When the declaration of drought becomes an arbitrary exercise based on political considerations, it is the poorest who suffer.

The Supreme Court is soon expected to deliver its order on a Public Interest Litigation filed by political organisation Swaraj Abhiyan urging the court to order states to declare drought in affected areas so that immediate relief could be provided to all affected groups. The apex court concluded its hearing on the issue last week.

In its petition, the Swaraj Abhiyan pointed out that only 10 states had declared drought – complete or partial. But these states used relief funds to only partially compensate farmers for crop losses from inadequate rains in the last two years. Most did not institute measures to assist the rural poor in battling severe malnutrition from a fall in income, distress migration, fodder shortages and increasing debt burden in a difficult year. The petitioners also claimed that the states of Gujarat, Haryana and Bihar had not declared drought despite having a rainfall deficit, causing great hardship to people.

Though Gujarat has since declared 994 villages in five districts as affected by “semi-scarcity”, which is determined by crop yield, Haryana is yet to declare drought in four districts along its border with Rajasthan, despite farmers reporting a water crisis.

“Semi scarcity” in Gujarat

Upon admitting the PIL last December, the apex court issued notices to the Centre and 11 states.

In an affidavit, the Gujarat government denied that the poor were facing any hardship due to drought as there was “multi-dimensional development” in the state. The affidavit stated:

“..Skilled and unskilled labourers are getting employment through agriculture and agro related activities, industrial sector, urban occupation, artisan works etc. No question of unemployment or migration of labour exists in the state due to drought.”

The ministry of agriculture’s manual for drought management recommends that states may declare drought based on data on rainfall deficiency, area sown, vegetation, and moisture index, using any three of these indices. It identifies rainfall as the most important indicator and says that states should declare drought within a month of the completion of the monsoon if there was a shortfall in rainfall, accompanied by vegetation or/and soil moisture inadequacy. The manual says that a shortfall was if the total rainfall received during the months of June and July was less than 50% of the average rainfall for these two months, or if the total rainfall for the entire duration of the rainy season of the state was less than 75% of the average rainfall for the season.

The Gujarat government told the apex court that the state had received more than this level of rainfall. However, the Swaraj Abhiyan said that instead of looking at the state average, an examination of regional levels of rainfall revealed that east and south Gujarat had received only 58% and 66% of average seasonal rainfall, and eight districts within these regions experienced less than 60% rainfall, lower than the levels mentioned in the drought manual.

Gujarat then filed another affidavit claiming that only areas with rainfall less than 125 mm (5 inches) a year could be said to be affected by drought. But the Swaraj Abhiyan argued that if that cut-off was to be taken into consideration, almost no part of the country would ever have faced a drought.

Besides rainfall data, Gujarat said that it also relied on evidence from the anavari method, a traditional system in which a village-level committee evaluates the proportion of good crops based on a visual estimation. But this data was not available since harvesting was not yet over, it stated. Later in April, while the case was still being heard, Gujarat submitted that it had declared 623 villages in three districts as affected by “semi scarcity”, and that those villages would get fodder at lower rates.

The petitioners, however, said that under the anavari system Gujarat had kept a high threshold of 75% crop loss for an area to be classified as semi-scarcity, while national disaster relief fund norms recommended compensation if more than 33% crops had been damaged.

“The anavari details they submitted showed how arbitrarily villages were being marked as drought-hit or not,” said lawyer and Swaraj Abhiyan leader Prashant Bhushan. “In one block, all villages are marked as having crops affected by drought, while in the next, not a single village is. It is as if drought follows administrative boundaries.”

By the final hearing in May, Gujarat had declared “semi scarcity” in 994 villages spread over five districts – 343 villages in Jamnagar, 157 in Rajkot, 301 villages in Kutch, 129 villages in Dwarka, and 64 villages in Porbandar.

But there’s little in common with Gujarat’s list of “semi-scarcity” areas and the Agricultural Drought Assessment Report of October 2015 for the state prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre. This report identified Bharuch, Surendranagar, and Porbandar as being in the “moderate drought” category, a term the ministry uses to classify the worst level of drought.

Besides rainfall data, the Gujarat government presented before the court irrigation potential through major and minor irrigation works including the Sardar Sarovar dam project, which is expected to irrigate 17.9 lakh hectares. But the judges did not buy that, questioning how irrigation projections could bring relief to farmers facing crop failures right now. For instance, the Sardar Sarovar project irrigated only 2.09 lakh hectares in 2014-’15, a fraction of its irrigation potential.

Mahesh Pandya, an environmental activist in Ahmedabad, flagged even this number. Using data presented by the government during the 2016 budget session, he showed that the figure of 2.09 lakh hectares under irrigation through the Sardar Sarovar dam project had remained the same since 2012. He said this was because the Gujarat government has failed to build sub-branch canals that will take the Narmada waters to fields.

“The government wants to give Sardar Sarovar’s water to industry as top priority, not for agriculture, or drinking water,” said Pandya. “This is why it focused on completing the main canal but almost abandoned building the sub branches.” He added that Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel had in December told farmers to not expect any irrigation for their summer crop because there was a shortfall of rain.

Sagar Rabri, a farmer activist with Gujarat Khedut Samj, said the state government was suppressing information and not just the few districts classified as “semi-scarcity” areas, but several other parts of Dang, Panchmahal, Amreli, Bhavnagar, and areas neighbouring Ahmedabad were facing severe water shortages.

Haryana in denial too

The Haryana government failed to provide adequate data in its first affidavit in the Supreme Court with regard to the PIL. The court refused to admit a second submission.

In its October 2015 report, the Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre had identified drought in four districts in Haryana – Bhiwani, Hisar, Mahendragarh, Rohtak. However, the state government is yet to identify any district as drought affected. It is also yet to provide any relief to farmers in the state’s arid areas bordering Rajasthan. The petitioners pointed out that despite satellite technology, and monthly reports being available from the ministry of agriculture, Haryana had failed to declare drought.

"In court, Haryana denied that these districts are drought affected," said Bhushan. "But these are precisely the thirsty districts for which the Haryana government has been demanding water from the Beas through the Satluj-Yamuna Link canal in another case in the Supreme Court."

Ramesh Kumar, a farmer and political activist in Haryana said that in Bhiwani and Mahendragarh, villagers did not have enough drinking water. "Every year, the water table falls a further 50-60 feet," said Kumar. "Even canals have dried up. But state government is denying it because they make policies sitting in palaces."

In the case of Bihar, the state government too presented state average figures for rainfall data, and this was high because the state experiences both floods and droughts in different parts. But district level data showed medium-category water shortages in some districts.

Swaraj Abhiyan leader and academic Yogendra Yadav said the resistance by states towards declaring drought was because they wished to avoid legally-binding commitments. "The declaration of drought is arbitrary and based on political calculations of patronage," said Yadav.