The Modi government will soon complete two years in power. Though this is not a report card of the government’s performance in these two years, some key facts in the economic realm stand out. Detractors of the Modi government would argue that the Achche Din he promised are nowhere in sight, but his supporters would point to some of the important schemes implemented — JAM (Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and mobile), Make in India, Start-up India, Stand-up India, and so on. The monsoon has also failed in the last two years though, despite that, the country has posted growth of more than 7 per cent, which, of course, the government will point to as its major achievement.
The one area in which the Centre has been found most wanting is its handling of the drought, which has hit major parts of the country. Though the Supreme Court has often been criticised for judicial overreach, it was spot on when it severely criticised the Centre for its indifferent attitude towards the unfolding tragedy of drought on a petition filed by NGO Swaraj Abhiyan.
Federalism as excuse
But the apex court did not just target the Centre, it had some stinging words for the State governments too. It said the drought had affected 33 crore people in the country and accused the Centre of passing the buck to the States under the garb of federalism. The Supreme Court said: “The ostensible purpose of introducing this concept (of federalism) is to enable the Union of India to wash its hands of matters concerning drought declaration and give enough elbow room to a State government to decide whether to declare a drought or not.”
It was particularly critical of the Gujarat, Haryana and Bihar governments for their unwillingness to declare a drought, accusing them of an “ostrich-like attitude”.
The Supreme Court wanted the government to establish a National Disaster Response Force in six months and a Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months. It also suggested that the government update the 60-year old Drought Management Manual, keeping in mind “humanitarian factors” such as migration, suicides, and the plight of women and children.
Not the first
In the past, the Supreme Court has come down hard on both the NDA and UPA governments’ food policies and had directed them to distribute the foodgrains lying in FCI godowns to poor people at very low or no cost.
Activist and economist Jean Dreze, one of the architects of the MGNREGA, wrote in a recent newspaper article that the easiest way of mitigating a drought is to expand rural jobs schemes like MGNREGA and provide food through the Public Distribution System (PDS). He was very critical of the Centre’s attitude towards the MGNREGA scheme, and added that the amount of money that the government had pumped into the scheme was grossly inadequate, given the wage arrears that have been mounting over the years.
Dreze also argues that a well-managed PDS is a safeguard against starvation. It is here that States such as Tamil Nadu, which has a reasonably well-functioning universal PDS system, score over other States where the PDS is beset with leakages, corruption and bogus ration cards.
In a recent article Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Abhiyan wrote that during the hearing of the petition it filed in the Supreme Court, the Centre had conceded that it had failed to fulfil many of its obligations. Yadav contends that the Centre did not even know the correct number of people affected by the drought and had delayed releasing funds from the National Disaster Response Fund to States.
Like Dreze, Yadav is also critical of the Centre’s tardiness and lackadaisical implementation of MGNREGA, especially regarding release of funds for wage payments.
The Supreme Court has directed the Centre to release all the “necessary and outstanding funds” of the MGNREGA scheme to States and also directed it to pay compensation for the delayed wage payments to farmers in drought-hit areas.
One hopes that the Supreme Court’s stinging criticism stirs the Centre into action. Apart from the moral and human dimensions of the issue of drought, politically too it would make immense sense for the BJP and SP to speed up relief in Uttar Pradesh, given that the Assembly elections are due in the politically sensitive State next year. For the BJP, the stakes are particularly high after last year’s drubbing in the Bihar Assembly elections.