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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

Hunger and Distress Peak towards Alarming Levels in Bundelkhand

Saturday 26 December 2015, by Bharat Dogra

While hunger, deprivation, mass distress and migration have been widely reported from Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh in recent years, this year has seen the peaking of these distress conditions. Adverse weather conditions have worsened due to official neglect and apathy. If urgent steps to check the fast deteriorating conditions are not taken imme-diately, the situation will get out of hand within a few weeks resulting in avoidable loss of precious human lives. In addition many farm and dairy animals are badly endangered due to hunger as well as thirst.

While the above analysis is based mainly on a recent visit to nine villages of Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, almost equally serious conditions also prevail in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh.

The Uttar Pradesh part of Bundelkhand is spread over seven districts—Banda, Mahoba, Chitrakut, Hamirpur, Jhansi, Lalitpur and Jalaun. Detailed discussions with villagers as well as social activists recently confirmed that conditions of mass distress have aggravated very rapidly during the last nine months or so.

First, the previous rabi (winter) crop was destroyed very badly by untimely heavy rains and hailstorms during February to April. Then the Kharif (summer) crop suffered very badly due to severe drought conditions. Now in recent weeks due to continuing drought the new rabi crop (wheat, gram, mustard, peas) could not be planted in most of the normal crop area. In the area that has been sown (leaving aside a few irrigated fields) there is little hope left of any significant yield.

This year of repeated weather failures has come on top of a series of below-normal harvests, leading to a peaking of distress conditions among farmers and farm workers.

This situation has been aggravated by denial of work under the rural employment guarantee law at a time when it was needed the most, and long delays in payment when work was provided for a few days. Compensation payment for ruined crops have been late, below the people’s expectations and influenced badly by corrupt practices so that small, non-influential farmers got very less payment. Nutritional programmes, mainly ICDS (anganwadi) and mid-day meals, have deteriorated further. In particular, the nutrition for adolescent girls (kishoris) has stopped almost entirely, on account of cut-downs in the Union Budget.

The overall impact of all this is seen in very high levels of hunger and malnutrition, including possibilities of hunger deaths in the coming months. A large number of farmers’ suicides, trauma deaths and some hunger deaths have already been reported from this region in recent years, while very high levels of malnutrition have been confirmed in recent surveys. The rabi harvest is likely to be too meagre to provide much relief. So for the most part 2016 is also likely to continue to be a distress year. If next year’s kharif crop is good, this relief will come at the time of kharif harvesting only in October-November 2016. So preparations have to be made for several months ahead to avoid even more extreme forms of hunger and thirst. The shortage of fodder and water is already a serious problem for cows, bullocks and other farm/dairy animals. Drinking water for human beings is also likely to become increasingly scarce in the coming weeks.

Profiles of Six Villages

The hamlet of Nawapura

of Balataal Jaitpur panchayat (located in Mahoba district) is inhabited mainly by people of the Dheemar caste who work mostly as small farmers and fisherfolk. This year the water tank has very little water and fish. The drought has destroyed the kharif crop and there are very little prospects of getting anything from the current rabi crop. Hence people are migrating in large numbers mostly to work in brick kilns in Rajasthan and elsewhere. Many others will go soon for construction work in Delhi.

No grain or pulse from the farmers’ own fields are now left in their storage and they have to depend entirely on buying food from the market. This in turn depends on their ability to get local employment which is very scarce. No work is available under the MGNREGA (rural employment guarantee law) at present and payments were delayed for a long time earlier when the work was available for a short duration. So people have no option but to accept advance payments from labour contractors who send them to the brick kilns. Many farmers and workers were recently crammed into a bus and left for Rajasthan. Several of them sent their wife and children, leaving behind old parents. Some were even seen clutching their poultry and goats in the bus.

Among the villagers who remain, people say that only about 10 per cent are able to fill their stomachs. Pulses are out of question. A cheap vegetable like potato may be available once in a while but mostly people subsist on chutney made from chilly and salt mixed with small quantity of coriander leaves and tomato, if available. Many of these people are also now planning to leave the village soon as migrant workers. They have to go, as due to lack of work, their debts keep on mounting.

Amazingly, in the midst of all this an old farmer, Chiddi, brings us a present of water chestnuts which he insists we must eat. A very small farmer of two bighas of land, he says this year for the first time in his life he could not get water in the tank and he had to use a pump-set to ensure partial survival of his singharas (water chestnuts). An affectionate man with a sad smile, when questioned in greater detail about his family, he could not recollect the name of his wife despite trying hard to do so.

Thurhat—

This village, located in Jaitpur block suffered almost 70 per cent destruction of the previous rabi crop and nearly 80 per cent destruction of the kharif crop. Some farmers did not get any kharif yield at all. There was little rain before this rabi’s sowing and farmers, who have to live on hope, borrowed money to sow seeds in many fields. However, after this there has been no rain (till the date of our visit) and the prospects of getting any yield now are very low.

