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13 May 2016 Editorial


13 MAY 2016

Drought relief on order

That scarcity of water and its poor quality plague many parts of India this year is widely acknowledged today. Yet it has taken the Supreme Court to call out the reluctance of some States to declare a drought while simultaneously decrying the Centre’s recourse to “federalism” as an excuse to avoid taking up the matter with these States. In the judgment, delivered on a writ petition filed by the non-governmental organisation Swaraj Abhiyan, the Supreme Court concluded that Bihar and Haryana had been remiss in not officially declaring a drought despite clear indications of water scarcity; also that Gujarat was late in its declaration made in April 2016. The governments of Bihar and Haryana had argued that a declaration of drought was not necessary as rainfall deficits had eased in many districts by July 2015. But the Supreme Court has pointed out that many districts in these States have since progressively suffered rainfall deficits till as late as October 2015. The court also said that steps taken by State governments for irrigation and foodgrain production, or the presence of perennial rivers (which the Bihar government has submitted as a factor), alone cannot determine whether there is a drought-like situation or not. It has directed the Centre to take proactive steps in drought mitigation as well as in assessment, planning and relief as mandated by the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

Drought is attributed to rainfall deficit in several States, suggesting that meteorological and natural factors are primarily responsible for the phenomenon. This, however, is an incomplete explanation. Water scarcity — in both surface and ground water — is also the result of failure to regulate water extraction, storage, wastage and patterns of use. The excessive use of deep borewells to extract groundwater has eroded the capacity of aquifers to replenish. Poor reservoir management has led to silt accumulation, among other issues limiting water storage. Lack of water harvesting and over-irrigation owing to cropping choices and patterns have depleted water tables. Preparation for drought and ipso facto for a deficit in annual rainfall must go beyond mitigation and include steps to address this man-made scarcity. This cannot be done without a coordinated effort at all levels of government. The Supreme Court has directed the Centre to constitute a National Disaster Response Force, establish a National Disaster Mitigation Fund, formulate a National Plan on mitigation and crisis management, and standardise the methodology for declaring a drought. If one sets aside the question of whether this is another case of judicial overreach, it is difficult to deny that this is a truly landmark judgment. By laying down a broad framework for dealing with such situations and firmly emphasising that the government cannot absolve itself from acting decisively, the manner in which we deal with drought in the future may change markedly, and for the better.

Regime change in Brazil

It is a coup by another name. With the suspension of President Dilma Rousseff from office on Thursday through a Senate impeachment vote, the Brazilian opposition has secured a rare political victory. The impeachment, approved with a 55-22 majority, brings to an end 13 years of rule by the Workers Party (PT). It also puts Ms. Rousseff’s political future in limbo as she now has to weather the impeachment trial, which could last up to six months and will determine if she may or may not regain the presidency. While the opposition politicians are understandably happy with the outcome, the impeachment is likely to deepen Brazil’s political crisis at a time when the country needs a stable administration to cope with the enormous challenges it faces, especially the current economic crisis, and chronic corruption. Certainly, Ms. Rousseff could have done more to lead her country out of this situation. Her government was ill-prepared to cope with the challenges of the global drop in commodity prices, which hit Brazil’s export-dependent economy particularly hard. Some of the measures she took, such as cutting public expenditure to control deficit, were counter-productive as they drove the PT’s traditional base, the working people, away from her. Besides, she could do little to check the pervasive corruption within the PT. The question of course is whether such political failures warrant an impeachment. Also, will the forcible removal of Ms. Rousseff help address any of the major problems Brazil faces now?

Those who support the impeachment, politicians and others, say it is a fight against corruption and Ms. Rousseff’s economic ineptitude. This line of reasoning has at least two problems. First, she has not been implicated in any corruption case. Ironically, Vice-President Michel Temer, who will now take over as acting President, has been named in a Petrobras bribery scandal. According to surveys, only 2 per cent of Brazilians support him for President, while 60 per cent favour his impeachment. Even the head of the Senate and the man who oversaw the impeachment vote, Renan Calheiros, is the subject of 11 criminal probes. Second, it is not clear what kind of changes the incoming acting President can bring about to rescue Brazil’s economy from a free fall and to stabilise its politics — given that he faces corruption charges and has no popular mandate. Though Ms. Rousseff is unpopular, the PT still commands respect among large sections of Brazil’s poor. If the PT continues its street protests against the impeachment, which have at times turned violent, that would make it that much more difficult for Mr. Temer to establish credible authority. The best, and the democratic, way out of this crisis would be to call fresh elections and let the people decide who should be the next President. He or she could start afresh on the basis of a new mandate. Unfortunately, Brazil’s political elite appear to be more interested in political manoeuvring than in addressing the real issues.

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