In the event of a drought, the buck stops with the Union government.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday strongly indicted the Centre in the first part of its judgement on a public interest litigation that sought relief for nearly 50 crore people affected by drought and water shortages in a third of the country.

In a 53-page order, the judges noted that despite ten states already being in the grip of drought last October, the Modi government had failed to take adequate preparatory measures, and had relied on “ad hoc measures and knee-jerk reactions”.

State governments were not spared either in the judgement on the PIL filed by political organisation Swaraj Abhiyan. The court criticised the Gujarat, Haryana, and Bihar state governments for their “ostrich-like attitude” and questioned why they had ignored the central government's monthly monitoring reports, and failed to declare a drought at all, or failed to declare it on time last October when adequate data was available.

The order calls upon the Union government to be "financially liberal", and noted that the Centre "cannot totally wash its hands off".

Said petitioner Yogendra Yadav of the Swaraj Abhiyan: "The court's order makes it clear that the Centre cannot escape responsibility. The details of the order represent a paradigm shift from a colonial mindset of basic relief to a constitutional order of people's rights and entitlements."

Detailed framework

Noting that there was a need for judicial intervention in the matter since otherwise “it is the common person who will suffer and be in distress because of a situation not of his or her making”, the bench comprising Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice NV Ramana on Wednesday gave eight specific instructions to the central government to effectively implement the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

The order recommended updating the legal framework and adopting new technologies, and instructed the central government to constitute a specialised National Disaster Response Force within six months, establish a National Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months, and to draw up the National Disaster Plan at the earliest.

It directed the Agriculture Secretary in the central government to hold a meeting with chief secretaries of Gujarat, Haryana, and Bihar within a week to review the data on the situation in villages in these states, and to persuade them to declare a drought in the relevant district or block.

“It should be emphasised that there is no loss of face or prestige or dignity in the State Government declaring a drought if it is warranted, although succour to the distressed might be too late in the day,” the judges noted. With sustained poor rainfall in these states till last October and with little relief, vulnerable families may already have had to migrate in distress to other areas.

Declaring a drought

The central and state governments have admitted to a drought in 234 districts, representing more than a third of the districts in the country. The total population in the drought-affected districts is about 33 crore, or one-fourth of the population of the country. Swaraj Abhiyan has contended that including the population in affected parts of Gujarat, Haryana, Bihar, takes the figure to between 40 crore and above 50 crore, which is at least a third of the population.

Commenting in The Indian Express, Harish Damodaran has explained that though drought and water shortages are affecting a large number of rural population and rural producers, the urban consumers are largely insulated by the effects of the drought because of the current low global food prices.

In such a situation, it is relevant that the Supreme Court has noted that to push central and state governments to act will “require that elbow room available to each state enabling it to decline declaring a drought [even though it exists] should be minimised”.

Further, the order notes, citing the shortcomings in the practices adopted by Gujarat, Haryana, Bihar, the Ministry of Agriculture may reduce the possibility of arbitrariness on the part of states in declaration of drought by bringing in more specific norms to the revised manual for method, time, and nomenclature of drought. For instance, it suggests laying down the weightage of each of the four key factors – rainfall, storage water levels in reservoirs, surface water and ground water level, and sowing and crop conditions – in the states' assessment. It refers to the term "semi-scarcity" used by Gujarat to suggest that a uniform term for drought be used by states.

Since the court's initial orders dealt primarily with legal and methodological issues on monitoring and declaring a drought, it may have little immediate impact on relief, but will have significant implications for how Union and state governments deal with droughts.

The rest of the judgement, which is expected to address additional food grains, assured work as part of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, mid-day meals, fodder, crop loss compensation, and loan restructuring, is likely to be delivered over the next two days, said the petitioners.