Villagers here say that a lot of protection from drought could have come if a project, promised by a former MLA from this area (Mahoba), had been completed. This project involves digging a channel from the Urmil river to Barkhera. They say that this small project will not harm anyone but will protect about 10 villages like theirs from the worst ravages of drought by providing protective irrigation. They say that most of the work has already been done on this project and only the balance of about 25 per cent is to be completed. The villagers say that the MLA, who promised this project (Uma Bharati), is now the Union Water Resources Minister and they have passed a resolution for speedy completion of this project.

At present only about 10 per cent households in the village are able to meet the nutrition norms. The rest subsist on meagre supplies of roti,chutney and some small supplies of diluted chaach obtained from a few better-placed families in the village. Pulses have almost disappeared from this village following the failures of two crops. Milk is not available either for children or for making tea. Very few families have BPL cards. For all others, wheat flour is selling at Rs 21 per kg. A six-member family needs 5 kg in a day to keep away hunger. Hence at a time when almost all families in the village have become dependent on market-purchased food, a family has to spend Rs 105 on buying wheat flour needed for one day (Rs 150 would be needed for rice, so wheat is a much cheaper option). Keeping the same amount for meagre supplies of vegetables, spices and oil, over Rs 200 would be needed for one day’s food which is adequate to provide certain minimum nutrition norms. This does not include milk, pulses, fruits, tea leaves etc. But the total daily wage of a worker is only Rs 200 or even less and work is available at this wage only on few days. In addition, sudden emergency expenses have to be provided for treatment of illness and this means becoming more dependent on private services. Even if one gets treatment in a government hospital, medicines have to be purchased. Again, loans have to be taken for marriages in the family. Hence there is a state of perpetual deficit and debt driving farmers and workers towards migrant labour without which there would be even more hunger. However, migrant workers also face increasing problems and exploitation and what people like most of all is to get employment near their home. The rural employment guarantee work is not available and more and more people are preparing to leave the village soon as migrant workers (apart from those who have already left). Acute problems of survival exist for many elderly, weak and ailing persons left in the village due to this surge towards migration in recent times. When I expressed a desire to meet some such persons, so many appeared that I was overwhelmed and soon stopped taking down details as they were simply too many— extremely poor, old, ill, physically challenged. People said Mahamaya pensions received earlier are not available now while new ones started by the present State Government are also scarce.

While hunger is a serious problem for 90 per cent of the village households, it is particularly acute for these helpless, old persons. Drinking water problem is also going to become increasingly serious in the days to come, the villagers said. Arunodya, a voluntary organisation, has made several efforts to improve people’s access to development and welfare schemes. It is now planning to start a grain bank soon in this village to provide some grain to the most needy families in time. This is a good but small effort and more resources are needed.

Rawai—

This village is located in Charkhari block of Mahoba district. This village experienced 90 per cent destruction of rabi crop followed by almost full wipe out of kharif crop. The present rabi crop has been planted but prospects of another big crop failure is staring the people in the face as there has been no rain after an initial shower which encouraged them to plant the crop. All the time they are looking skywards for signs of rain.

Two crop failures have resulted in acute hunger and malnutrition in the village, forcing the villagers to migrate in large numbers, particularly to Ahmedabad. This village normally grows wheat, peas, grain and masoor pulse in the rabi (winter) crop and moong,urad pulses and til oil seeds in the kharif (summer) crop. All these crops have been destroyed and so now people depend on market purchase of grain. Pulses have almost vanished from their diet.

Due to destruction of crops there is scarcity of fodder. Bhusa (dry fodder) is selling at a very high rate of Rs 600 per quintal which the villagers cannot afford. So animals like cows are also badly endangered due to hunger.

The rural employment guarantee work has not started. Compensation payments for destroyed crops is very meagre. No compensation at all is given to share-croppers or to those who lease the land of others for a fixed cash advance (balkat system). These land-leasers work hard and borrow money to invest in farming but do not get any compensation when adverse weather destroys their crop.

Ghasraut

village

This village is located in panchayat Gurhasla of Naraini block (Banda district). This village is almost entirely dependent on rains with hardly any irrigation. The rainfed crops are grown on sandy, one-crop-in-a-year land (if winter crop is grown in one field, then summer crop is not taken in that field). Shankar, a farmer, says that during the last four years or so, there has been adverse weather of one kind or the other but this year has been the worst.

The main winter crops are pulses—gram and arhar—and mustard oilseeds while the main summer crops are millets, jowar and bajra,moong pulse and til oilseed. This year both the summer and winter crops were wiped out—winter crop by excessive untimely rains and hailstorms and later the kharif crop by drought. Due to continuing drought, the recent rabi crop also could not be planted. Hence now people here have become extremely dependent on market-purchased grain.

