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India: Millions continue to suffer in Rajasthan drought

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by Pooja Saxena in Delhi
A group of children wait patiently on the street for a vehicle carrying water, seemingly unaware of the hot sand under their bare feet. It is a common sight in Rajasthan, now experiencing its fifth consecutive year of drought.

The water table in most of this north-western Indian state has fallen by 35 metres from its normal level and people can no longer depend on ground water. Water from the government-laid network of water pipelines is rarely used for drinking as rusty metal dust and the taste of the water make it unfit for consumption.

The effects of the drought are there to see: malnourished children and failed crops. An end to government assistance to the people since July 15 has also caused a lot of insecurity, even anxiety.

"Though Rajasthanis are reputed to be a very gentle and patient people, there are visible signs of them losing their temper and fighting over water," says R. C. Meena, a senior revenue official in Nagore district.

The district branches of Indian Red Cross in Rajasthan have been helping the population since the drought began, primarily through the provision of water by tankers and camel carts. And when, after a few rain showers some weeks ago, the state authorities issued a notice saying it would stop transporting water to the Pali district, the Indian Red Cross took up the cause of the drought-affected people with government officials.

"It could have been worse if the government had gone ahead with its decision," says Jitender Jain of the Rajasthan state Red Cross branch. "We did not shout and scream about it. We thought it would be wiser to motivate the local government into continuing to tanker water for at least another month." The approach worked with the state government agreeing to continue tankering water for periods of time.

Meanwhile, Red Cross district branches have also undertaken several community mobilization activities to generate resources for the drought stricken families. Among these has been to approach the relatively affluent Jain community to provide US$ 86 worth of free fodder to cattle camps every day. The man-power to run these camps is provided by Red Cross volunteers. Another business-orientated community, the Marwaris, is helping to run community kitchens for the tens of thousands of villagers who have been forced to leave their homes and go to the cities in search of a new living.

"Forty-eight-year-old Jai Singh used to earn enough to ensure his family a modest life by herding sheep and selling wool and milk. But the past few years have been the worst in his life. He no longer owns a single sheep. Some have died in the drought, the others have had to be sold off in order to buy food and other essentials.

For two months, he has been looking unsuccessfully for work in Pali, where he has now moved to with his family. To survive, they have had to turn to begging as life in the city has not proved to be the solution to their problems.

"Life has never been so tough. The children are not used to such circumstances. They are very depressed. My six-year-old daughter Shiuli has stopped demanding anything -- she knows papa has fallen on bad days," Jai says.

There are tens of thousands of families like Jai Singh's who have arrived in towns and cities but unable to find work as the cities' businesses are also suffering from the effects of years of drought.

At least 43 million people in Rajasthan are affected by this latest drought which has already destroyed 4.8 million hectares of crops and killed 54 million livestock in a region where 80 per cent of the population depend on agriculture and 19 per cent on animal husbandry. Although this drought is affecting an estimated 250 million people in 11 other Indian states, it is Rajasthan that is suffering the most.

Helping people here survive and recover is not a straight-forward matter. An International Federation appeal for just under one million US dollars to assist 75,000 people with supplementary food has had a very poor response which could result in very vulnerable families suffering even more.

Among them, the tribal community in Pali. They are dependent on employment on farms or in the homes of wealthier villages in order to survive. But with the farming community itself in crisis from successive crop failures, tribal people have nowhere to turn.

Majuli, a 28-year-old tribal labourer, lives alone with his two young children. Being a single parent, he cannot leave his children alone at home and migrate in search of work. He has tried some terrace farming with maize. But with farming being rain-fed, the drought has only brought tears. When asked what would happen if the rains failed again this time, Majuli broke into tears.

"I will feel guilty for my children that as a parent I could not fulfill their basic requirements," he sobbed. the 28-year-old father of two said.