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India: Double Lashing as Drought Hits North, Floods Ravage East

Agence France Presse
July 29th, 2002

NEW DELHI -- Large swathes of northern India are being crippled by a savage drought while the east of the country is being tormented by monsoon rains that have left some six million people homeless.

The state of Bihar is enduring both simultaneously, with monsoon floods in the impoverished north and brittle-dry conditions in the mineral-rich south.

While the flood-drought phenomenon is an annual one in the sub-continent, the floods this year are the worst in four years and the drought, according to Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh, the worst yet.

The government has announced that around one-eighth of the country is gripped by either severe drought or massive flooding, as famine and disease stalk the flooded northeast and crops wither under a blazing sun in the northwest.

The heavy rains since July 1 have claimed at least 60 lives and left about 6.2 million people homeless in the two most affected states, Bihar and neighbouring Assam.

At the same time, 13 of India's 29 states have been declared drought-stricken, allowing the introduction of emergency measures including monetary compensation to farmers.

With the two crises on the government's hands, Junior Home Minister I.D. Swami told parliament last week that a "high-powered" committee had been set up under the chairmanship of Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani to oversee relief measures.

"This committee will monitor all the relief measures for both drought and flood-affected areas," Swami said.

In flood-hit states, the army has been sent in to assist rescue operations, while aid organisations rush to ensure adequate food for those left homeless and cramped into relief camps.

Water-borne disease such as dysentery and gastroenteritis are spreading in the camps, which offer little clean drinking water and medicine.

Food scarcity has been reported in eastern Assam where several stretches of highway have been flooded and road links severed for three weeks.

Government officials maintain the drought will not cause a famine, with enough grain to feed everyone.

Nonetheless, farmers in the northwest are asking for compensation for destroyed crops and dead stock animals.

The desert state of Rajasthan, for example, has called for emergency funds totalling a staggering 60 billion rupees (1.26 billion dollars) to feed its drought-hit millions.

The drought has left India's 70 water reservoirs at just 47 percent of normal capacity.

Observers differ over what has caused the northern monsoon to fail. India's meteorological experts say it is due to the fact the monsoon trough has remained trapped in the Himalayan foothills.

However, R.K. Pachauri, chief of the UN-sponsored Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, believes larger variations are responsible.

"What we are witnessing is a particular and sudden variation in climate as predicted by experts studying global warming," he was quoted in the Indian media as saying.

Other reports said the unrelenting heat is starting to melt Himalayan glaciers, leading to the inundation of parts of the drought-stricken northern state of Punjab.

Desperate peasant farmers have turned to ceremony and ritual to encourage the rain, including donkey weddings, animal sacrifices and women dancing naked to appease the rain gods.

In the east, they pray for the opposite.

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