28th May 2000
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Drought in India: Water, water not everywhere

By Sidharth Bhatia
"The vultures were circling overhead": this was how a recent article in a news magazine began and then went on to give a grim description of the hellish conditions in the western parts of India, where entire villages are reeling under the impact of a "drought." The report talked about women having to walk upto 10 kilometres a day to collect a bucket of water, had photographs of cattle dying on the roads, and raised the spectre of mass migrations to the city in search of food and water.

Most newspapers, magazines and television programmes have been full of stories on this drought in parts of the country as the temperatures cross the 45 degrees C mark and wells dry up. The monsoons are still some weeks away and the lands are parched. Farmers are being forced to sell their fields and look for work, any work that will give them some food. The heart-wrenching situation even moved the Prime Minister to call for a meeting of other political parties to appeal for a joint effort to tackle this apparent calamity.

All very moving, but is it true? For some days, the nation and its media were gripped with "drought" mania and reporters were fanning out into villages to come back with stories of human suffering and bureaucratic apathy, but equally suddenly the reporting stopped. Not merely because the media, with its herd mentality, moved on to other stories, but also began skeptics began raising doubts about whether there was, indeed, a drought..

One irate letter writer pointed out that no photographer had yet shot a vulture anywhere. So was it all hype? 

According to the Oxford dictionary a drought is a "prolonged absence of rain", a perfectly straightforward description that leaves little room for misunderstanding. Going by that literal meaning, what is happening in western India could be called a drought, because the region has not seen rain for a long time.

But, that is not the entire truth. For one thing, the rains will arrive only when the monsoons begin in June. For another, parts of western India are chronically dry in any case and the people have become inured to living a cruel existence. Partly due to inherent geographical conditions and mainly because of poor water distribution ,the people of Gujarat and Rajasthan, to name two states, are perpetually short of that precious commodity, water. In the vast desert stretches of Rajasthan, entire communities move all the time in search of water during the summer.

So in that sense, what is happening in Indian villages is nothing new and has been going on for decades, even centuries. But that does not in any way lessen the ugly reality that vast numbers of Indians are without access to clean drinking water and even five decades after independence from British colonial rule, the basics have not been provided for. Year after year, officialdom puts in place grand plans to improve water distribution but that has not made an iota of difference to a substantial part of the country's population.

It may be somewhat unfair to put the blame on governments when it is the weather gods and the vagaries of monsoons that are create the problem in the first place. Deserts are chronically water-deficient areas and receive scanty rain, so what can the government do? Indeed, after reports of severe water shortages began appearing in the newspapers, the government machinery reacted swiftly and announced many relief measures for the affected areas.

But such steps are reactive rather than pro-active and are at best a mild palliative to what is an endemic problem. Critics allege that successive governments chose to neglect the situation unless it gets out of hand and then there is a flurry of activity wherein huge amounts of money are spent.

There is no advance planning, some analysts have claimed, pointing out that droughts do not just happen, they can be forecast months in advance. Last year, the government's agencies knew that though the monsoons last year had been good on the whole, there had been scanty rainfall in some areas and steps could have been taken to ensure that, come summer, these areas had access to water.

Even worse is the fear that groundwater resources are gradually depleting in many parts of India, and not merely in the drought-prone regions. In the capital, New Delhi, for example, it said that the water table is going down rapidly and where one could strike water at 70 feet, now one has to dig for over 200 feet before reaching a water source. Over-urbanisation and lack of water management is making parts of India water deficient and ironically, even regions that get a lot of rainfall often have very little drinking water.

Some non-governmental agencies have suggested that there be water harvesting, a relatively simple technique of collecting rainwater and then using it carefully throughout the dry season. The government is now paying attention and there are plans to start water harvesting in a big way. But such techniques can only touch the tip of the problem. What are needed are huge reservoirs of water that can meet needs of a rapidly growing population the year round. 

This is where big dams could be the answer, but mega-dam projects in India have been sharply attacked by critics who say they displace thousands of people and yet do not in the end meet their stated objective. There have been many legal cases against the country's most famous dam project in central and Western India and pressure groups have demanded that work on the dams be halted.

Clearly, it is an imbroglio that is becoming more and more difficult to solve and the situation is getting worse every year. Some very drastic solutions will have to be found to solve this terrible problem of water shortage, which will spread from rural to urban areas too. And then, say those who predict disaster scenarios in the future, there will be a real drought, not merely a media-generated one.

