(REPORT) Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh: From Valour to Hunger - By Bharat Dogra

Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh: From Valour to Hunger - By Bharat Dogra

Once famous for their role and sacrifices in the freedom struggle, the people of Bundelkhand are caught amid one of the worst droughts in its history. It is spelling death and disaster for the poor of the region. Yet there can be a way out, writes Bharat Dogra after an extensive survey of the region.

Death and devastation stalk Bundelkhand region of UP in the wake of severe drought. In recent weeks several efforts have been made at various levels to draw attention to appalling conditions and extreme distress faced by farmers of the area. The state government has already declared all the districts of this region — Jhansi , Mahoba, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Lalitpur, Chitrakoot, Banda — to be drought affected.

This report is about the grim conditions the entire region is grappling with. It is based on talks with the people in over 35 villages spread over all the seven districts. Some of the highlights of the report are:

Suicides and sale of children

Four years of drought have caused extreme distress to people. The Kharif crop has suffered extensive damage. In village after village, we were told by farmers that they were not able to recover their seeds. A huge part of the normal Rabi crop has remained unsown due to lack of moisture, rains and overall resources. Migration from villages has increased as waves of migrant workers have left after July, particularly after Diwali festival. Many village homes are locked up as entire families have left. Elderly people and many women who have been left in villages sometimes face very difficult times as migrants are not able to remit money home from their paltry earnings. Even workers in poor health have migrated as of making a living has been becoming difficult back home. Members of well to do farmer families too are forced to join the streams of migrants to places like Delhi , Punjab, Haryana,  Gujarat and Mumbai besides some cities of UP. Migrants work as construction workers, factory hands, brick kiln workers, quarry workers and hawkers. Some of them face such great hardships at their new work places that they cannot afford the expenses to come back home when they need to do so. Many of them work and live in hazardous and exploitative conditions.

Hunger and malnutrition exist on a massive scale. The overwhelming majority of people are living on staple cereal with salt and chutney. Use of pulses, vegetables and milk has declined. Many of them cannot get enough of even roti and salt to be able to fill their stomach. Many of them have only one meal a day. Such harsh conditions for a long time have led to under-nutrition, chronic hunger and even hunger deaths. Several starvation deaths have been reported. Seven people died in village Nahri alone in Banda district. A hunger death takes place because of chronic under nutrition and malnutrition as the weakening body becomes vulnerable to many ailments. In Bundelkhand, this is rampant and ill fed farmers are slowly and steadily dying.

Several hundred suicides of farmers and other villagers have been reported in recent years from Bundelkhand. It is a fact that farmers have suffered heavy damage in recent years. Indebtedness to banks and moneylenders has increased rapidly to a level where there is no possibility of being able to pay back the loan. These farmers are unable to meet their family expenses which they perceive as the most essential such as the expenses of marriage of daughters. In these villages families have been forced to postpone marriages of daughters. It is difficult for farmers to see recurring loss of crops where they are not able to recover enough to run their most essential bare expenses despite working so hard in the field. It is in this context that many reports of suicides by villagers as well as reported cases of deaths caused by shock should be understood.

Water shortage already exists in several villages and it is quite clear that a serious water crisis is most likely this summer. Farm animals particularly cows have been left to roam and fend for themselves as farmers just don''''t have any fodder. Fodder and water needs of farm animals deserve a lot of attention. In Jigni village of Hamirpur district once prosperous farmers said that they have lost several cows and they are willing to give away cows free as they cannot see them dying before their eyes.

While villagers needs have at least been discussed, problems of urban poor are entirely ignored. Issues such as deaths of urban poor caused in the cold wave should also get attention. After all those who die in such tragedies are generally the rural poor who have migrated due to the distress conditions in the villages. In cities anti poor steps should be avoided. On December 10, 2007, the tragic case of sale of two children by a rickshaw puller in Banda district was reported. This man Govind had earlier been earning well as a tea vendor and when his tea - stall was demolished, he was driven to extreme poverty culminating in the sale of four-month-old Chandan and eight-year-old Shankar.

