The story is forgotten. At a time when much of India was faced with a food shortage, the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri had urged the nation to fast on Mondays. The year was 1965. It was a year of drought and India was largely dependent on food imports.
It wasn’t as if everyone in the country at that time was sleeping hungry. But Shashtri’s call for fasting on Mondays was primarily an expression of solidarity with the hungry millions. I don’t think the food saved was enough to even feed a fraction of the hungry population but the underlying message was loud and clear – the nation cared for its people and was willing to sacrifice its one day food so that it could be shared with those who were living in hunger.
Fifty years later, it actually required a directive from the Bombay High Court to shift 13 IPL cricket matches from a drought-hit Maharashtra for the “larger cause of the people”. The High Court certainly knew that the water saved from maintaining the cricket pitch would not even meet the daily requirement of people living in just one city – Latur – but the objective was primarily to give a strong message to the government that it “could not turn a blind eye to the plight of people”.
Picking up a cue, the Association of Hotels and Restaurants in Mumbai announced that it would henceforth appeal to customers not to expect their glasses to be filled up when they sit down in restaurant. They can simply pour water as much as they need from a jug kept on the table. This will ensure that they do not leave behind a half-filled glass which goes waste. Again, this step will not be enough to meet the thirst of people living in parched Maharashtra but is a reflection of the sensitivity towards the hardship being faced by fellow citizens.
That it required the Supreme Court to actually wake up the government to the plight and suffering of the people living in the drought-prone areas shows how insensitive the administration has become. An estimated 700 million people are reeling under a severe drought – the second in a row – and the government, as well as the mainline media, had remained oblivious to the grave crisis in the country’s hinterland. A significant proportion of 10 States was reeling under a back-to-back drought. Continuous dry spell had withered crops, forcing farmers to first abandon animals and then migrate as the misery compounded.
Several regions, including Marathwada in Maharashtra, were hit by drought for the third year in a row. Maharashtra had declared drought in 14,708 villages of the States 43,000 villages in October 2015 itself. As many as 127 talukas in 27 out of 30 districts of Karnataka were declared drought-hit in Sept 2015. In Andhra Pradesh, 196 mandals were declared drought-hit. The drought situation in some areas is still worse. Palamu district in Jharkhand has been faced with five drought years in a six year period. In Bundelkhand too, the story has been the same. The misery is lit large on the faces of the people reeling under drought.
At least for past four years, news reports of drought have been pouring in from Bundelkhand region – which falls in both Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. When dry spell accentuates, cattle are the first to be affected. With women putting a tilak on the forehead of cows, touching their feet, and letting them free is the usual practice that I have seen. After the cattle are gone, and with dry spell worsening, the sources of drinking water dry. Women and men spend most of their time walking distances to collect bucket-full of drinking water. And when the crops wither away, migration is the only option left for farmers.
Reports of Section 144 imposed in areas where water is being supplied by tankers in Latur in Maharashtra have only shown how precarious is the situation arising from non-availability of drinking water. Requirement of water for daily chores like washing of clothes and bathing almost dries up putting people to tremendous hardship. People living in cities, who get water whenever they open the tap or fetch cold water from the refrigerators at will, have no inkling how severe is the crisis and how difficult it becomes to survive when there is no water available for days at length. I remember in one of my recent travels in the Bundelkhand region to visit a farmer’s family I expressed desire to take a bath. The lady of the house politely told me to eat another ladoo but not to talk of bathing !
Travelling through most of the drought-affected states in the last few months I am appalled to find the disconnect that prevails. Bangalore, Karnataka’s state headquarter, does not give any indication of a severe drought that afflicts more than 80 per cent of the state’s area. Similarly, travelling through Mumbai you do not get even the slightest indication of a grave water crisis that prevails for the past two years in the state. People in cities have no inkling of the miserable conditions in their own backyard. They believe that the drought reports they read in the newspapers are stories of sufferings in Ethiopia.
At this time of acute hardship, the nation must stand in solidarity with bulk of the population crying for every single drop of water. Like the Mumbai restaurants, I expect the hotels, including five-star hotels, to announce immediate measures to reduce water consumption. At least they can request customers to stop using bath tubs and rely only on showers for bathing purposes. Similarly, golf clubs can also be shut for at least three days a week, with the managements announcing launch of mandatory water harvesting structures in golf courses. Swimming pools too should be kept closed during the crisis period. Washing of cars and watering of gardens should come under restriction.
Several other steps are needed to be taken by schools, colleges, government establishments etc to conserve water as much as possible. Drought is a natural calamity and the nation must stand with those who are living with it. Obscene usage of water must be curbed at any cost. But I wonder what would have Lal Bahadur Shashtri done to drum up compassion in an otherwise insensitive nation towards the grave water crisis if he were alive today.