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May 3, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

But the aircraft carrier is free

The figure I remember well is Rs 5 billion. When a cyclone slammed into Orissa last October, it touched off weeks of wrangling in which this sum figured regularly. Apparently this was the amount of emergency aid the Orissa government had asked the Centre for, or the amount the Centre promised Orissa, or something. I don't know if there is any evidence of how, or whether, it was actually spent on Orissa cyclone relief. As you can see, the number has burned itself into my brain more permanently than the tangle surrounding it did. Still, that's the amount making the rounds then.

I remembered this figure last Sunday. In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke about another disaster that is upon us today: the drought in large sections of the country. He was at his eloquent best: "In village after village, hunger stalks men, women and children. More than fifty million have been affected by the drought. They can only stare at the parched earth and hope that this year the monsoon will not elude them."

Given the awful situation, Vajpayee appealed to Indians to "come forward to lend a helping hand. ... You can help by contributing money, no matter how small the amount." He explained that "the Centre has been releasing funds from the National Fund for Calamity Relief and other schemes, but given the severity of the drought and the large number of people and cattle who need to be provided with food and fodder, these funds are inadequate."

That's when I remembered the Rs 5 billion. It's not clear exactly how much money the states are asking for from the Centre to tackle the drought. But since this is the figure that was discussed after the cyclone, it seems reasonable that some similar amount will be bandied about now in the wake of the drought. That is, we can assume that Vajpayee is appealing to all of us to contribute so as to put together a sum of about Rs 5 billion to help the victims of the drought.

Noble enough, no doubt; and if I was less cynical about Minister's Relief Funds than I am, I might even have shot off a cheque in response to our PM's appeal, adding my few drops to his Relief Fund.

But then I find a report in The Statesman from only three days after the PM made that appeal. 'India shops for $3 billion military equipment from Russia', it says. Apparently we are finalising the details on a package from Russia that includes: 40 Mig-29 fighters at Rs 1.2 billion each; 300 tanks at about Rs 150 million each; an aircraft carrier which "was actually offered free" except that "$1 billion [is to be] charged for refurbishing and fitting new equipment".

Free, that is, after we pay a billion dollars for it.

Free offers that aren't free aside, this report and these numbers only served to put our eloquent PM's eloquence in perspective. Millions of people in his country are desperate for a few drops of water, but his government is buying vast piles of military hardware from Russia. He appeals to us to contribute our money to help those desperate Indians, "no matter how small the amount", but is spending huge amounts of our money on tanks and planes and boats.

I mean, think about it. A mere 4 less of those 40 Mig-29 fighters would add up to the Rs 5 billion figure I made a point of above. Or a mere 30 less of those 300 tanks. No doubt the PM and his fans will make noises about national security, but could anything -- anything -- be more insecure than the lives of millions of Indians faced with destitution and death today because they have no water? Especially when a mere tenth of what we are spending on this one Russian arms deal can bring relief to those millions? Especially when our PM implores us to contribute, "no matter how small the amount"?

The PM could easily have said: OK, we'll make do with 4 less MiGs. Let's use the money saved to take water to Indians suffering from the drought. But he didn't. Is there something galling and obscene, then, about the PM making an appeal for our contributions as he did?


And yet, the real tragedy is hardly Russian toys for our government's big boys. It is that the dreary history of drought in our country tells one story above all: this drought is hardly a natural calamity. It is a certifiable, authentic, in-your-face, government-made disaster. It is the result of the whole focus the government has had over the years to meet demands for water: the extraction of groundwater via tubewells and the exploitation of surface water through dams. These are now the ways most Indians get their water. And they have their limits, which is what we are seeing in this drought.

Forgotten is the simple technique we once knew and practised in the communities we live in: collecting rainwater, which brings down on us several times the water that aquifers and rivers supply. No, today we have subsided into a complacent, debilitating dependence on government to supply us with water.

Take Gujarat. All of that state, including areas like Kutch and Saurashtra that suffer from drought, averages 50cm of rain annually. There are estimates that rain brings Kutch and Saurashtra eight times the amount of water that the plans for damming the Narmada river will. Imagine the ways we might transform the lives of people in those parched areas by gathering and using the water that falls out of the sky.

Instead we have embarked on massive projects to dam that river. We have had parallel massive efforts to persuade Gujarat that a dam, built by their government, is their only hope for water. So enormously successful has this persuasion been that most of Gujarat reacts with anger and betrayal to the mere suggestion that we might consider quicker, cheaper and more immediately effective answers than a dam: like gathering rainwater. They swallow without question the perverse notion -- propounded by the same government -- that such a suggestion is made by people who actually want to deprive them of water.

So complete is this persuasion, this faith in government promise, that there is little outrage when the government reveals, as it sometimes does, its mirage-like plans for water. Consider a letter from N Suryanarayanan, commissioner in the Government of India's ministry of water resources, to Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Writing on December 2, 1992, Suryanarayan said: "The [dam] will reduce substantially the distress due to drought in Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat by say 2025 AD."

"Say 2025 AD": a revealing little phrase indeed.

The commissioner was talking about a time 33 years -- a full generation -- in the future when he wrote that letter. He was entirely serious, too. Is it any wonder, then, that people who live in those areas of Gujarat suffer drought today, and nearly very year? Yet something as simple as collecting rainwater there could make a difference, even "substantially", right now. No need to wait a generation.

So whether I'm cynical or not, I refuse to respond to our PM's appeal by sending money to his fund. For one thing, the Russian arms purchase tells me all I need to know about his real desire to help victims of drought. For another, the things governments spend money on -- yes, tanks and planes included, as well as a "free" boat -- only keep droughts coming back every year. For a third, I don't want to wait 33 years.

I imagine the Indians suffering the dearth of water today, suffering as you read this, don't want to wait that long either.

Dilip D'Souza

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