Factors behind disaster  

We asked many elderly people if they had seen such prolonged and serious drought in their life earlier and they replied in the negative. Even before this, phenomenon such as untimely rains and very limited scattered rains had started. So much so that within a panchayat one part gets some rain and another doesn't. The damage from hailstorms has also been unprecedented as hail brought stones weighing over one or two kg (half kg were more common) rained and damaged roofs of many dwellings. Near Jigni Village a long stretch of land has suddenly erupted making very deep holes in land. All these unexpected weather problems may be linked to climate change. However the role of local factors such as deforestation should also be emphasised. Forests across vast areas have been badly damaged in recent decades. Ecologically devastating mining practices have ravaged greenery and damaged water aquifers badly, apart from increasing land instability. Indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has played havoc with the fertility of land.

Water management has ignored the basic principles that always recharge of water has to precede large-scale withdrawl of water. With the arrival of hand pumps and tube wells maintenance of traditional water sources including tanks and wells was ignored. Tank systems which had been preserved for centuries as models of water management most suitable for this region were neglected, encroached upon, eroded and destroyed. At the same time maintenance of canals system was neglected. Canals remain silt laden, full of weeds, and broken at many places. Irrigation needs of tail-end villages were particularly neglected while the influential and prosperous farmers in upper areas used guns and muscle power to grow even water intensive crops in situation of water scarcity. Sudden and unannounced release of water from dams caused floods and great loss to people in years of normal and even high rainfall.

Large-scale corruption led to funds meant for development being misused on a massive scale. Check dams broke down in the next rains. Huge water supply schemes remained unutilised. Dams of highly dubious merit were constructed and even more suspect river - links were planned as these bring huge contracts while cost effective small-scale schemes were ignored. Projects and constructions were completed hurriedly and payments made without considering how much the people had actually benefited. Even land reforms were marred by corruption. In addition forest department claimed ownership of land which had been given to a large number of landless people. Some poorest and landless communities were most neglected. Big landowners not only exploited them but also took loans in their name. The entire system of development loans was reduced to a huge racket. Villagers were driven to taking unviable loans, paying corruption money in the bargain to middleman and officials, which they could never hope to pay back. This was the particularly the case with tractor loans.

Thus all these factors were already leading to water shortages, deforestation, ecological ruin, poverty and indebtedness, hunger and malnutrition. So when a prolonged and serious drought came the situation quickly deteriorated. On the other hand if ecologically protective measures, good water management and good governance had existed, the extreme distress that followed could have been avoided.

Sad to say, even after the drought situation started becoming acute cases of serious corruption continued to be reported from Public Distribution System (PDS) and rural employment works, while mid day meals and anganwadis or Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) functioned poorly at several places. Massive corruption in PDS has already been exposed at several places. The NREGA provided an excellent opportunity for providing relief to people, implementing essential work like water conservation and avoiding distress-induced massive migration. Unfortunately the schemes failed to achieve these aims during the financial year 2006 -07. Only Rs 10 crore to Rs 25 crore were spent on NREGS in each of the seven districts although each district needed and deserved at least Rs 100 crore. This year there are signs of some increase but it is still inadequate. Large-scale migration shows how the aims of the scheme could not be achieved. However, it is good that in many places where we inquired a wage of Rs100 or near this amount was actually being given.

Hope amid adversity

However not all is dismal or depressing. At the official level, there are some sign of improvements. New schemes such as grain banks for the poor and community kitchens have been announced. There is talk of a 'Bundelkhand Package' to make available more funds for relief as well as long-term development. Some officials have worked hard to speed-up relief and to check malpractices.

It is particularly heartening to see that within their meagre resources, some voluntary organisations have done praiseworthy work to provide protection from drought in some villages. For example in Laxmanpura Village (and two nearby neighboring villages) of Madhougarh tehsil in Jalaun district, Parmarth has implemented a natural resources management project which has provided soil and water conservation works, besides building check dams. After implementing this work painstakingly with the cooperation of people, particularly women, in this village Dalit small farmers could take advantage of a government schemes that provides assistance of Rs 1 lakh for setting up a tube well. Four tube wells have come up when the precondition for water recharge was taken care of so that the underground water table could be saved from falling. The result is that when there is no crop in nearby villages, Dalit farmers in Laxmanpura village are taking two or in same cases even three crops a year. In other villages there is large-scale migration but Laxmanpura has turned out to be an exception where people are among other things also healthier and better nourished. This, indeed, holds hope for other villages as well. In Manikpur block of Chitrakut district another voluntary organisation ABSSS has done excellent soil and water conservation works, construction of check dams, repair of tanks, creating new tanks at several places like in Tikariya, Itwaan, Managawan, Pushakarini, Kekramar, Harijanpur, Sukhrampur etc.

