Rain drops carry false hopes
When the well of fight dries up
Meltdown fears in Nasdaq fallout
Mumbai�s night of long knives

New Delhi, April 24 
Squashing hopes of an early end to the drought, the meteorological department has sent a note to the Prime Minister�s Office saying that yesterday�s scattered rainfall in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat was more like a mirage and had done nothing to fill up the empty sub-soil aquifers.

At the meeting of the crisis management group convened by the agriculture ministry, the meteorologists dismissed the showers in southern Rajasthan and Banaskantha district in north Gujarat as merely �one-off� pre-monsoon cloudbursts which had nothing to do with the rainy season.

Monsoons were at least two months away, they said, pointing out that it was too early to predict what this year�s rainfall would be in western India�s arid stretches. Such predictions are made in end-May. Regarding eastern India, where the monsoons arrive in early-June, the forecasts are provided by mid-May.

Sources said the group was working on a contingency plan that would have to be activated at the earliest for the coming two months during which the severity of the drought is expected to persist. While the PMO today set up its own emergency cell under joint secretary Ashok Saikia, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee told the Lok Sabha that he would ensure that special trains carrying fodder are sent to Rajasthan and Gujarat to prevent more cattle from dying.

Vajpayee, who will convene an all-party meeting tomorrow, spoke to some Rajasthan MPs today.

Another emergency cell has been opened by the water resources ministry which is functioning on its own. Agriculture secretary Bhaskar Barua and Central Relief Commissioner Bhagat Singh are also working in close tandem with several associated ministries like health, rural development and food and civil supplies. The meteorologists are part of this committee.

But despite the Centre�s efforts to coordinate an effective drought-combat drive, the lack of coordination between ministries was very much in evidence, with the railway ministry saying that it had no idea of special �water trains� being run. A decision to send water by special trains had been taken by the Cabinet but is yet to be passed on to railway minister Mamata Banerjee.

What is worrying the government is the fear of diseases which usually spread under such conditions. Sources said the Centre is planning to advise the Rajasthan government to prevent the movement of nomadic shepherd groups who move southwards whenever there is water scarcity in the barren western districts.

Reports indicate that these nomadic groups have lost their cattle and are moving towards the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh border. Most of them are suffering from gastro-enteritis and dehydration and need immediate treatment and their arrival in Madhya Pradesh, authorities fear, will only help to spread the diseases.    

Rasbani (Barmer), April 24 
The farther you get from the highway, the scarcer and dearer water gets. Here in this deathly, near abandoned cluster of dwellings a kilometre from the sand bleached border with Pakistan, it comes at Rs 5 a litre.

But that is when it comes. Most times Ghafoor hooks himself into a ropesling and slithers a 100 feet down a dark hole to fetch a pail. The water is brackish and black and it is so laden with lead and fluorides it has permanently twisted the bones of Ghafoor and his family. �What�s to be done?� Ghafoor asks, �we need a whole tank of water every day (probably 50 litres) and I cannot buy it at Rs 5 a litre. I am already Rs 10,000 down in debt and I probably have Rs 50 in cash in all.� (Picture on Page 6)

Ghafoor borrowed heavily over the last couple of years to provide for his cattle and family in the hope that his son would get enough from his job in Gujarat to settle the debts. �He brought back Rs 800, that did not even pay off the interest. Now he�s gone again to earn money but if we have to live through this drought I will have to borrow more.�

This drought is not about this season�s torments � the scalding sun and water�s early departure � this is about the accumulated failures of the last several years. The last two droughts had already stripped the cattle-breeding farmers of western Rajasthan, emptied their homes and silos of stocks, weakened their cattle and heaped them under debt. Nobody foresaw a third drought could set them up for skinning, which is what is happening in the first year of the new millennium.

Bhuvanesh Jain, a Barmer social worker, has a stinging riposte to the alarm bells being suddenly sounded in Jaipur and in New Delhi. �It is easy and convenient to call this the worst drought of the century and mount emergency relief measures but the fact is that this would not have happened if the government had done something about the last two droughts. The main problem with this drought is not the absence of rain and water, the main problem is the absence of the farmers� strength to fight it out. They have been completely broken down,� he said.

Ghafoor has been borrowing without acquiring any means over the past two years to repay them. And this year he will be in the mire deeper, deeper than that water hole of his.

Of his 70 cattle heads, only four are now left, all slowly dying for lack of fodder and water. He hasn�t any crops to sell, he hasn�t any strength in his body to labour and earn. �Over the past two years we have just bought and bought and earned debts, now there is nothing to do but borrow more,� Ghafoor says.

Rasbani is 70 km deep into the western desert from Barmer, down an invisible sand-track that doesn�t permit anything but camel carts and four-wheel drives. Most hamlets en route lie abandoned; the farmers have left their cattle loose to die and run away to find work in Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh. Where there are people, you see them anxiously waiting with pots and pitchers for passing water salesmen or queued up at rain-water tanks that still have the dregs. �There... there... there... there too,� every other moment our driver keeps pointing at dead cattle.

According to official estimates, more than 40 per cent of the Barmer cattle has already perished. �Gayen nahin rahengi to yaha log kya karenge,� our driver mutters rhetorically to himself. (If the cows don�t survive what will the people do here?) We asked Ghafoor that. What now? What if there was to be no rain this summer too?

�What?� he asked, �What if there is no rain? Then Allah and the moneylender, who else?�    

April 24 
Another raging West Wind is likely to slam the stock markets in India tomorrow after the technology stock-laden Nasdaq composite index plunged today, the fall precipitated by reports that the US justice department may ask a federal judge to break Microsoft into two or three companies.

The Nasdaq, which fell as much as 298 points during the day, regained some ground but still closed with a loss of over 160.

The Nasdaq crash sent a frisson of fear through Dalal Street, which had already closed for trading after a bruising day when the Bombay Stock Exchange sensitive index lost 146 points to drop below the crucial support level of 4600 to 4511. As marketmen finished counting the hits they had taken, news of Nasdaq�s 200-point drop within half-an-hour of trading struck them cold, rekindling chilling memories of last Monday�s massacre triggered by a similar plunge in the US.

�This will further jolt the stock market,� said Ajit Ambani, a leading corporate broker, signalling that marketmen would be battening down the hatches to weather the storm. Before that, however, they had a long night of anxious wait ahead of them. �As it is the local markets are technically weak. I have warned my clients, who are day traders, to stay away from the market. The current market trends can finish them.�

Over the past two weeks, the convulsions on the Nasdaq have roiled the Bombay Stock Exchange and other world markets, sending hordes of despairing investors scurrying out of infotech and dotcom stocks.

�It will drift and drift,� said a dealer affiliated to an institutional broker when asked to assess the possible impact the falling Nasdaq would have on the local market.

On Monday, the sensex appeared to have second guessed the Nasdaq as it tumbled on fears that the justice department would press for Microsoft�s break-up.

Operators hammered key infotech scrips like Infosys Technologies, Satyam Computer and NIIT, besides ITC and Zee Telefilms � which have a high weightage in the 30-scrip index �in the last half hour of trading.

News reports today said the justice department envisions Microsoft, as part of the penalty in the anti-trust case, being forced to split its Windows operating system from the rest of the company, which then would be carved into two. One of these will handle applications software and the other the Internet business.

Another report said federal officials favour only splitting off Microsoft�s applications software unit from the rest of its business.

Microsoft tumbled today to $66 per share, down $13, its lowest level this year and the sharpest decline in 13 years.

The US government will give its proposed remedies this week to a judge who has already ruled that Microsoft engaged in illegal activity to preserve its monopoly.    

Mumbai, April 24 
The Vilasrao Deshmukh government was on the brink of collapse last Saturday.

The chief minister, after getting whiff of a topple plot masterminded by a rebel group of the Nationalist Congress Party backed by the BJP and the Shiv Sena, summoned Sharad Pawar to his residence and asked him to prepare for dissolution of the House.

According to sources in Raj Bhavan, Governor P.C. Alexander was informed of the chief minister�s intentions.

Deshmukh called an informal Cabinet meeting late on Saturday which was also attended by three dissident ministers � Anil Deshmukh, Madhukar Pichad and Vijay Mohite Patil � who were plotting to break away from the government.

It was only after Deshmukh threatened to recommend dissolution �right then� that the 18 NCP legislators who had threatened to cross floor backed out because they were still two short of the number to skirt the anti-defection net.

According to a senior minister who led the counter-operation, Saturday�s development was the culmination of a month-long attempt by the Sena to topple the Democratic Front government.

The drama unfolded over late-night secret t�te-�-t�tes at the Taj and the Ritz and frequent rendezvous at Lonavla � a holiday retreat near Mumbai � between rebel NCP and Sena bosses.

On March 20, Sena leader Narayan Rane got in touch with Sudhakarrao Naik, a former Congress chief minister who was a reluctant entrant to the Pawar camp, and other ex-ministers who were denied berths in the Deshmukh Cabinet. These included Shalintai Patil, Shankar Rao Kolhe, Shivaji Rao Naik and Vijay Kumar Gavit.

Rane offered the chief ministership to Naik and suggested two deputies, Vijay Mohite Patil and Gopinath Munde. The Sena was to offer outside support.

This formula, according to sources, did not work out as Munde insisted on being the only deputy chief minister � a demand rejected by Sena chief Bal Thackeray.

Rebuffed, Munde launched a tirade against the Sena in the run-up to the prestige elections to the Aurangabad municipality, saying: �The Sena should be immersed in water.�

With the Sena losing heavily in the civic polls, Rane was asked to take another shot. This time he spoke directly to PWD minister Vijay Mohite Patil, who had become a rallying force for the dissidents.

The two agreed to a deal under which Patil would be the chief minister and the Sena, BJP and NCP would each have eight Cabinet members and an equal number of ministers of state.

The rebel NCP group, stuck at 18 members, began a frantic hunt to wean away more MLAs, especially those from Vidarbha who were not as loyal to Pawar.

It was then that Deshmukh decided to gamble and play the dissolution card, catching unawares the NCP dissidents, eight of whom called truce.

But the peace could be temporary. Pawar aides admitted that all was still not well in the NCP. Ajit Pawar, minister and the NCP chief�s nephew, said: �There were rumblings and some senior members were unhappy, but all that has been amicably settled.�

Operation Topple also bombed because of the BJP�s last-hour recalcitrance at going ahead full steam.

Pramod Navalkar, former culture minister, said: �There was some planning problem. I�m sure something will be worked out again. I don�t see this government lasting for long.�

Even ruling party ministers agree that the storm has not blown over completely. Kripa Shankar Singh, minister of state for home, said: �In a coalition government, these pressures come and go. One has to deal with them delicately.�

To buy peace, Deshmukh has decided to expand his ministry to accommodate three dissidents as well as Ajit Naik, nephew of Sudhakarrao Naik.    


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