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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 25 New Delhi June 11, 2016

Bundelkhand Drought

Saturday 11 June 2016, by Bharat Dogra

Linking Short-Term Urgent Relief With Longer-Term Sustainable Development and Protection of Environment

Bundelkhand region is spread over an area of around 70,000 sq. km. in the States of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in Central India. This region at present includes 13 administrative districts—Banda, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Chitrakut, Jhansi, Jajaun and Lalitpur districts in Uttar Pradesh as well as Panna, Chattarpur, Damoh, Sagar, Tikamgarh and Datia districts in Madhya Pradesh.

In recent times this region has emerged on the extensive map of drought-affected areas of India as one of the worst affected regions. The present drought was preceded here by several erratic weather conditions, including drought in some phases, and untimely heavy rains and hailstorms, even floods, in other phases and this prolonged period of adverse distress has aggravated the distress of the people. This has also led to efforts to understand the existing situation as not just a short-term phenomenon but a longer-term trend of more adverse and erratic weather related to climate change as well as local ecological ruin such as large-scale destruction of forests.

In recent months very large-scale hunger, malnutrition, drinking water shortage, deaths and abandonment of farm and dairy animals, indebtedness, threat of land loss and distress related migration have been reported from the Bundelkhand region. In such conditions clearly there is a great urgency of providing adequate and timely short-term relief to the people but at the same time there is an obvious need to link this to longer-term sustainable development based on protection of environment as without this only delinked and isolated relief will not provide any lasting solutions.

At the present time a many-sided relief effort of the government is in place but this is widely perceived as inadequate as has been highlighted in the context of all drought-affected parts of the country by a Supreme Court judgment in mid-May. There is thus an urgent need to step up and improve the relief effort.

First of all, it is necessary to scale up and improve the implementation of the rural employ-ment guarantee legislation or NREGA. This work needs to become available to a much larger number of people and for more number of days as per their needs and as per the provisions and the spirit of this legislation. It is no less important to ensure the timely payment of wages. In addition to NREGA works, the government should also start separate drought relief works which can be more flexible in meeting the needs of the drought-affected people such as for prompt payment of wages within two or three days at the local level and making work less rigorous for people who are already very weak due to prolonged distress.

There is clearly also a need for ensuring the proper implementation of food security legis-lation which, as per the Supreme Court directives, is to be implemented even more liberally in the drought-affected areas like Bundelkhand. Thus almost all rural families here should get their quota of highly subsidised grain (Rs 2 per kg. for wheat and Rs. 3 per kg for rice) even if the process for preparing proper cards has not yet been completed for several villages. As the returns for diversion of this heavily subsidised grain to the black market are very considerable, there should be close monitoring and strict vigilance to minimise any possibilities of black marketing and corruption. Also in view of the glaring absence of proteins in the food intake of the drought-affected people these days, there is a strong case for inclusion of some highly subsidised pulses as well at least till such time that the region gets a good pulse harvest. It needs to be realised that the food security law provision for highly subsidised grain lasts only for a week in a month and so there is also the need to curb any hoarding and black marketing of open-market grain.

There are several very old, disabled and destitute people in almost all villages who are unable to arrange even a meagre supply of food and water on their own There are also several widows as well as children left behind by migrant workers. The possibility of starting community kitchens by the government as well as citizens’ groups for them with the cooperation of villagers should also be considered. Such kitchens should offer at least one full meal in a day to such members of the village community and they should feel free to carry back some food and water with them. The food for some disabled villagers can also be sent to their home with the cooperation of other villagers.

The importance of proper mid-day meals for nutrition of children has increased. These should be improved and mid-day meals should continue at the time of school vacations with the added provisions of ensuring more protein availability. The anganwadis or ICDS should also be improved with better and regular availability of nutritious food to make up for the increasing absence of pulses and milk in the regular village diet.