These have been providing badly needed relief to people in times of distress. Its idea of low cost protection of natural sources of water for purpose of drinking has been providing relief to people particularly Kol tribals even in times of acute water scarcity.

People have taken up several initiatives on their own. From Mahoba district there are reports of initiatives of people to repair and deepen old wells while also constructing new wells. Mata Prasad Tiwari of Meegni village of Jalaun district has planted nearly 15,000 trees (with some help from Parmarth). He hopes that 5,000 trees will start yielding fruit within two years. Check dams in the same village have also contributed to water conservation. Media has played an important and useful role in drawing attention to the extreme distress faced by people.

Need for action

As it appears most likely that Bundelkhand is headed for a serious water scarcity in the summer of 2008, it is important to prepare a plan of action as early as possible which is based on reducing distress related to scarcity of water and food as much as possible.

Providing relief from hunger and thirst to human beings as well as animals should be the main focus of this action plan. As part of the package or otherwise, adequate resources should be made available for this purpose. Allocation under rural employment guarantee scheme needs to be stepped up to at least Rs 100 crore per district per year. Many practical problems which hinder the progress of this scheme need to be sorted out. As more resources flow greater transparency has to be observed to ensure that the old corruption networks do not grab a slice of these resources even in these times of grave distress. The relief funds given by the government should be adequate and it should be possible for people to cash the cheques more easily.

The performance of the PDS, mid-day meals and ICDS should improve. Soil and water conservation works should be taken up along with minor irrigation projects. If there is no rain village tanks can also be filled using lift irrigation and canals to the extent possible. Some restrictions may have to be imposed to conserve water. This should be done in a decentralised way keeping in view local conditions and with the involvement of people. The schemes announced by government to make available grain and cooked food to needy people should be implemented efficiently and sincerely without delay. Authentic information about the needy people should be collected with the involvement of the people and voluntary organisations. Goshalas and fodder depots should be set up to save cattle from perishing. Combine harvesters should be restricted or banned so that loss of valuable fodder can be avoided and also more work becomes available to farm workers. Farmers and farm workers badly need relief from debt.

The way out

The government needs to change some of its existing policies relating to water management, mining, agriculture, rural credit, forestry and industry. The most cost effective and successful water management would emphasise giving a new life to traditional water sources like tanks. Many villages wells can also be repaired and used again. There is much to learn from famous traditional tank systems like those at Mahoba, Charkhari and Baruasagar.

Lift schemes which take river water to nearby villages can also play a useful role. Soil and water conservation works including construction of new water tanks, repair of old tanks and wells should be taken up on a large scale as part of integrated watershed development schemes. Some existing flaws in such schemes need to be removed. Organic agriculture and revival of traditional seeds should be emphasised. Bringing more greenery, forest protection, regeneration of degraded forests should be emphasised with the involvement of weaker sections. Cottage industries can play an important role in providing alternative livelihoods. But the flourishing Khadi cottage industry of Jaitpur in Mahoba district was recently disrupted badly and over 7,000 weavers were rendered unemployed due to the certain moves made by a few highly corrupt persons. This cottage industry as well as several others such as those in Mangroth village in district Hamirpur should be revived. The emphasis should be on providing low-cost, accessible, improved technologies instead of burdening farmers with expensive machinery and debts. Many existing debts need to be cancelled or phased out. Destructive mining practices should be curbed. Panchayat level plans should be prepared with the involvement of local people particularly weaker sections and women who seek to promote people's livelihoods in a sustainable manner, ensuring equality as well as protection of environment.

It is true that Bundelkhand is passing through adverse weather conditions, but extreme distress that exists today can still be avoided. The road from despair to hope exists, we have to start walking on it.

Bharat Dogra is a senior journalist, author, researcher, activist.

Courtesy: Combat Law Magazine


Combat Law is leading Law magazine which brings you latest human rights issues in India. 
Editor: Colin Gonsalves (Sr. Supreme Court Lawyer)

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A sensible answer to the misery of Bundelkhand is Watershed Development by the local authority and people living there. Just look at what Anna Hazare has done to his village, which was facing simillar dought situation with the help of the local authority and people living there. Can we expect similar support and technical guidance from the local authority there for the sake poor villageers? If ues, I am willing to join them and lead these village to lend their two hands for the success of Watershed Development in Bundelkhand.