There is always drought
As 50 million tonnes of grain rots in government granaries, adivasis in Rajasthan are taking to the streets to protest against hunger-related deaths. Debts have increased, there is no food or work for them ... This is the result of the government's structural adjustment programmes and new economic policies, says noted journalist P. SAINATH, in the last of his two-part series of drought in Rajasthan.
IT is official. The Rajasthan Government aims at boosting employment in its crisis districts by, among other things, building a golf course in each one of them. This seems a step up from last year's announcement of having a small airstrip in each, also to create jobs as part of "relief works".
The move comes even as the State Government speaks of 30,000 villages and 35 million people facing what it calls a severe drought. (The average golf course could consume enough water for a village of 9,000 people.) A thousand litres of water in rural Rajasthan costs 200 times more than what it does in Jaipur.
Meanwhile, the Centre is pitching in with its own ideas. The Union Minister of State for Food and Public Distribution, Sriram Chauhan, has advised people in the State to give up their "begging mentality". He was reacting to a day of protests during which thousands of people gathered outside FCI godowns in Rajasthan. They were pointing to the irony of overflowing godowns while millions faced hunger.
A significant chunk of the grain with the Government is rotting and is, as one senior official says, "certainly free for the rats". But were people seeking free food? And were they putting all the problems down to drought?
Here is what we found in rural Udaipur before the State-wide protests.
Dhariawad Tehsil: It is high noon at tehsil headquarters. And pretty tense, too. But the tehsildar is not strapping on his holster and walking down the main street to take on all comers. He waits meekly in his room for the sizable crowd of protesters in the tehsil complex to finish speaking. Then he will come out and accept their petition.
At all times, he is surrounded by policemen who are there in case the angry adivasis decide to hand him more than a petition. Outside is a brilliant riot of colour. The bulk of the 300 protesters are traditionally garbed women.
"We shall storm the godowns!" says one speaker. "The Government is forcing us to do this. It is teaching us to do this. How can we accept the idea that so much grain is rotting in the godowns while people face hunger and death?"
"Yes, let us take the Government godowns," exclaims another. "And let us take those of the seths and sahucars (merchants and money lenders) at the same time".
The tehsildar accepts the petition demanding, among other things, a lot more work than the present "ceiling" will allow. People want at least one member from each family to find a place at the work sites. That, however, would mean an expansion of government works on a large scale. In the era of "fiscal responsibility" (for the poor) governments are reluctant to do that. Never mind that people want food for work - even the small cash component it would involve seems unacceptable.
And just as we begin talking to the participants in the dharna, a roar goes up. The local MLA has been spotted, trying to sneak by quietly. The crowd rushes in disarray across the road. A spontaneous gherao of the MLA lasts some 15 minutes till he swears he is with them.
The paradox here is as clear as it gets. A nation with close to 50 million tonnes of "surplus" grain in its godowns could see food riots as millions feel their hunger deepen.
Right here, the anger is over the inability of the Rajasthan Government to launch large-scale food for work programmes. Not a single protester is asking for free food.
"We want the right to work," says Jeema bai of Hazariguda.
"And," butts in Amri bai of Anathgaon, "we want the muster rolls to be in the hands of women. We do the work anyway, in the fields and at home. We feed everybody. But the 'Mate' system (a functionary appointed by the sarpanch to run the muster rolls) is a fraud. Only women should be 'Mates.' The rolls are now full of fake names."
The stress on women has gone up exponentially as the time taken and distances walked to get water and firewood double. Also, as underfed children fall ill often.
As in Kotada tehsil, here too, people compare the present drought with past ones quite analytically.
Baktu bai of Bhavadikheda village explains: "Earlier, tendu was plenty, we could use the fruit, sell the leaves. The jungle was there to cushion us. Now the jungle is dead or dying. "
"Earlier, there were proper ration controls. The Public Distribution System's wheat was cheap. That plus relief works saw us through earlier crises. Now that the PDS is all but gone, prices are terrible. The impact of the drought hits us harder because of the sarkar's policies. The old talabs (tanks) in our villages lie useless. But they are not being repaired."
The vulnerability of people greatly magnifies the effects of drought. Jawahar Singh, one of the activists spearheading the protest here, points to its impact on schools. "Right now, even in a region with a high drop out rate, the number of children not going to school is alarming. In some villages, 20-30 families have moved out desperate for work. The children obviously cannot be left behind". Jawahar is with the NGO Prayas that works among the poor in this area.
"There is no fodder and we cannot afford any," says Jeema bai of Hazariguda. "I have five buffaloes and only one gives a little milk. I have a cow and five goats, too. They are about to die. Now we cannot even get money to buy fodder for them, let alone water. Even our sahucars seem to be in trouble!"
Back in Kotada tehsil, similar stories abound. There has been a steep increase in indebtedness amongst the poor of the region. It is almost impossible to locate a villager in Medi panchayat for example, who does not have three kinds of loans.
