“Urinating in dams” to solve India’s drought? Minister faces backlash
As India’s western state of Maharashtra reels from the worst drought in over four decades and millions of people face the risk of hunger, a top official has sparked outrage with a crass, insensitive joke that he should urinate in the region’s empty dams to solve water shortages.
Ajit Pawar, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra and former irrigation minister, referred in a speech last weekend to a poor drought-hit farmer who had been on hunger strike for almost two months to demand more water.
“He has been fasting for the last 55 days. If there is no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate into it? If there is no water to drink, even urination is not possible,” Pawar told the gathering, who responded with much laughter.
Dubbed as “Urine-Gate” by some sections of the media, Pawar’s controversial comments have been played and replayed on India’s national news channels over the past week, sparking a barrage of criticism from civil society groups and opposition politicians who are demanding he resign over the remarks.
Aid workers say almost one-fifth of Maharashtra, India’s third-largest state and one of the biggest producers of sugar, pulses, cotton and soybeans, has been declared drought-hit. Dams are empty, farmland is parched and livestock are emaciated.
Millions of people across some 12,000 villages in 15 districts have no drinking water, little fodder for their cattle and no income due as they have no crops. Some are being forced to migrate to urban areas.
Aid workers say the government’s response – sending in drinking water in tanker trucks and setting up “cattle camps” where farmers can bring their livestock for fodder – has been inadequate, erratic and ineffective.
The next month, they warn, is critical and millions could face hunger if the monsoon rains due around June 10 do not arrive and adequate relief is not provided.
People in Maharashtra have not only taken to the streets to protest but they have burned effigies of Pawar and accused him of being arrogant and out of touch with the people who elected him.
Aid workers say they were shocked at Pawar’s comments.
“He should not have said this. I was quite shocked to be honest. It was so insensitive. People are really suffering because of this drought,” said K.V. Thomas, chief zonal officer for Church’s Auxillary for Social Action (CASA) by telephone from Mumbai, the capital of Mahasrashtra.
Others have been even more damning in their criticism. In fact, one political party has named a urinal after Pawar.
Pawar has apologised following the backlash, saying he had made the biggest mistake of his political life.
“My comments … were not directed towards drought-affected people and I had no intention to hurt anybody’s sentiments. I hope my comments will not affect drought relief measures, which will continue vigorously,” he said this week in the Maharashtra parliament, which was forced to adjourn proceedings for two days due to uproar by the opposition.
Many civil society groups and opposition politicians say his apology does not go far enough and argue he is being shielded by his powerful uncle Sharad Pawar who is, ironically, India’s agriculture minister. But reports suggest Pawar may still be forced to resign.
“Ajit Pawar fancies himself as a stand-up comic. I think his party should take his cue, sack him and let him follow his dream,” tweeted Bollywood actor and director Farhan Akhtar.
PHOTO CAPTION: A plant grows from a crack on the dried-up bed of a natural pond at Badarganj village, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, August 5, 2012. Armed with the latest monsoon rainfall data, weather experts finally conceded this month that India is facing a drought, confirming what millions of livestock farmers around the country had known for weeks. Picture taken August 5, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood