MUMBAI, India — When 2-year-old Rutuja playfully tipped over a bottle, spilling water onto the mud floor of the family’s shack, her mother, Nageshwari Rathore, let loose a screech, lunging forward as though to slap the toddler. Ms. Rathore stopped herself, sinking her head into her hands. “You finished it,” she whispered.
The loss wrenched at the 25-year-old. That June morning she had stood in line in the scorching heat for over an hour to collect five liters of water. A government tanker rolls up once a day to the abandoned field where she now lives.
Located in Ghatkopar, a Mumbai suburb, the field functions as a relief camp for 350 families who have left their villages in rural Maharashtra because of a drought, the worst in 100 years. Wild pigs root through the open sewer that runs alongside the Rathores’ tarpaulin shack. When the monsoon arrives, possibly in the next few days, it will flood the camp and force the family out.
Over 330 million Indians — about one quarter of the country’s population — have been affected by the drought. In this western state, where over half the population is dependent on the rural economy, the effects are severe. An average of nearly nine farmers committed suicide every day last year, primarily over debt related to crop failure.
Rural Indians are falling behind even as urban Indians enjoy unprecedented prosperity. And the tragedies that befall the poor benefit the more affluent. Forced to migrate to the cities, displaced farmers have little option but to join the enormous, unorganized labor force that serves the urban middle class as construction and domestic workers.
Trees outside the field in Ghatkopar were festooned with political banners, suggesting that the camp was the creation of a benevolent government. In fact, politicians had to be prodded to visit, according to Abhishek Bharadwaj, a homeless-rights activist. It was only after the media reported the squalid living conditions at the camp that Kirit Somaiya, a member of the state Parliament, came around to distribute cash and grain. Mr. Somaiya then uploaded a YouTube video depicting the camp as having abundant food and supplies.
Shau Chavan, who has been living in the camp for two months, said that government help had increased. In previous years, a local mafia had charged 1,000 rupees a month ($15) — about 2.5 days of the migrants’ daily wages — for a plot of 40 square feet. This year, Ms. Chavan said, the farmers are living rent-free, most likely as a result of government intervention.
If this is what passes for official aid in the richest state of the fastest-growing major economy in the world, then India’s government is short on political will, not means. This year’s drought is extreme, but severe weather is a regular occurrence in India. The authorities had time to plan.
The state government’s relief measures look good on paper, Abhishek Waghmare, a policy analyst with the data website IndiaSpend, told me. The state has poured money into the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan, a water-conservation program to “make Maharashtra a drought-free state by 2019.” But the villages Mr. Waghmare has visited over the past four years still lack basic rainwater collection systems. Government efforts to rejuvenate dormant rivers and ponds are ineffective: Year after year, Mr. Waghmare said, water runs off.
Government failure stems from institutional disregard for the poor. Almost 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas, but the government doesn’t appear to view them as essential to India’s march to modernize. The spiraling number of suicides suggests that farmers’ despair is not resonating with politicians.
Even after eight states declared a drought last year, the government in Delhi failed to increase support for two programs created to act as lifesaving buffers: The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which promises every household 100 days of paid employment annually, and the Public Distribution System, which delivers subsidized grains and fuel to the needy.
Government investment in the employment program has decreased since 2014, the year the B.J.P. came to power, and fewer jobs were created than before. Because of corruption in the food program, rations earmarked for the poor are often sold on the black market instead.
Mitigating the effects of a drought doesn’t require much investment. The villagers of Hiware Bazar, in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, haven’t required official drought assistance in over two decades. They banned bore wells to prevent the water table from falling further and now cultivate vegetables instead of water-guzzling bananas and sugar cane. If the government had only shown similar initiative, the state wouldn’t be in such dire need.
In May, the Supreme Court scolded several state governments for their “ostrich-like” behavior, and demanded the creation of a national disaster mitigation fund within three months. But nothing has happened yet, a principal adviser to the court told The Indian Express this week.
The government’s neglect is rivaled only by its officials’ flippant attitude.
On April 15, Eknath Khadse, the revenue minister of Maharashtra at the time, visited the drought-stricken district of Latur. The water crisis was so severe then that a special train was commissioned to bring water to the area. But Mr. Khadse went by helicopter, even though Latur is readily accessible from Mumbai — which required the construction of a temporary helipad that consumed 10,000 liters of water.
The next day, the water conservation minister, Pankaja Munde, showed up, and tweeted photographs of herself grinning in front of a parched riverbed.
The “drought selfies,” as they came to be known, drew widespread condemnation. They captured perfectly the general reaction of India’s politicians to this disaster. Short on empathy and a sense of responsibility, our leaders see even grave crises only through the lens of their own privilege.