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No respite in sight: why is Bundelkhand's drought crisis only worsening?

Raghvendra Pratap Singh | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

Bundelkhand is reeling under a severe drought, and it is worsening by the day. There is already an acute shortage of water, for people as well as cattle, and hand pumps and wells are drying up fast. The livelihood of over 18.2 million people is at stake.

The crops have wilted, leaving farm labourers without any work. The only source of employment is the MGNREGA, but the work on offer is grossly inadequate for the demand. Thousands of families are staring at starvation, particularly in Banda, Hamirpur, Mahoba and Chitrakoot districts. The situation is especially grim in the hinterland, where people are fleeing their homes in droves. The fields are parched with no water in sight for miles.

Only sediment remains in the big canal that runs parallel to the road from Bariarpur dam to Pangara - as stark a picture as any of the devastation the third consecutive year of drought has wreaked.

Water scarcity

Ken and Yamuna, the main rivers of Bundelkhand, are barely carrying any water, which had drastically reduced the moisture in the soil. Smaller rivers like Banganga and Kadaili in Banda; Valmiki in Chitrakoot; Keolari, Varma and Urmil in Mahoba; and Chandrawal in Hamirpur are in an ever worse condition.

The desiccated surface water resources mean ground water isn't replenished; and the traditional water management system lies in tatters. Unabated mining and deforestation is only compounding the crisis.

Indeed, such is the shortage of water and fodder, a large number of farmers have been forced to abandon their cattle. 

Mass migration

The drought is forcing thousands of farmers to migrate, most of them leaving in search of jobs in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat. Locked houses are a common sight in the interior areas of Lalitpur district.

A report released recently by the union government revealed that over 32 lakh people have left Bundelkhand in the past few years as the conditions have become increasingly unsustainable.

According to the report, Banda is the worst-affected district, with 7.37 lakh people migrating, followed by Jhansi with 5.58 lakh people and Orai-Jalaun with 5.38 lakh. The figures are no less alarming for Hamirpur, Lalitpur, Chitrakoot and Mahoba, with 4.17 lakh, 3.81 lakh, 3.44 lakh and 3 lakh migrations, respectively.

Bundelkhand drought has forced 7.37 lakh people to migrate from Banda district, 5.58 lakh from Jhansi

Most small farmers of Bundelkhand depend on moneylenders for meeting cultivation costs. But the usurious interest rates, coupled with frequent crop failures and unemployment, has left them mired in debt. As a result, at least 3,280 farmers have committed suicide in the region between April 2003 and March 2015, according to government records. Activists believe the actual number is much higher.

This year, as if the sweltering heat was not enough to destroy the crops, a hailstorm in March has dashed all hopes of any harvest. Now, hardly a day goes without local newspapers reporting a farmer suicide.

Indifferent state

Bundelkhand isn't unfamiliar with drought, but this one is taking a huge toll, not least because of the government's indifference and ineptness. Most of the officials posted in the region seem uninterested in mitigating the crisis. Not that their political bosses have done anything worthwhile either.

Though the government recently released Rs 200 crore for relief measures, local activists doubt it would be utilised judiciously by the grassroots state machinery.

The government has spent over Rs 400 crore on reforestation efforts in Bundelkhand over the past decade. The Uttar Pradesh forest department claims to have planted 15.91 crore trees in the region between 2005 and 2011. In 2012-13, Rs 82 crore was spent on the "greenification" of the region.

But Bundelkhand is anything but green? Well, say the forest department officials, the drought is to blame for the failure of their efforts.

Modi regime's response to Bundelkhand drought: Rs 1,304 crore relief package, 150 MGNREGA work days

The Prime Minister's Office recently announced Rs 1,304 crore for drought relief in Bundelkhand under the National Disaster Relief Fund. Additionally, work days under MGNREGA were increased to 150 days for the region. It was also announced that the National Rural Livelihood Mission would be "intensified" and its "coverage extended to all the blocks" for "alternative sources of income".

The Akhilesh Yadav regime in Uttar Pradesh, which has declared 52 of its 75 districts as "drought-hit", has demanded a Rs 2,057-crore relief package from the Narendra Modi government.

Alok Ranjan, the chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh, has ordered "cleaning of existing surface water resources, among other measures, to relive the effects of drought". The farmers have been asked to use plastic pipes for irrigation to conserve water. The government is also "focusing on conservation of water reservoirs along with construction of water tanks and building of wells and farm ponds on priority under various projects and schemes".

Feeding off misery

While it is causing untold misery to the people, the drought seems to be a "boon" for NGOs. Credible estimates indicate that nearly 3,000 NGOs are currently "working" in the seven districts of Bundelkhand - some of them registered locally, but most based outside the region. The number of NGOs actually working on the ground though is no more than a dozen. The rest are only minting money in the name of helping Bundelkhand's people. Allegedly, relatives of several senior officials are also making good of this opportunity.

First published: 15 April 2016, 7:35 IST