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Drought unites Vajpayee, Sonia

New Delhi, Nov. 20: For once, there was no trace of bitterness or the shadow of the Gujarat polls. On day two of the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi emerged as ideal parliamentarians, focusing on development and promising to join hands to tackle the recurring menace of drought.

Vajpayee made a passionate appeal to the Opposition not to “politicise drought” as he invited Sonia to join hands on a project to “integrate” major rivers on a “war-footing” to tackle the menace.

Sonia responded immediately. “We welcome the proposal by the Prime Minister to interlink rivers,” she said, asking the Centre not to waste any more time but to accelerate the relief process. “Each day’s delay compounds the people’s misery,” she said.

Earlier, intervening in the adjournment motion on drought, Vajpayee said that instead of hurling accusations at one another, all political parties and state governments should join hands to interlink the rivers. The money running into hundreds of thousands of crores would not be a constraint, he said.

“Funds for such a massive project will not be a problem. The government has sufficient money. What is needed is to spend it in a proper manner to provide a lasting solution to the drought problem,” he said.

The Centre had held several meetings to assess the feasibility of integrating rivers like Ganga and Cauvery, he said.

“We are even prepared to hold talks with our neighbouring countries.”

On the government discriminating over providing drought assistance to states, Sonia said: “We objected only to the formula adopted by the Centre for providing assistance to states.” She said her intention was to point out the inadequacies, never to politicise the issue. “If it has been mistaken as politicisation, I am sorry.”

The motion moved by Sonia was rejected by a voice vote. During the seven-hour discussions, the House did not see much lungpower or sharp exchanges.

First, Sonia avoided using strong language against the Centre. Vajpayee responded in a mature manner, refusing to target many of the 14-Congress ruled states for failing to check drought and starvation deaths. Instead, he urged the media to be cautious about reporting the deaths as the country’s image and global repercussions had to be kept in mind.

Conceding that this year’s problem was grave, Vajpayee said the Centre would provide Rs 10,000 crore to drought-hit states under the food for work programme.

He said there was no dearth of food grain but problems like toning up the public distribution system and transporting food to affected districts and tehsils had to be looked into.

He stoutly denied Sonia’s charge that his government was discriminating against Opposition-ruled states on drought relief. “There is no question of the Centre politicising the serious drought situation,” Vajpayee said. “I feel pained by charges of political discrimination. I deny it,” he said.

Vajpayee said he wanted all MPs and political groups to rise above political considerations. “With elections coming up, everyone thinks of votes... but please keep politics out of it. Unless the Centre and states walk hand-in-hand we cannot face this problem,” he said.

Referring to the Cauvery water dispute, Vajpayee regretted that the courts had to intervene in a dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “How long can we continue to have disputes involving river waters'” he asked.

Vajpayee said his government was taking effective steps to fight the drought. “We are taking appropriate steps... for states not having a good financial position, the Centre is making a separate strategy.”

Vajpayee regretted that after 55 years of independence, only 40 per cent of the agricultural land was irrigated. “We need to conserve water for which I need everyone’s support,” he said.

Vajpayee said it was a matter of great concern that after every two to three years the spectre of drought was reappearing. “We need to find a permanent solution to this problem,” he said.

Giving comparative figures on central assistance provided to drought-stricken states, he said in 1987, 8.79 lakh tonnes of food grain were provided while 19.25 lakh tonnes were provided this year. Against Rs 842 crore given to states as financial assistance, Rs 2,000 crore was provided by the NDA government this year, he added.

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