TBI Blogs: How the Supreme Court Came to the Rescue of India’s Drought Victims

Drought is a severe problem for large swathes of India, and despite existing mechanisms and machinery to tackle its effects, it continues to be a grave problem, especially in rural India. Yashaswini Mittal explores the recent Supreme Court directives on Drought Management and how they’ll help India tackle drought in the future.

The year 2017 began on a rather tragic note for several states in South India. On January 10, the Tamil Nadu Government declared drought within the State, owing to a large number of farmer suicides. The North-East Monsoon rains had been grossly inadequate in late 2016, resulting in widespread crop failure and farmer suicides. But the cloud of drought had a silver lining—the intervention of the Supreme Court to ensure that the Central and State Governments remain alive to their duties to citizens, particularly in future natural disasters that may occur.

The Onset of Drought

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According to the National Crime Records Bureau, farmer suicides have been up by almost 42 % in 2015. While the number of suicides in 2016 is yet to be tabulated, scarce rainfall for the past two consecutive years appears to be the primary cause for the rise in suicides among farmers.

Since approximately 18 % of the Indian population depends on agriculture for its livelihood, nearly a quarter of the country’s population—mostly rural farmers—rely heavily on rainwater for the growth of their crop. However, scarce rainfall results in the failure of crop and a loss of income for several of these farmers, forcing them and their families to go without food and water for days. While several farmers feel compelled to end their lives, rather than see their children go hungry, several others slip into depression and lose all motivation to work.

During this difficult time, the Central and State Governments have an important duty to alleviate the problems of the farmers by providing relief in the form of food and avenues for generating income. To this end, a number of statutes have been enacted by the Indian Parliament for spelling out the course of action that must be followed in all situations involving drought. However, the implementation of these statutes has proved to be disparagingly insufficient in providing respite to the victims of the drought.

Management of drought under laws

Situations of drought squarely fall within the definition of ‘disaster’ under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (“DM Act”). The DM Act endeavours to create financial as well as institutional capacity within the government at the Central level, State level, and the District level to effectively tackle disasters. However, despite having been enacted more than a decade ago, the provisions of the DM Act are yet to be fully implemented.

The National Food Security Act, 2013 (“NFS Act”) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (“NREGA”) are also required to ensure adequate access to affordable food grains and employment opportunities respectively for families in drought-affected areas. While the NFS Act and NREGA do not explicitly refer to situations of drought within their text, their application to drought-affected areas is of particular importance for fulfilling their objectives towards promoting social welfare. However, the application of these laws to drought-affected areas has often been paid no heed.

Petition before the Supreme Court

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In view of these lapses, Swaraj Abhiyan, a socio-political organisation, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court of India, alleging breach of statutory obligations by the Central and State Governments in managing situations of drought and providing relief to drought-affected persons, including farmers. Given the nature of PILs in India, this petition intended to hold the Central and State Governments accountable for failing to adequately utilise statutory machinery to tackle recurring disasters such as drought, which impact a large proportion of the population every year.

While calling out the government for doing very little to effectively tackle drought, the Supreme Court made a number of key observations in the case. The Court found several State Governments to be reluctant in declaring the existence of drought itself within their respective States. This made it difficult to ensure timely action to mitigate the impact of the disaster. The institutional and financial machinery under the DM Act was also found to either be ineffective or non-existent. Furthermore, the Court found support under the NFS Act, 2013, NREGA, 2005, and various other schemes to be gravely insufficient.

Taking note of these findings, the Court passed a number of important directions to the Central and State Governments. These will, hopefully, provide much-needed respite to the persons affected by drought. The Court held that finances could not be an excuse for tardiness in disaster management and mitigation efforts. The Court also went on to pass specific directions. Under the DM Act, the government must frame a National Disaster Management Plan. It must also extend mid-day meals to summer and provide rations to drought-affected families under the NFS Act. Furthermore, authorities must include 50 additional work days under the NREGA scheme in drought-affected areas.

Developments post the judgement

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The pronouncement of the judgment led a number of developments in 2016. The Prime Minister released the first ever National Disaster Management Plan (‘NDMP’) in June, 2016 (shortly after the judgement). Covering all phases of disaster management, the NDMP also proposes horizontal and vertical integration of all government agencies and departments. The Plan also vests important functions in rural and urban local bodies delivering funds and benefits on the ground.

The Union Government has also separately issued notifications for extending 50 additional days to drought-affected regions under NREGA. It also wants to extend mid-day meal schemes to eligible school children in summer in drought-affected areas. A number of other large-scale efforts are also underway by the Ministry of Agriculture. These include the implementation of the fodder development plan and crop contingency plan.

From these developments, the government seems to have complied with the Court’s directions, on paper. However, it will take some time to make an informed assessment of the impact of the judgement on the ground. Regardless, clearly, the government wants to make amends and address the plight of drought-affected families, especially rural farmers. The fruits of these efforts will promise food and livelihood for farmers in drought-affected areas. They also serve as a strong reason to dissuade them from ending their life. In other words, the first step towards building a better, more humane India from the embers of disaster.

(The author is a Research Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.)

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Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy is an independent think-tank doing legal research, and assisting the government in making better laws.

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