However, at the time when the rural employment guarantee scheme is most needed, people have not got any employment opportunity under the MGNREGA. There has also been very little compensation for the ruined rabi crop and none so far for the lost kharif crop. There is no hope of any rabi sowing as the village’s time for the rabi sowing is already over.

Again, at a time when nutrition programmes are most needed, the performance of the ICDS has deteriorated further. Adolescent girls have not received nutritious food (panjiri) for several months. Mid-day meals are of poor quality and highly diluted with water. Milk is served very rarely while vegetables are highly diluted with excess water.

In this situation to keep away the pangs of hunger people are migrating in large numbers to Delhi, Surat, Ahmedabad and Punjab. The others intend to leave soon after the panchayat elections. Many of the elderly, ill, destitute and physically challenged persons are left to be helped for their survival by other village families who are themselves very poor. If migrant workers can get an advance payment, they leave this for the old family members but this is not possible always.

On top of all this are the marriage expenses. Siya Dulari says: “I had already taken loan to marry off one daughter earlier, and now the marriage of another daughter is due. Please tell me how can I make arrangements for this marriage.” The mothers of daughters appear to be on the verge of breakdown when they talk about marriage-related problems, particularly when the date of marriage has already been fixed but there is no sign yet of how any money for this can become available at a time when there is a severe scarcity of daily food needs. Some are in the process of losing their land as they go to private moneylenders for loans, borrowing at a high compound interest of three to seven per cent per month, depending on the circumstances in which the loan is taken. In most cases these days it is very difficult to pay back the interest, leave alone the principal amount. In addition most people are indebted to banks as well.

But it is not just parents who worry about daughters; daughters also worry about parents. Keshkali, a 16-year-old girl from a kumhar-prajapati (potter) family suddently emerged from the group discussion to confront me and said in an emotion-choked voice: “All you people will somehow push me into marriage, but do you know all the time I worry about my parents. I don’t have any brother. When I was a child I was injured and my father incurred debts for my treatment. Now his health is in a bad shape. My mother also cannot do any rigorous work. I worry all the time about who will look after them after my marriage.” Keshkali’s parents Pehlu and Maiki have not been keeping well. They are worried about her marriage, but she is even more worried about their health.

In this distressing situation the Vidyadham Samiti (VS) has provided a ray of hope by starting a grain bank (anaj bank) and bhusa bank (fodder bank). These have so far been started in 30 villages including Ghasraut. They have provided much needed grain and fodder to some farmers to save them and their animals from hunger, but the need is so much that these stocks must be replenished from time to time. Partly this is helped by a donation from Action Aid and partly by personal donations. The Vidyadham Samiti keeps appealing for such donations.

In addition to involving relatively better-placed families, Vidyadham Samiti has started an ‘ekkotoraanaaj’ or ‘one bowl of grain’campaign within villages in which activists and villagers visit homes of better-placed households to collect some grain from them and also to appeal to them to take care of villagers who are facing the threat of starvation. I also participated in the door-to-door collection in this village and the collected grain, to which the grain brought by the Vidyadham Samiti was added, was then distributed among the most needy villagers, particularly the elderly destitute persons.

This village faces a serious drinking water problem as very little water is available from a single distant working handpump forcing the villagers to obtain drinking water from the Bagain river which is not fit for drinking. Animals also drink water from this river.

The

Neebi

village is located in Naraini block of Banda district. The mostly Dalit farmers and farm workers to whom we spoke said that they have no other option but to migrate to distant places in search of work. At a time when various households have become entirely dependent on market-purchased food (rationed BPL supplies last for only a week or so), a family needs about Rs 200 per day to keep away hunger while the village wage has shrunk from Rs 100 to Rs 70 in some cases. Ram Dayal, a Dalit farmer-cum-farm-worker, says: “I can starve but I will not work for the reduced wage of Rs 70.” Migrant labour in distant cities is the only option in such conditions as the rural employment guarantee work is not available.

The ICDS nutrition packets are available only once in several days, while mid-day meals have not been served for several weeks in this hamlet. Even though the Commissioner had adopted this village some years back, very high levels of malnutrition exist here. The interns working with the Vidyadham Samiti conducted a survey here in August which revealed that most children here were malnourished.

High and increasing indebtedness is another reality of the nearly 100 families of this Dalit hamlet. Marriages have been extremely difficult and parents are increasingly tense regarding the marriage of their daughters.

The condition of migrant workers is also difficult and it is not possible for them to save adequately from their meagre earnings and inflation-driven expenses in cities like Delhi. They work very hard and cut expenses so that they can save a little to take to their village after about six months or so. Some like Gyani become victims of pick pockets on their way back home in crowded trains. Gyani lost all his savings and in addition was injured by the blade used by the thief. There are incidents also of migrant workers being given poisonous substances and robbed while on their way back home.

