In a scathing verdict on the “lack of will” shown by the Centre and the States in combating drought and saving lives, the Supreme Court on Wednesday said the Centre was guilty of washing its hands of a national disaster affecting a third of the nation.

The court also pulled up Gujarat, Bihar and Haryana for adopting an “ostrich-like attitude” towards declaring a drought, driving their own people to suicide, starvation and mass migration.

The court found that the total number of people affected by the drought is about 33 crore. “Can we afford to ignore the plight of such a large population?” it asked the government.

It asked the Centre to create a disaster mitigation fund to tackle drought-like situations, reported PTI, and also directed the Agriculture Ministry to assess the conditions prevailing in the affected States. The court accused the Centre of taking refuge behind the theory of “federalism” to pass on the buck to States for declaring and managing droughts.

“The ostensible purpose of introducing this concept (of federalism) is to enable the Union of India to wash its hands off in matters concerning drought declaration and to give enough elbow room to a State Government to decide whether to declare a drought or not,” the Bench led by Justice Madan B Lokur observed.

The failure by Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana to declare a drought has robbed the poor of their fundamental right to dignity of life, the Supreme Court held.

Paper tigers

The court clarified that a drought definitely falls under the definition of a ‘disaster’ under Section 2(d) of the Disaster Management Act of 2005, and lashed out at the government for not even trying to enforce the statute.

It noted that the Manual for Drought Management of November 2009 and the National Disaster Management Guidelines for Management of Drought remain paper tigers.