While participating in a seminar on climate change in August last year, I asked officials of the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) to expand their focus to drought.
In fact, for decades, I have been constantly trying to draw the Odisha government’s attention to the issue of drought, which has been the most silent but dangerous natural calamity for Odisha as well as the country.
The officials tried to convince me that since the drought was the domain of the revenue and agriculture departments, the OSDMA could do nothing about it.
OSDMA, one of the first state-level authorities to be formed in the country after the Disaster Management Act (DM Act) came into force in 2005, has been focusing its attention on cyclones and flood types of sudden disasters and not the slow and gradual disasters such as drought.
In February, however, it was reported that OSDMA will be entrusted with drought management from this year onward. Perhaps my suggestions were taken note of!
The question now is, will the management of drought be more effective under the OSDMA for Odisha or for that matter other states under such bodies formed under DM Act?”
The recent historic judgment of the Supreme Court exposing the reality of mismanagement of drought in the country does not make us much hopeful about that.
The SC judgment on the petition of the Swaraj Abhiyan begins with a quote by Lokmanya Tilak that says, “The problem is not lack of resources or capability, but the lack of will.”
The SC has found out a clear lack of ‘will’ from the states in acknowledging the problems, let alone responding to drought. It was referring to states such as Bihar, Gujarat, and Haryana which almost refused to acknowledge the crisis.
The apex court commented: “Possible drought-like situation usually belongs to the most vulnerable sections of society. The sound of silence coming from these states subjects the vulnerable to further distress.”
Drought management efforts mostly begin only after drought is declared and efforts are largely limited to relief measures that do not really compensate the loss, nor does cater to mitigation in a strategic manner.
The court has pointed out a lot of loopholes in current drought management practices and shows how the existing mechanisms have failed in tackling this disaster in the country.
The DM Act 2005, that has been the statute book for disaster management, has also not been taken seriously.
The court finds out that despite much importance laid down in the Act for the formulation of a national plan for disaster management, no such plan has been formulated so far.
The court further observes that despite the requirement of the formulation of a National Disaster Response Force, under the Act, for the purposes of specialist response to a potential disaster or disaster, such a force has not been constituted yet.
The court seems further convinced that the central government is not doing much for mitigation of drought as a disaster when it remarks, “Although, the DM Act has been in force for more than 10 years, the National Disaster Mitigation Fund has not yet been constituted. There is, therefore, no provision for the mitigation of a disaster.”
The NDMF under the Act was to be formed to support projects exclusively for mitigation purposes.
The Centre and the states have engaged in political battles only around “declaration of drought and relief” rather than caring for real mitigation.
In scathing remarks the court says, “Evidently, anticipating a disaster such as a drought is not yet in the ‘things to do’ list of the Union of India and ad hoc measures and knee jerk reactions are the order of the day and will continue to be so until the provisions of the Disaster Management Act are faithfully implemented.”
In April, Uma Bharti, the central government’s minister for water resources, had said something completely opposite to what the apex court has said now. “Drought is a phenomenon for which it’s pointless to plan in advance,” she had said in defence of criticisms against the government on Maharashtra’s acute water scarcity this year.
Bharti and the central government need to take a U-turn on this thinking because drought is a disaster that is silently yet consistently increasing its grip over the country and needs the maximum preparations.
(Ranjan Panda is an Indian environmentalist, water and climate change expert. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).