By Suchitra Mohanty
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India's top court on Wednesday slammed authorities for delays in responding to the worst drought in decades, saying that some states had taken an "ostrich-like attitude" towards the calamity, and called on the government to set up a drought fund.
More than 330 million people - almost a quarter of India's population - have been hit by water shortages across 13 of the country's 29 states, including Haryana, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, and Karnataka.
A petition filed by Swaraj Abhiyan, a Delhi-based non-profit group, said that India's current method of declaring drought was unscientific, archaic and arbitrary and states had, as a result, failed to recognize the drought as a natural disaster.
Referring to the northern states of Haryana and Bihar which have not yet declared a drought, as well as Gujarat in the west which was late in announcing the disaster, the Supreme Court said it was the poor who were suffering most from the inaction.
"An ostrich-like attitude is a pity, particularly since the persons affected by a possible drought-like situation usually belong to the most vulnerable sections of society," said the Supreme Court's two-judge bench in a judgment.
"The sound of silence coming from these states subjects the vulnerable to further distress. During the hearing of this public interest petition, no one alleged a lack of effective governance, only the lack of an effective response and therefore we are at a loss to understand the hesitation of these states."
The drought has caused crop failures, water shortages and excessive debt, prompting hundreds of families across the country to flee villages in search of food, water and jobs.
Indian Rural Development Minister Birendra Singh told parliament on Tuesday that almost 160,000 villages had been affected, adding that the federal government had allocated 13.6 billion rupees ($200 million) to states before the drought.
The Supreme Court directed New Delhi to set up a disaster mitigation fund within three months and formulate standard guidelines - including a time-frame - on declaring a drought.
"It is not as if a drought is required to be declared in the entire state or even in an entire district. If a drought-like situation or a drought exists in some village, it should be so declared," said the judgment by Justices Madan B. Lokur and N.V. Ramanna.
"The failure of these states to declare a drought effectively deprives the weak in the state of the assistance that they need to live a life of dignity."
(Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty. Writing by Nita Bhalla. Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)