Quake-hit Gujarat now reels under drought

Thomas Kutty Abraham, Reuters

LAKSHMIBEN HAS to line up in the blazing sun for at least four hours a day just to get two buckets of water from a village well. It's a long and tortuous wait but the 42-year-old mother of three in Babajipura village in Gujarat doesn't have a choice.

She is one of millions desperately in need of drinking water in the coastal region, already struggling to recover from a massive earthquake in January and now in the grips of a severe drought for the third year in a row, officials say.

"With temperatures rising day by day, I'm not sure where I'll be able to get enough drinking water for my family," said Lakshmiben who along with about 1,500 other villagers depends on one of three fast-drying wells in the village.

Last year, about 50 million people were hit and thousands of cattle killed in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh in what was called the worst drought in 100 years.

According to the state government, 13,133 villages have been hit by the drought this year compared with only 9,521 villages in the state that has a population of more than 48 million.

With ground water levels in the parched province dropping to their lowest level in 10 years and lakes drying up, thousands of people are migrating to other areas, the spectre of disease looms over the region and brawls among desperate villagers are common.

"Women often fight among themselves as they gather around the well," Jeevanbhai Jhalubhai Patel, headman of the predominantly agricultural village of Babajipura, told Reuters.

"Men have no means to earn a living and are going to other parts of the state to look for jobs to support their families," he added.


Welfare workers said they feared the emergence of a host of health problems because water in the few lakes that have not run dry is muddy and the ground water is saline.

Government officials said there had been no reports of deaths but welfare workers feared eye infections and diarrhoea could increase as temperatures topped 45 degrees Celsius in the next few months.

"People are prone to diseases like eye infection, diarrhoea and dehydration during the summer," said Joseph Kuzhikattu, a priest who helps women and children in Chachana, about 130 km from Ahmedabad.

Villagers complain the government is doing little to provide relief to drought-hit areas because it is too busy grappling with relief efforts for survivors of the earthquake.

The quake, which clocked 7.7 on the Richter scale, killed at least 30,000 people and left millions of people homeless in Gujarat, India's second most industrialised state.

"We have heard that the government is providing food grain at cheap rates but no official has visited the village to find out the severity of the drought and needs of the people," said Patel.

Officials say the government has stepped up the pace of relief work by running "water trains" to drought-hit areas and launching food-for-work programmes.

The government runs a daily train with 750,000 litres of water from Bhavnagar district to Amreli district, covering about 200 km, to supply water to drought-hit people.

"It's true that the primary focus of the government is on rehabilitating the quake victims but it is not at the cost of those suffering from the drought," said G.C. Mumrmu, the state's additional relief commissioner.