Drought conditions in Rajasthan, and the widespread starvation that has resulted from them, have intermittently caught the attention of the media. Dramatic stories of starvation deaths, like many other articles showing extreme human conditions, find space in various publications. The presentation of these conditions, however, is quite shallow; they are shown only as stark events, and little examination is made of the many errors leading to them. Unless we acknowledge and address each of these, however, it is extremely unlikely that the starving poor can ever find sanctuary under the various schemes that are proposed.

Here, we look at how the unaccountable and unresponsive nature of governance in different areas comes together at a difficult time, leaving ordinary citizens with little hope of a turnaround. Broadly, the responsibilities of the state (and the failures that result from not meeting them) can be grouped into three phases.


India Meteorological Department - for various historical reasons, and additionally considerable paranoia among the political class, climate-forecasting in India is a closely guarded secret. The bases of the climate models are not open to public scrutiny; this limits the value of the nation's scientific expertise. Outside India, very many research groups forecast the Indian monsoon, but within the nation, this is the sole preserve of the government. Worse still, the government's forecasters have repeatedly proved terrible. It is an open secret that while the government's models are reliable in forecasting normal monsoons, they fail badly at forecasting extremes, whether drought or flood. This introduces terrible uncertainty into the lives of farmers who base critical and expensive decisions on meteorological guidance. Additionally, the government does not have pro-active plans to address calamities such as this. The administration essentially relies on ad-hoc firefighting measures leaving the country completely unprepared for the emergencies that follow each drought.

The Institutional Machinery

  • The Food Corporation of India [FCI] - the 50 million tonne reserve, which includes holdings with state agencies in addition to the FCI, is quoted by practically everybody these days, but in fact there are two major flaws in this. The more discussed problem is that of buying power - if everyone who needed food could actually afford to buy it, this great surplus would quickly disappear. In fact, such food security assumes their continuing poverty, and is no security at all. That's not the worst of it, either. There is an even scarier issue, however, namely that some portion of this bounty probably doesn't exist. Consider this altogether-predictable scenario in a corruption-plagued system.

    Everywhere along the chain, there is less crop than is actually recorded, and the only ones who know the difference are short-changed end-users, typically poor and already marginal families.
    Politically connected large farmers sell a certain amount of crop to the FCI and state government buyers, but in fact deliver less than this quantity. The transporter who must take this 'extra' crop to the granary claims a larger fee. From time to time, the granaries are called on to ship grain out to meet various demands, but to keep the Ponzi scheme going they too deliver less than the recorded quantity. After yet another round of overbilling by transporters, the 'harvest' is distributed to the needy population, where it is 'consumed'. Everywhere along the chain, there is less crop than is actually recorded, and the only ones who know the difference are short-changed end-users, typically poor and already marginal families.

  • Public Distribution System [PDS] - If FCI is the hub of the wheel of deception, then PDS forms many of its spokes. The shortages [and the additional crop that is unfit for consumption] must be distributed widely so that the total evaporation of the excess harvest is not obvious. The distribution system, reaching into the lowest levels of consumption, is a perfect tool. Fake sales, diversion to private merchants, denial of service, and every other corrupt practice has been routinely recorded in the system. The desperately poor people are the only ones who cannot gain from it, because their purchasing power is too limited. Indeed, it is quite common to find BPL (Below Poverty Level) families that simply choose to sell their BPL cards instead, because their ability to collect a rightful share of the harvest is zero.

    Further, instead of addressing these problems, over the past few years the government has consistently and deliberately ignored the PDS, making an already corrupt and inefficient system even worse. As a result, even a well-intended distribution effort today is hobbled by the lack of an efficiently functioning public institutional infrastructure. The government must therefore rely on local merchants who, with very limited scope for regulatory oversight, indulge in opportunistic profiteering making an already bad situation even worse for needy families.

The politicisation of public welfare

Typically, in the event of deficient rainfall or crop failures, the State government sends a letter to the Centre requesting relief. Lacking appropriate planning beforehand, the Centre's response can come too late sometimes. But more than this, the needs of affected communities are also hostage to the political goals of ruling parties at both levels of government. In Rajasthan, the ruling Congress party accuses the Centre of deliberately withholding relief, with an eye on the assembly elections scheduled later this year.

Misery at the crossroads

Citizens must make their lives at the intersection of various government policies, but they're not adequately informed, especially when the right to proper information is itself denied. Articles in the fortnightly Frontline [April 2001] reported on widows who despaired that while their husbands were alive, the families simply did not know of any relief schemes they could turn to. This uninformed state, unfortunately, is often the way administrators intend the populace to be, for it conceals much corruption. For instance, it was revealed during a public hearing organised by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan in Rajasmand district that Rs. 45 lakhs out Rs. 65 lakhs supposedly spent on public works were misappropriated into fictitious untraceable projects!

A culture of secrecy pervades numerous aspects of the government's functioning. When a calamity strikes the entire façade of deceit crumbles, leaving ordinary people to starve.

It is common knowledge that droughts are devastating not always due to a lack of food, but often because of the absence of jobs and incomes (entitlements) that allow people to purchase the food that is available. This fact should ideally translate into a process of creating and strengthening social and economic institutions that enable people have reasonable ownership of these entitlements, especially in agriculture, which employs nearly two-thirds of the Indian work force. However, the processes that the state supports, consistently undercuts the already limited sources of entitlements for this huge section of the workforce.

Further, the broad national policies that drive agriculture are often unknown to the small farmers. The overriding government rhetoric is that India must transform into an industrial farming economy, but the farmers themselves are simply left to deduce this! Also, there is no clear understanding of what the social and ecological consequences of this transformation will be, and how rural communities can cope with them. Instead, much like the green revolution itself, today's ideas are also only measured against economic indices, even as marginal farmers lose their lands and livelihoods, and are forced into usurious credit.

AID - Rajasthan Relief Line
Democracy is premised on the active and informed participation of civil society. Mr and Mrs India, however, have mostly disregarded this responsibility. The poor labour valiantly against widespread disregard for their needs, but among the privileged class, there is smug certainty that public policy will never be adverse to its own interests; this permits much apathy. But citizenship isn't merely for personal or partisan advantage; we must recognize the responsibility to advocate good governance not only for our own aspirations, but also on behalf of those whose voices are far more subdued in the national discourse.

People dying without food in a nation of alleged abundance in food stocks is inexcusable in itself; attributing this entirely to changes in climate, however, adds a layer of delusion to the damage. A deadly synergy between corruption, unaccountability and apathy across our society is the real culprit. The individual pieces of the reform puzzle - right to information, transparent public finances, rigorous science, greater public involvement in governance, etc. - must each be seen for its potential to impact public welfare in profound ways. Real food security will arrive only when we pause to read the many warning signposts along the road to starvation.