Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Amita Baviskar - Made in India: The drought is no longer a natural disaster

Doing research in Alirajpur in southwest Madhya Pradesh in 1990, I heard old Adivasis recount stories of the Chhappania Akal (in Vikram Samvat 1956) that defined their grandparents' lives. This was the great famine of 1899-1900, when Alirajpur, along with the rest of the Indian subcontinent, distant China and remote Brazil, was subject to a meteorological crisis brought on by an El Nino oscillation in the Pacific. Between 1876 and 1902, El Niño caused three such synchronous waves of drought, claiming 50 million lives.

Death and devastation are always tragic. But this carnage was criminal, and unforgivably so. For even as the drought unfolded, it was evident the deaths could be prevented. Yet the government clung to policies that worsened the crisis. Historian Mike Davis documents how the natural scarcity caused by El Nino created catastrophic effects because of a colonial political economy. His book Late Victorian Holocausts argues that people in places like Alirajpur had survived previous droughts by fine-tuning farming practices and crafted social webs of mutual obligation that helped them weather uncertainties. 

This resilience was destroyed when they were colonised, forcibly thrust into the global market for cash crops, on terms of trade dictated by London, and with profits accumulated in the imperial country. In debt, denied state support, unable to withstand drought, millions of Indians died of starvation and disease. Davis notes that "in the very half-century when peacetime famine permanently disappeared from western Europe, it increased devastatingly throughout much of the colonial world".

The Chhappania Akal is worth remembering today because large parts of the country are experiencing something very similar. And the government in Delhi could well be living in London for all that it is doing about it.

In this third successive year of drought, emergency measures to provide drinking water to affected areas continue to be sporadic. Fodder and water for livestock remain scarce. Distress migration is escalating because programmes like NREGS that provide local employment and income have been gutted, with back wages unpaid and new works suspended. There is still no serious effort to regulate water supply to industries and restrict non-priority uses. Meanwhile, water mafias flourish: the borewell drillers and tanker owners that P. Sainath described so vividly in Everybody Loves a Good Drought carry on ripping off the rural poor, confident that their political backers will stand by them.

Every crisis is an opportunity. In the past, water scarcity was a constraint that inspired communities to conserve water, devising locally appropriate technologies to share resources. Rajasthan's baolis and Tamil Nadu's eris are just two of the many water harvesting systems that survive to this day. However, they have been sidelined by spectacular state projects such as large dams. The post-Independence epidemic of dam-building (India has the third highest number in the world) has left us with ruined riverine ecosystems, millions of displaced people and colossal wastage of water for modest gains. 

The same builder-bureaucrat consortium that backs big dams is trying its utmost to push through an even more grandiose scheme for interlinking rivers. The estimated economic and social costs of this project are mind-boggling. As is the hubris of assuming that complex river basin ecologies can be treated like plumbing: a matter of installing an elbow joint here and turning a tap there. But can a government bent upon accelerating mining in forested hills that form the catchment of peninsular rivers be expected to grasp this basic truth?

A government that understands the importance of ecology and equity could do so much! These are complex issues but, to start with, it could:

  • Prioritise public spending on local watershed development in rain-fed areas. NREGS partnerships between state governments, villagers and NGOs such as the Samaj Pragati Sahyog and Dhan Foundation have dramatically improved the welfare of people and the land
  • Practise a mix of regulation and reward to make farmers and manufacturers, cities and towns, adopt water-efficient practices. (We now have programmes to improve energy efficiency; why not water?)
  • Protect forests and floodplains, lakes, wetlands and other catchments.
In the 19th century, drought could be described as a natural event and famine as caused by the failure of political and economic institutions. More than a hundred years later, drought is no longer natural. 

Our cars, planes and coal-fired power plants have induced climate change, amplifying the variability of the monsoons and melting the glaciers that feed our perennial rivers. And in areas where deep drilling has sucked ground-water dry, water scarcity is not a natural condition either. Drought and famine are both human-made. And our most vulnerable people and landscapes are at risk as never before.

Late Victorian Holocausts
In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis charts the unprecedented human suffering caused by a series of extreme climactic conditions in the final quarter of the 19th century. Drought and monsoons afflicted much of China, southern Africa, Brazil, Egypt and India. The death tolls were staggering: around 12m Chinese and over 6m Indians in 1876-1878 alone. The chief culprit, according to Davis, was not the weather, but European empires, with Japan and the US. Their imposition of free-market economics on the colonial world was tantamount to a "cultural genocide".