Even as policymakers and the media exult in India's growth story, it was left for the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to bare a few skeletons, literally speaking. According to NHRC, there have been 100 suicides and hunger deaths in just two of Bundelkhand's seven districts (Jhansi, Jalaun, Lalitpur, Banda, Chitrakoot, Mahoba and Hamirpur) over the last four years. One can safely assume that 400 people have lost their lives in the entire region over this period. Yet, it has taken the Uttar Pradesh government all this while to declare four districts drought-prone. Is this another Vidarbha?
NHRC blamed the crisis on a malfunctioning PDS and cancellation of ration cards of poor people. In addition, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which was introduced in six of Bundelkhand's seven districts in its first year, did not deliver the expected results. The Union Budget, which extends BREGS to another 130 districts from the present number of 200, has only increased the allocation by another Rs 700 crore to Rs 12,000 crore. A reduction in per district allocations cannot do regions like Bundelkhand much good.
A district is declared drought-prone when crop loss is over 50 per cent. Apart from Jhansi district, 80 per cent of the population lives in rural areas. Social activists in the area point out kharif loss of over 50 per cent was the norm. The rabi crop is no better, hence drought-relief work should be started without delay and NREGS implemented in its proper spirit.
According to Bhagwat Prasad, director of Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Seva Sansthan (ABSSS), "Despite the existence of employment guarantee, very large scale distress migration is taking place in most villages".
Abishek of Arunodaya points out that in Bharha village in Mahoba district, a farmer with 27 bighas committed suicide. He could not pay back a loan taken for buying a tractor due to the recent crop failures.
In Nahri village, Banda district, where five starvation deaths occurred in the lase two years, people were so fed up with official apathy that they announced a mass suicide in July 2006. A recent visit to the Dalit basti of this village revealed that conditions of extreme distress are widespread.
In Padui village of the same district, eight suicide linked to poverty and indebtedness have taken place in the last six years. In addition, nine Dalits died due to desperate efforts to earn a little income in highly hazardous conditions. The overwhelming majority of villagers are indebted to private moneylenders or banks or both. Recovery notices have been sent to several of them. Several farmers run the risk of being reduced to landlessness if their land is auctioned for loan recovery.
Abid Ali of ABSSS points out, "On the one hand, people suffer from hunger, and on the other a two years old payment of 74 quintals of grain has not been made to 45 workers in Tikariya. In many villages, anganwadis appear to be non-existent".
Meenu from ABSSS says, "Ration shops are supposed to be near villages, but people of Amchur Nerava have to travel 20 km to get their ration – a full day to go there by shuttle train and return. There is no guarantee they will get the ration".
ICDS and mid-day meals are in poor shape. Children said the quality of mid-day meals was so poor that they preferred to eat at home. As for genuinely poor people not being provided Antyodaya cards, an investigation team visited the region three months back and carried away the existing cards. People have had no access to ration since then. The Annapurna scheme for free grain, meant in particular for the old and infirm who cannot earn their livelihood, has been discontinued.
This area has several vulnerable groups such as Kol tribals, Sahariya tribals, Kabutras, Bansors, Bedni and Saperas. A special effort needs to be made to strengthen their rights.
But all is not lost. Bundelkhand has a rich tradition of constructing tanks. This can be seen in Mahoba, Charkhari and numerous other places. These have been damaged due to encroachment and lack of maintenance. Priority should be accorded to restore these structures.
Efforts to maintain an adequate level of farm productivity should be linked to land reforms which make available more land to the landless and marginal peasants.
The writer is a journalist.
Bharat Dogra, The Times of India, March 7, 2007