"We owe the sarkar, the sahucar and the sonar (pawnbroker)," says Uday Lal in Medi. Typically, the sarkar loan was from the Bhumi Vikas bank. The sahucar's loans have been used on borewells that often fail. But, more significantly, an increasing proportion of loans from money lenders is being spent on health. Every family seems to have a member who has taken an expensive "health loan"
(at an interest of about 120 per cent per annum).
The sonar loan is taken purely for consumption, by pawning jewellery, to buy food and other necessities in the house. The third loan comes up because "who else is left to borrow from?"
The Government announced that the Bhumi Vikas bank would not collect dues in this time of distress. That has been respected. There has been no repossession or confiscation. However, true to bureaucratic form, the bank continues to send notices to villagers even while people sell off whatever remaining possessions they might have.
Meanwhile, fights are breaking out in the queues of those seeking work. When 600 people line up for work at a site that can at best take 20, this seems inevitable. Desperation is seeing poor attack poor. And the Gujarat quake has sharpened the problem. The many thousands who would frequently cross the border for work cannot now do so.
Which is why, if the "ceiling" on the number of people to be employed at government work sites is to be raised, it has to be done now. The current ceiling on the number of people employed in relief works in the State is 5,00,000. The People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) points out that even if this ceiling is fully attained and every employed person supports another four people, only 2.5 per cent of the population would be covered by relief works.
The Rajasthan Government aims to raise the ceiling each month. By April-May, there could be 20,00,000 such jobs. Even that would mean little in a State where 31 districts and 35 million people are gripped by the crisis. In any case, by then, many thousands will have simply left their villages in despair. Anger at the Government is spreading swiftly. In these tehsils, some of the measures it announced much earlier began to function only after the deaths. What is more, the defensive attitude of the Government on the hunger-related deaths - it is in a stout denial mode - angers people even more.
Meanwhile, the Centre does its bit to make things difficult. All the rules about relief and other programmes that have been waived for Gujarat are in full force here, But then, Gujarat has a Bharatiya Janata Party government and Rajasthan a Congress(I) one. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has written repeatedly to the Union Food Minister and to the Prime Minister appealing that the Centre's surplus stocks be used in food for work programmes. One letter points to the irony of foodgrain being exported while such a situation exists at home. His approach has been met with charges that the State Government has failed to do its job. Since this is also true, things become more complex.
While such charges are freely traded, there is little doubt that the Central Government is moving with studied political cynicism. The contrast with Gujarat is striking. However, top officials in Rajasthan have also been told that while the Minister Shanta Kumar was amenable to Gehlot's suggestions, the Finance Ministry has objected to such large-scale use of the foodgrain. Never mind that some of that grain is going bad anyway. Given the ideological mindset driving that Ministry, this seems likely. How else do we explain the pile up of grain even as hunger spreads?
Elsewhere, the Government finds itself facing tens of thousands of angry farmers, led by the Kisan Sabha. The farmers are furious with huge power failures at the peak of the rabi work and there have been clashes between them and the police.
Again, the market fundamentalism of the 1990s seems to have played its part in the power crisis. Like in many other States, spending on bijli was drastically reduced in the 1990s, a move led here by the then BJP government - which the Congress(I) has not reversed. The ruling theology of the day was that the private sector would step in and solve the problem.
Like in many other States, this has simply not happened. The private sector did not step in. But the State's potential to generate power has been sharply undermined in the process. Rajasthan now pays the price of that strategy.
A study by the NGO Astha on the impact of structural adjustment programmes and new economic policies is revealing. Done across 10 districts of Rajasthan, it shows how these have impacted on the poor in many other ways. Among other things: development expenditure declined by nearly 20 per cent between 1995-96 and 1997-98. Government spending on health shows a serious urban bias. Rural water supply allocations are declining.
"The Government's dogmatic obsession with cutting spending has had obvious results," says Nesar Ahmed, main author of the study's final report. "The neo-liberal economic theory in force will result in more social sector cuts. Fewer work days is one obvious result of the overall trend."
The NGOs, too, though, have questions to answer. With some 300 well-funded groups in Udaipur and several in Kotada, their impact on the ground - with very few exceptions - seems negligible. The deaths still happened and the distress grows.
Now where does all this leave drought-as-villain? "Sarkar is accused No. 1," says Laaduram Parihar of the Adivasi Vikas Manch. "The drought is bad, but their policies worse".
Is Udaipur all that poor? "The marble stone of this region generates countless crores of rupees," points out B. L. Singhvi, CPI-M Secretary, Udaipur. "Since they are in scheduled areas, the marble quarries belong to the tribals - in theory. In reality, the trade is completely cornered by merchants. The tribals cannot afford to buy fodder for their animals which are dying. Come April-May, those in the hide trade will be lakhpatis."
As Shankar Singh of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan put it to us much earlier: "bhilon ke ghar mein akal hamesha rehta hain".
In the homes of the adivasis, you will always find drought and famine.