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Drought in India Stirs an Echo of Grapes of Wrath

Tens of thousands of people are on the move in search of water, food and survival. Meager monsoons fail to mitigate searing heat.

January 26, 2003|Joydeep Ray | Associated Press Writer

GARUD SHAMLAJI, India — Jeeva Bhill remembers his neighbors' excitement as they rushed outside six months ago when rain fell on their parched land.

"But after a few drops that night, from the next morning, there was no rain at all," said Bhill, who is among hordes of Indians who have been forced by a severe drought to abandon their farms and look for other lines of work. Of the 14,000 people in his village, Poshina, all but a few hundred have left.

It's a story heard across 14 of India's 29 states, where scanty rains have dried up farmland. Tens of thousands of people are moving in search of water, food and survival, something not seen in India since the late 1980s.

Bhill, in his mid-40s, once lived in a three-room mud house and earned the equivalent of $90 a month by growing wheat and potatoes. After four years of poor rainfall in western Gujarat state, he left his arid farm in November.

Months of searing summer heat had dried seeds in the ground and soaked up ground water. The final blow was the inadequate monsoon: too little and too late.

In the part of Sabarkantha District where Bhill lives, 40% of the 104,000 people in 96 villages have migrated, said Lallubhai Desai, managing trustee of the Manav Kalyan Trust, which works with the poor.

In neighboring Banaskantha District, he said, 30,000 of the 79,000 people in 76 villages "have left their villages in search of food and water and also money, which can bring them food."

Bhill, his wife and two children tied up their clothes and a few utensils, and led four scrawny cows to a bigger village. He now works 13 hours a day, seven days a week, plowing another farmer's land. He has not visited his old village.

"How will I survive? How will I get my daughter married? What will my son do?" he said, sitting outside a small, windowless mud hut in Garud Shamlaji village. He earns 300 rupees a month, about $6, of which a third goes to repay a loan from his employer.

About two-thirds of India's 1 billion people earn their living from agriculture. Monsoon rains are crucial because irrigation systems are poorly developed and limited to rich farming regions.

Because of the drought, India's overall grain harvest for last year is expected to total about 10 million tons below the 2001 production of 200 million tons.

The government's warehoused grain -- about 53 million tons as of November -- does little to help the poor, whose purchasing power declines during droughts. Corruption in the network of 450,000 government-run grocery shops hampers distribution of subsidized, and even free, grain.

As tons of grain for people and cattle rotted in warehouses, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee urged Parliament a few weeks ago to help find a permanent solution to the problem.

"India produces enough grains to export and yet we hear reports of starvation deaths every year. There is something wrong with our approach," he said.

India has not had a full-blown famine since 3 million people died in 1943, before independence from Britain, although starvation deaths on a limited scale have been reported over the years. In the current crisis, newspapers say more than a dozen people have died of hunger.

Opposition parties accuse the government of "lethargic and insensitive" handling of the drought.

There has been no disaster declaration, and regional leaders routinely say any deaths are due to some other cause. Asked about reports of people eating boiled leaves or grass seeds, some officials have said that is a traditional diet in some places.

Of the $2.1 billion in relief promised by the federal government in November, half is supposed to be cash for state administrations to run jobs and food-for-work programs, and the rest grain and cereal for distribution to the needy.

Bhill says that won't help him. "Even if I work in government programs, I will get the same amount of money. Also, I will have to pay officials so that I actually get my salary. I'm better off here."

Bribery, corruption and siphoning off money are regular practices at all levels of government in India.

Some poor villagers have become highway thieves: They hurl huge stones at cars to stop them, then rob the travelers.

"There is nothing to eat and no work. People attack cars and take away what they can. It is only going to get worse," said Desai, the aid worker.

Bhill sees a gloomy future: "I was happy taking wheat and potatoes from my land to sell in the market. Now I feel that all my life I'll be paying back my loan."

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