The situation in mid-January is that the central government has so far released about ` 10,000 crores as drought relief to eight states. At the same time, however, earlier allocations for rural employment and nutrition were much below need, so overall there has been a funds crunch for initiating employment and nutrition work in drought affected villages. There is a sense of loss of hope among people, which in turn is leading to a very tragic situation including suicide.
It is very important to provide timely relief to people and to keep alive their hope and resilience. Recently, I spoke to people in many villages in Bundelkhand region (which is one of the worst affected regions) regarding their needs and requirements.
These villagers said with one voice that they badly needed employment in and near their villages. The government has a rural employment guarantee scheme in place, but it was shocking to know that in the villages where it was needed the most in the year 2015, this MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) was almost completely absent. In villages where people were being forced to migrate in huge numbers due to total lack of employment and income, we did not see any sign of work under this scheme. Why was this legislation enacted if it was not to be implemented in the most needy places during the most difficult times?
Another problem is that even when NREGA has been implemented on a small scale, those who worked at the employment sites did not get their wages in time. Now at the time of a serious drought when there are no food grains in stock at home, people need to be paid immediately for their work or else they will simply not survive. This is why people started migrating in large numbers.
So it is very important to implement rural employment guarantee scheme on a large scale and for the local administration to have enough ready funds for this. Also, the work should be of a kind that will help to genuinely improve soil and water conservation and agricultural productivity in the long term. For example, the work of field-ponds has been useful for many farmers. Strong steps should be taken to curb corruption and to ensure that these funds are utilised for genuine work.
The government should also clarify whether it is going to confine itself only to NREGA work (which is meant for normal times as well) or whether it will also initiate special drought relief work, including food for work. If the government is going to rely on NREGA, then it has to make necessary changes to ensure that payments are made to villagers, very quickly. Also, the standard of work cannot be very rigorous for villagers weakened greatly by hunger and malnutrition in a serious drought year. It may be necessary to start additional drought relief work in the more acutely drought affected areas like Bundelkhand and Marathwada.
Farmers of several villages to whom I spoke last December, said that they had not yet been paid the compensation for the very heavy damage caused to the kharif crop. They also complained that the compensation rates are decided in a very arbitrary way.
The greatest distress is in the families affected by suicides of farmers (or farm workers or other villagers). In their case, a significant help was promised but this has been paid to less than half of the affected families. The government should also ask the administrators to remain responsive to the needs of these families, as some of these families particularly widows have been facing many problems after the suicides.