About 330 million people are affected by drought in India, the government has said, as the country reels from severe water shortages and desperately poor farmers suffer crop losses.
A senior government lawyer, PS Narasimha, told the Supreme Court that a quarter of the country’s population, spread across 10 states, had been hit by drought after two consecutive years of weak monsoons.
Narasimha said the government had released funds to affected regions where a crippling shortage of rainfall had forced the rationing of drinking water to some communities.
As summer hits India, reports of families and farmers in remote villages walking long distances to find water after their wells dried up have dominated local media.
Narasimha gave the figures on Tuesday after an NGO filed a petition asking the top court to order Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to step up relief to the hardest-hit areas.
High temperatures have hit parts of eastern, central and southern India in recent weeks, with scores of deaths reported from heatstroke.
Every year hundreds of people, mainly the poor, die at the height of summer in India, but temperatures have risen earlier than normal, increasing concerns about this year’s toll.
India’s meteorological department on Wednesday issued a heatwave warning for Orissa and two other states, with temperatures forecast to top 45C in the coming days.
Politicians have come under fire for water wastage as they travel to drought-affected regions, with footage on Tuesday of water tankers in Karnataka state spraying a dusty road before the chief minister’s arrival sparking outrage.
A court this month ordered the Indian Premier League to move some cricket matches from drought-hit western Maharashtra state over concerns that water would be wasted in maintaining the grounds.
Officials have forecast an above-average monsoon this year, offering hope for struggling farmers who rely heavily on the annual rains. India’s agriculture sector employs about 60% of the population.