Meeting drinking water needs should obviously get the highest priority keeping in view the extreme scarcity conditions in many villages and several urban areas. Detailed plans for all villages should be made which list the condition of all the available potential sources and then the best possible actions should be planned in consultation with local people who have the most reliable information and understanding of local conditions. The experience of elderly people should also be tapped. Women should be closely involved in the entire process.

The effort should be to ensure the best possible utilisation of available scarce water to meet the priority needs of people and animals on an equitable basis and to prevent any squandering of water on non-essential uses as well as to prevent any waste of water. While visiting several villages of this region I noticed that people in various villages offer location-specific solutions for the water crisis and this should receive adequate attention.

This may be even more important from the point of view of meeting the water needs of animals. Efforts should be made to set up animal camps near some carefully identified water sources where some minimum supplies of water and dry fodder or bhusa can be assured to farm and dairy animals. A payment can be made to the owner of the water source and water drinking places or haudis can be constructed.

There should be a moratorium on the recovery of loans till such time that badly drought-affected villagers can recover. No one should be deprived of his or her land in drought-related or other distress conditions. Land rights should be well-protected in drought conditions. During drought the villagers should not be forced to enter into any bonded labour-type arrangement and children should be protected from exploitative labour. To ensure this, it is important for the relief work to be stepped up adequately. Also the crop loss compensation and insurance payments should be made promptly without any pre-conditions and these should be reasonably adequate. Sharecroppers and other types of land-leasers should also be entitled to at least a part of the compensation.

As people are more vulnerable to various types of health problems but are unable to afford treatment, special efforts should be made to improve public health with provision for entirely free supply of essential medicines as well as reliable monitoring of malnutrition and mortality.

District or even block level cells should be set up to take up the problems of workers migrating from these villages so that any complaint of injustice, fleecing, exploitation or denial of wages can be taken up with the help of local administration and social and legal activists. For example, if a migrant worker is injured in an occupational accident then efforts can be made to get a proper compensation for him although presently this is generally denied to him.

Efforts should be made by the administration to obtain the cooperation of various citizens’ groups and voluntary organisations in drought relief and related work. Citizens’ groups should come forward to take up responsibilities of various kinds of relief effort in several villages. One effort can be to set up grain banks in several villages. A village committee can then provide grain from this source to the most vulnerable families. Another effort can be to start a model community kitchen for the most vulnerable people in a village or else to start a camp for animals.Yet another contribution can be to create opportunities for extremely low-cost marriages in drought-affected areas by organising a number of such dowryless weddings together in gracefully organised community events.

The water needs of animals and birds living in forests or in the wilderness outside village boundries are often forgotten. This not only causes a lot of suffering to these silent animals and birds but in addition there is the added risk of these animals getting diverted due to thirst more and more towards villages. Hence there is a need for some water conservation works even in forests and uninhabited wilderness areas keeping in view the needs of various wild animals, birds etc.

While all the efforts and reforms listed above can play an important role in reducing distress in seriously drought affected Bundelkhand, there is the need for integrating this relief work with the longer-term needs of sustainable development and environment protection in this ecologically ravaged area.

During a drought year more funds are likely to be available for NREGA and drought relief work. Many fields and waterbodies are likely to be more or less empty. Hence well-planned soil and water conservation work can progress more rapidly with the cooperation of people not just as paid workers but as close participants who want to make the best possible use of the existing opportunities for improving the most basic resource base of soil and water. However important this work may be, it is also an unfortunate fact that a lot of corruption and wastage is generally involved in the utilisation of these funds.

It is sometimes said—everyone loves a good drought. It may be closer to the truth to say that only five per cent of persons who are powerful and corrupt like a serious drought situation as they find ways and means of using the drought relief funds to fill their own coffers, or else some powerful persons may misuse the acute and mass distress to trap the people in longer-term exploitation or even try to grab the land of some vulnerable farmers. Efforts should be made to avoid all these possibilities.

