The wretched of the earth
arid and backward status is not new; on the contrary, it has become a parched
blind spot in our collective consciousness. But while chronically drought-prone,
the region has seen acute rainfall deficiency in the last five years, even as
irrigation coverage has remained largely stagnant, leading to declining yields
Comprising 13 contiguous districts, six of them in north Madhya Pradesh and
seven in south-west Uttar Pradesh
, the once prosperous Bundelkhand was a significant source of the region's wheat
supply. "Warmer winters and a shortened monsoon have led to a drastic reduction
in the yield," says Sachin Jain, an activist with Vikas Samvad, a grassroots
organisation allied with the Right To Food campaign.
And it isn't only agriculture that has suffered. In Dheemarpura village, 30 km
from the district headquarters of Tikamgarh (MP), the drying up of the Sindhu
Sagar Lake has led to a complete collapse of the economy of the village,
composed primarily of the Dheemar caste of fisherfolk. "I had never seen the bed
of the lake; it has been here from ancient times," says Sitaram Dheemar who is
in his 50s. For the last three years, however, there has been no fishing.
Simultaneously, crippling inflation, particularly in the last few months, has
led to a massive reduction in purchasing power, pushing people to the brink of
starvation. The social security safety nets that should be the final safeguard
against deprivation - chiefly, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS),
the Mid Day Meal Scheme and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) - are
heavily compromised by corruption and violations, leading to serious doubts over
whether the recently announced Rs 7,266-crore package for the region will be
effective without a fundamental policy rethink.
THE LAND MYTH
Even while farmers across the country all but indenture themselves so that they
can hold on to their buffer against starvation, their plot of land, in
Bundelkhand, being "landed" is no protection from deprivation.
Ramesh Kumar, a Gond tribal from Barai village in Chhatarpur district (MP), owns
a 4.5 acre plot. "This year I had to see Delhi for the first time," he says.
After the failed monsoon, he, just as the landless of the village, went to work
on a construction site in the capital. "Earlier, I got 24 quintals of wheat per
harvest of which I kept six to seven quintals to feed my family. For the last
three years, since the drought took hold, I've been getting only seven to eight
quintals totally and a price of Rs 700 per quintal. With an input cost of Rs
12,000, I couldn't cover my costs and had to take a loan from the money-lender.
This year, I'm growing chana but I can't keep any of it for my own family," he
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