On Wednesday, 11 May 2016, the Supreme Court of India delivered the first part of its judgment on a public interest litigation (PIL) hearing for a suit filed by the political organisation the Swaraj Abhiyan. In the PIL, which was filed in mid December last year, the Abhiyan had alleged that governments in 12 states—Haryana, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh—were not providing adequate relief in drought-affected areas. In 3 of these states—Gujarat, Bihar and Haryana—the petition noted, governments had not even declared a drought, despite significant reduction in rainfall and in surface and groundwater levels (While the hearing was ongoing, Gujarat declared a “semi-scarcity” of water in the state). In both the hearing and judgment, the Supreme Court strongly chastised the centre for not taking any action, and directed it to set up disaster relief funds within the coming few months.
A crucial part of the judgment was the reprimand it delivered to the state governments of Gujarat, Bihar and Haryana for their “ostrich-like attitudes” towards the droughts in their states. The court asked the central agriculture secretary to meet with the chief secretaries of the state within a week. But while the Supreme Court’s chastisement is a much-needed respite, it will not alleviate the problems of the people in these states in time—a fact that the court itself acknowledged. “There is no loss of face or prestige or dignity in the State Government declaring a drought if it is warranted, although succour to the distressed might be too late in the day,” the judgement said.
For the state of Haryana, this is possibly the seventh year of drought it has faced in the last 11. The monsoon is steadily declining, and so are the groundwater levels and the water quality. Despite numerous reports and evidence to the contrary, its government continues to deny the drought, and by extension, deprive its people of any relief, monetary or otherwise. “The government is trying to project that all is well,” Yogendra Yadav, one of the founders of the Abhiyan and a former member of the Aam Aadmi Party, told me when I spoke to him on 23 April. “But that is far from the truth.”
On 19 April, the Haryana government had said in court that it was not facing a drought, but a “drought-like situation.” Three days earlier, on the afternoon of 16 April, an unusually blistering one for that time of the year, I left Delhi on my motorcycle, via Mathura Road, for Mewat district in Haryana. For the first 25 kilometres, the Violet metro line accompanied me along the dusty national highway, its long transit-town stretches plastered with advertisements for real-estate brokers. The scenery changed somewhat once the metro line ended mid-air, a little before Ballabgarh town. Gradually, the frequency of towns decreased as tracts of empty land began to appear. Taking a short cut through the narrow lanes and brick houses of Dhatir and Allika villages, I reached major district road 134, about 15 kilometres from Mewat. Urbanity was finally out of sight. On either side of the road lay endless plains—green, fallow or scorched—with occasional huts, pylons and black-coughing chimneys of brick factories.