Police Problems

Reminiscing the golden days

Those of us who joined the police in April 1958 literally walked into a situation. The batch comprised 3 probationary ASPP, 27 P/sub-inspectors and about 750 recruit constables. We had not received much training when communal riots broke out in many parts of the country. That happened to be the first glimpse into the outcome of the Sinhala Only Act. 

The PTS Staff was drawn out for special duties in affected areas, sending our routine training programme for a six, and weren't we happy! Stanley Senanayake, the Director PTS had to overlook Kalutara District in addition to his charge of PTS. Fred Brohier, an ex-RAF Bomber-Pilot of World War II, who was the Assistant Director PTS, was called out for special duty and had to select some men from PTS for his assignment. 

We trainees were divided into groups of five with a P/SI in charge and a staff PC who was issued with a .303 rifle and 10 rounds of ammo. The Jeep track round the perimeter of the PTS complex was divided into short sections and each group was given a section to patrol on foot. 

We had orders to shoot on sight any curfew breaker trying to cross the jeep-track. The patrolling was so tight and keen not even an ant could have crossed the jeep-track untrampled.

The kick of it died slowly as we did not experience any 'action'. It was years later that I learnt, and that too from unconfirmed reports, that bodies of people killed in controversial shootings, such as David Silva of Payagala, had been buried on PTS land and some mischief-makers had been looking for the bodies. 

Training according to a routine programme was resumed as soon as the situation was brought under control and the PTS staff relieved special duties. We were passed out and harnessed for public duties only after we had acquired adequate training. Those who were not up to the mark at the time of the 'passing out' were retarded and sent out only after they proved themselves. 

In September 1958 I was posted to Galle Police Station, where I was to hear of the thrills of special duties during the Emergency. 

First and foremost, these special duties enable putting aside the drudgery of routine parades, inspections and instruction classes, and put into real practice what had been hitherto done over and over again, but only at drill practices. 

The public in Galle was still talking about the courage displayed by the Police. 

Special mention was made of the role played by the young P/ASP Ernest Perera dispersing the mobs in his Peugeot 203. Another name highly com-mended was P/SI Lloyd Perera. L.I. de Silva was the SP in charge of Galle division. Eleric Abeyagunawardene and Cossie Orr were the ASPP Galle Coastal and Inland respectively. Aelian Halahakoon, Freddy Ratnasingham, and Raja Bandara, from the batch of sub-inspectors previous to mine, had seen quite a bit of the 'fun' and their experiences were thrillers to listen to. 

All Policemen had worked round the clock for weeks without sleep, but enjoyed every moment of it because Police action had been planned objectively, and working concurrently with the judiciary, (O.S.M Seneviratne had been the Magistrate if I remember right) they were rewarded with good results.

I also had to see with sadness the scourge of politics eating into the Police service. 

Gone are those days when better sense prevailed, when politicians were statesmen and let the police preserve the peace, and the judiciary mete out justice.

India giving a Tamil reading to conflict

By Kumbakarana
ith the developing military conflict, it appears that there is an increasing desire for international intervention in the island's conflict, the Norwegians and Indians being the two main countries involved. The Indians claim a refugee problem on their soil with the ongoing military conflict. The Norwegians and bodies such as the UN are expressing concerns about only the Tamil population in Jaffna and the south. Further statements by international bodies such as the European Union and UN seem to equate the Sri Lankan government with the LTTE.

The Indian interventions on this conflict have always been with a short term perspective. They have not been able to either take a long term perspective or take a full view of the regional consequences of this problem. They therefore gave a Tamil reading to this conflict calculating on the Tamil Nadu political objectives and the personality clashes with the Sri Lankan politicians. The Indian government has paid a heavy price as a result of this short term outlook. The present vacillation is also not quite in India's long term interests. There is therefore no effective collaboration by the two sides, Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored If therefore Sri Lanka desires India's help, she has to do what most coy lover's do to get attention, that is at least flirt with a third person.

Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored One has first to understand the immense hypocrisy that western powers resort to. How for instance can they equate a democratically elected government with the LTTE? With regard to the human rights position, the real danger to any Tamil person opposed to the LTTE is not being pointed out. Other groups such as PLOTE, TELO, EPDP and the mainstream democratic party the TULF have all suffered at the hands of the LTTE. In fact a large number of Tamils have been killed by the LTTE, but these seem to be of little concern, or the finger is deliberately being not pointed at the assassins. The Tamils lived in Jaffna under the armed forces, without any general threat but with the advancing LTTE a general threat seems to have emerged. There were in addition thousands of Sinhala and Muslim civilians in the North and East who have been driven out. This story of ethnic cleansing appears to have been missed out by the human rights campaigns and their masters the western powers. 

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