’s entitlements under the law.

Slipping up on food security It is arguable that the PDS is even more important than MGNREGS as a tool of drought relief. Monthly food rations under the PDS are more regular and predictable than MGNREGS work. They also cover a much larger fraction of the rural population — 75 per cent under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). A well-managed PDS is a major safeguard against hunger and starvation.

It is no accident that the worst reports of food deprivation come from Uttar Pradesh, which is nowhere near implementing the NFSA. No Indian State has more to gain than U.P. from the NFSA. Before the Act came into force, barely one-fourth of the rural population in U.P. benefited from the PDS under the “below poverty line” (BPL) category. The rest received nothing as the “above poverty line” (APL) quota was routinely sold in the open market by corrupt middlemen. Further, even BPL cards were often in the wrong hands. The NFSA is a chance for the government of U.P. to clean up this mess and cover 80 per cent of the rural population under an improved PDS, as many of the poorer States have already done to a large extent.

Unfortunately, recent reports on the status of the NFSA in U.P. are most alarming. Rapid investigations conducted recently in Moradabad, Rae Bareli and Lucknow districts (the last one just 23 km from the State Assembly) all came to the same conclusion: NFSA ration cards are yet to be distributed, many people are not even aware of the Act, and the same flawed system continues much as before. So much for Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s upbeat statement (made twice, on record, on April 7, 2016) that “we have implemented the Right to Food Act”. One wonders whether he knows that elections are coming up next year in U.P., and whether he thinks that this is the way to win them. Opposition parties, it seems, are equally blind to the situation.

In other States, the status of the NFSA varies a great deal, from dismal (e.g. in Rajasthan) to reasonably promising (in many of the eastern States). Alas, these developments are receiving very little attention. Few issues are more important at this time than the successful roll-out of the NFSA, yet it seems to be off the Central government’s radar. The Finance Minister’s recent Budget speech, for instance, did not make a single reference to it, or for that matter to nutrition in general. In fact, the Central government (led by the Prime Minister’s Office) is making things worse by pushing for Aadhaar-based biometric authentication of PDS beneficiaries. This wholly inappropriate technology has already caused havoc in Rajasthan, and is all set to disrupt the PDS across the country if the Central government has its way.

For the first time, India has a lasting infrastructure of public support that can, in principle, be expanded in drought years to prevent hunger and starvation. Business as usual, however, seems to be the motto. The price is paid by millions of people who are not just exposed to intense hardship but also losing valuable human and physical capital, condemning them to further poverty in the future.

Jean Drèze is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University.

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