One handpump is used to provide water to about 100 families. The drinking water problem may get very difficult in the coming days. In addition animals are suffering greatly due to lack of fodder as well as water. Dalits face discrimination in getting drinking water.

Several years back several of these families were supposed to receive land under the land ceiling laws but this land has not yet been provided to these Dalit families.

Grain and fodder banks, started by the Vidyadham Samiti, have provided some badly-needed relief to people.

The

Mausingh Ka Purva

hamlet is located in Naugawan panchayat of Naraini block (Banda district). Despite loss of three successive crops, very little work has been provided under the NREGA during this year. Even when this work is provided, wages are delayed for several months. So villagers have lost faith in the NREGA, although they say that if this scheme is implemented properly, then this will be a big help for them.

This is a one-crop area, growing gram and wheat in rabi season and jowar and arhar in summer. However, nothing could be sown this rabi season while the kharif crop was lost entirely. In fact even the kharif crop of 2014 was not good, as only 40 per cent of the normal crop yield could be obtained. So one after the other difficulties have piled up for the people. Very little compensation was received, in fact none yet for the kharif crop loss of 2015.

Leaving aside about five families in this hamlet of about 35 households, others face hunger and malnutrition problems—skipping breakfast and having two meals of just rotis and salt or chutney in a day.

Raja Bhaiya, co-ordinator of the Vidyadham Samiti, says at the group meeting: the Everyone suffers in such a crisis situation but women generally suffer the most. They are generally the last to eat in the family and if nothing is left after feeding all family members, then they may remain hungry or somehow manage to chew a few left-over crumbs. This scarcity also sometimes makes men vulnerable to anger, particularly if a guest is expected and in anger they may turn violent against their wife.”

I asked the assembled women if this is true, and they nodded in quiet agreement. The men present at the meeting did not object, expressing silent agreement that such situations do arise from time to time.

Another factor contributing to simmering tension for women as well as men is the growing worry of the marriage of daughters. Raja Bhaiya who is liked so much by villagers that he can raise the most uncomfortable situations, discusses the possibility of a number of marriages being held at a community gathering. Villagers say this is a very good idea but the groom’s side will have to be convinced first.

Meanwhile many more villagers are preparing to leave the village after the panchayat elections because, as Rani says, “our mandas (grain storages) are entirely empty now”.

OramThe Oram village is located in Bisanda block of Banda district. In this village a farmer, Mannu Lal, had committed suicide by hanging himself in broad daylight on an eucalyptus tree right in front of his house. Everything happened very unexpectedly and quickly and several onlookers had no chance to rescue him.

At that time several officials had rushed to the spot and made all kinds of promises and so it was shocking to know several months later that this family has received no help and is living in great poverty. At the time of our visit only the daughter, Shyama, was at home and she called her brother, Surdar. Another brother had migrated in search of work while her mother had gone for work on someone’s field.

Explaining the circumstances of suicide we were told that Mannu Lal had also migrated in search of work in brick kilns but due to unseasonal rains he did not get work. He returned home to find that his crop too had been ruined. As he was already indebted he lost hope and committed suicide.

It was clear that the poverty of this family has only increased since then. The entire area is in the grip of a severe drought with cultivation confined to a few fields around bore villages. Yet work has not been provided under the employment guarantee scheme. Very meagre compensation was received by small farmers to whom we talked. Manan, a share-cropper, said: “No compensation is given to the likes of me who take land as batai. We are ruined entirely by the adverse weather. We invest our money and labour but get no compensation.”

In the absence of employment opportunities, village youths agree to work in dangerous small factories in extremely hazardous conditions. Two workers, Anshu and Budhvilan died recently in an accident in a small fire-cracker unit in which they were badly burnt. Anshu’s mother, Munni Devi, said that the government provided no help at all.

People here expressed shock that officials made many promises but even in the case of a farmer’s suicide and a very serious accident the government did not provide any significant help and also did not keep the promises made earlier.

Animals face very serious shortage of fodder. The bhusa rate has risen to Rs 900 per quintal and a sach or bojha of bhusa is being sold for Rs 50.

To check the fast aggravating distress in Bundelkhand before it is too late, the government should start the MGNREGA and/or drought relief work on a large scale. This region has already been officially declared to be drought affected. Hence all recovery of loans should stop and in addition no interest should be added to the loans during the drought period. A loan-waiving scheme should be considered. Adequate compensation should be given for crops which have been badly ruined. From a longer term perspective, ecologically protective alternative development policies should be implemented with honesty so that the increasing problems of this phase of climate change do not prove too overwhelming for the people.

[This report is based on group discussions of the author with the people of nine villages held on November 27, 28 and 29, 2015. This report has been written under the InclusiveMedia-UNDP Fellowship 2015.]

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements. Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.