If corruption can be reduced significantly and NREGA and drought relief works as well as the more regular work of irrigation, soil and water conservation can be well-integrated with the real needs of the people, as expressed by them in the form of village plans, then certainly significant protection from drought can be achieved and in addition a base for better farming can be prepared. The potential for this increases further with a more comprehensive ridge to valley planning for watersheds. However, the tendency to overemphasise one or two models should be avoided and there should be greater room for flexibility according to local conditions and more room for incorporating the location-specific suggestions of local people including women and weaker sections. There has been a wrong tendency to involve only those with significant land while the need is for securing at least some land for the landless and making improvement and irrigation of this land an integral part of the watershed projects.

Similarly, afforestation work offers a great potential, wherever opportunities emerge with the availability of some water and moisture and a little rain, of linking short-term relief work with longer-term sustainable development and protection of environment. The indigenous species of trees should be planted trying to imitate or resemble mixed natural forests of the region, with emphasis on soil and water conservation as well as meeting the food, fodder and medicinal and fuel needs of the people. A lot of attention and high priority should be given to saving the existing natural forests. Proper tree cover around water sources should be emphasised.

Highly indiscriminate mining activities by powerful mining interests and even mafias have been responsible for causing very heavy damage to forests as well as water. Hence there is a clear need for imposing the necessary restrictions on mining activities as well as carefully regulating the mining, quarrying, sand mining and stone crushing in such a way as to reduce significantly the devastation of the environment of Bundelkhand and exploitation as well as the infliction of serious health hazards on many workers and villagers and the destruction of agricultural fields of many farmers. In the place of such hazardous plunder in the name of mining, small-scale mining with ecological safeguards, which can be taken up by cooperatives of weaker sections in a selective way, can show the way forward for reforming the mining sector.

Organic mixed farming emphasising staple foods based on indigenous seeds collected with a lot of care and effort and striving to make the best possible use of free local resources (for example, compostable materials or local free materials useful for repelling or keeping away pests) need to be encouraged to keep down costs of farmers and also to improve their self-reliance in situations where farmers are facing increasingly erratic weather conditions.

In this context it needs to be emphasised that climate change as a reality should be accepted and so more efforts and funds are needed to prepare the rural communities and farmers in particular to face the emerging challenges of climate change. Hence government allocations for agriculture, rural development, drinking water, irrigation, disasters, environment protection and health in particular should increase very significantly. In addition, the ways in which these budgets are being spent also need to be improved significantly.

For example, in the case of irrigation and water it is necessary to move away from highly expensive and long gestation projects like river links and large dams towards small-scale watershed projects taken up with the close involvement of the people. In the case of agriculture it is necessary to move away from subsidising expensive inputs and machinery to promoting low-cost, self-reliant, eco-friendly and organic farming. Such reforms will help to make available more resources for the most important tasks and initiatives.

A development strategy which places a lot of emphasis on promotion of organic farming, afforestation and protection of natural forests can make a considerable contribution to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and on this basis it can also qualify for considerable international help if proper efforts are made. The opportunities for this can increase further with a shift towards renewable sources of energy. There is considerable scope for this as many remote villages are very poorly served by conventional, centralised electricity systems while decentralised rural mixed renewable energy-based systems offer a lot of scope for meeting the energy needs of remote villages as well as enhancing rural livelihoods.

Such initiatives can be even more successful if proper encouragement is given for the promotion of rural skills, innovativeness and creativity at various levels. A good example of this is the Mangal Turbine invented by a farmer scientist of Bundelkhand, named Mangal Singh; it has been widely appreciated by senior scientists. This turbine which helps to lift water without using diesel or electricity can help to save considerable expenses of farmers, apart from making a substantial contribution to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Bundelkhand as well as other areas.

Thus despite the great distress visible today in Bundelkhand there is certainly ground for optimism not only for providing better short-term relief to people but also to significantly improve the prospects for sustainable develop-ment as well as well environment protection. However, strong vested interests will have to be overcome in order to ensure that the path of genuine sustainable development is actually taken up.

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

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