Yet again, a dry run in Bun­delk­hand re­gion

Yet again, a re­gion syn­ony­mous with hard­ship and farm dis­tress faces up to the tragedy of farmer sui­cides

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Deepak Par­vati­yar

The paved road, the few con­crete houses and men on mo­tor­cy­cles – these are de­cep­tive signs of devel­op­ment in madralalpur vil­lage. only a cou­ple of weeks ago, Babu, a 47-year-old dis­tressed farmer, had hanged him­self from a ba­bool tree. Vil­lagers were gath­ered at his house as his wife, mother, sis­ter-in-law and daugh­ter-in-law were in mourn­ing, flail­ing their limbs about on the ve­ran­dah. Babu’s body had been cre­mated, but the grief was in the air, live and pal­pa­ble.

madralalpur lies in the Kalpi tehsil of Jalaun dis­trict, for­mally in the state of ut­tar Pradesh. But it’s bound by cul­tural iden­tity to the Bun­delk­hand re­gion, named af­ter the Bun­dela ra­jputs who held small king­doms there for a cou­ple of cen­turies from the 14th cen­tury on­wards, and span­ning about 15 dis­tricts of ut­tar Pradesh and mad­hya Pradesh. For about 15 years now, the re­gion has be­come syn­ony­mous with drought, farm dis­tress, farmer sui­cides.

ram san­jee­van, Babu’s younger brother, spoke about his death. “on April 19 even­ing, a baraat from our vil­lage had gone to simra vil­lage, some 15 km away,” he says. “When Babu didn’t re­turn home that night, we thought even he had gone with the baraat. next morn­ing, the baraatis re­turned, but he wasn’t with them. We started look­ing for him. Then a man who herds buf­faloes came and told us he had seen Babu’s body hang­ing from a tree in his field.”

The re­gion may have seen many farmer sui­cides, but this was the first in madralalpur. so the vil­lagers are ap­pre­hen­sive. many of them are deb­trid­den, like Babu was. His sons Bhan singh and man singh, both in their 20s and mar­ried, are wor­ried about whether the bank he owed money to will come af­ter them. like many other youths in the vil­lage, they have given up on farm­ing. For three-four months ev­ery year, they go away to su­rat, in gu­jarat, to work as labour­ers on con­struc­tion sites. The ₹200-250 daily wage they earn there is more than what the nrega scheme will give them in their vil­lage.

The vil­lagers know that Babu was dili­gent and hard-work­ing. it’s just that the rain­fall has failed the vil­lage for more than three years now. He owned eight bighas in the cham­bal ravines. All that would grow there was pulses. But with no rain, even grow­ing daal, tur, gram or a hardy mil­let like jowar was im­pos­si­ble. The two tube­wells in his fields went dry. Not one to give up, Babu had joined hands with three other farm­ers and taken three bighas of bet­ter farm­land on lease to grow paddy. A hail­storm ru­ined the crop.

Babu be­gan to worry about the ₹2.5 lakh loan he had taken through his Kisan Credit Card af­ter bank of­fi­cials called at his house. “on April 17, when Babu was in his fields, they came to his house with a debtors list and said he should pay up im­me­di­ately. our mother, Babu’s wife and daugh­ter-in-law,

we were all there. When he re­turned from the fields, we told him about the of­fi­cials’ visit and he be­came very tense,” says ram san­jee­van, his brother. “He was a very hard-work­ing man, but he did not go to work the next day.”

There was threshing to be done, but the thresher lies un­used.

n n n

“in its elec­tion man­i­festo, the BJP had promised to waive loans of up to ₹1 lakh for small and mar­ginal farm­ers own­ing less than five acres. The Ut­tar Pradesh cabi­net had even pro­posed a waiver of loans to­talling ₹36,000 crore. We had thought we would ben­e­fit,” says nishad, a farmer from Babu’s vil­lage. “But this has not hap­pened.”

It would have made a big dif­fer­ence to a re­gion like Bun­delk­hand, which in the last 15 years has had ad­e­quate rain­fall only in 2009, 2012 and 2016. last year was par­tic­u­larly hard, and this year, av­er­age rain­fall has been just 350 mm against the nor­mal 1,000 mm. His­toric lakes and ponds in the re­gion are dry. one of the most fa­mous lakes here is one spread over 62 acres in Panya vil­lage. it’s be­lieved to be more than a thou­sand years old. The dry lake stands in stark con­trast to the name of Rel­a­tives of Babu, a farmer who hanged him­self, mourn at his house in Madralalpur vil­lage, Jalaun dis­trict, Ut­tar Pradesh. (Right) Babu’s sons at the parched field their fa­ther owned. Both of them work in the cities as labour­ers the vil­lage, which in lo­cal di­alect means wa­ter. “ground wa­ter is more than 200 feet be­low the sur­face and we have per­haps just a month’s sup­ply,” says latif Ali, a vil­lage elder. some 2,000 peo­ple used to live in Panya. only about 500 peo­ple re­main. The rest have mi­grated to cities in search of work.

An­other fa­mous pond of the re­gion is the Bud­dha sa­gar, in Ban­gany vil­lage, in the Jatara block of mad­hya Pradesh’s Tikam­garh dis­trict. it dates to the eighth cen­tury, the times of the chan­dela ra­jputs, who pre-date the Bun­de­las, and sup­ported life in the re­gion. But it’s dry this year, and all the ten hand­pumps in the vil­lage have gone dry. The pop­u­la­tion of the vil­lage is about 1,200, but only about 150

In Ban­gany vil­lage, Tikam­garh dis­trict, Mad­hya Pradesh, only some 150 el­derly peo­ple re­main. The young have all mi­grated to Delhi in search of work as labour­ers on con­struc­tion sites. The old sur­vive on mea­gre pen­sions of ₹150-500.

el­derly peo­ple re­main. Ev­ery­one else has mi­grated to the delhi ncr re­gion for work. The old sur­vive on mea­gre gov­ern­ment pen­sions of ₹150-500 monthly, depend­ing on age. There are 20 wid­ows, who get a pen­sion of ₹200 per month. For wa­ter, they de­pend on the Para­marth sa­maj sevi sansthan, a Jalaun-based ngo that sends wa­ter tankers to vil­lages in the re­gion, helps them build check dams, of­fers help to needy farm­ers.

sanjay singh, who works for the ngo, chimes in, “The ground is rocky, and we had to de­pend on sur­face wa­ter or rain­fall. now, there’s no rain, no wa­ter, no crop.” Vil­lagers had tried to bore deep to get wa­ter but failed. singh says mahua fruit, ob­tained from the forests, was a ma­jor source of in­come. Farm­ers could earn up to ₹10,000 by pick­ing and sell­ing the fruit, but this time, there was no fruit be­cause of bad weather in march. This has never hap­pened be­fore.

“Around 3,000 farmer sui­cides have been re­ported from Bun­delk­hand in the last 15 years,” says singh. once again, se­vere drought and wa­ter cri­sis is caus­ing a spurt in farmer sui­cides but the gov­ern­ment quite of­ten does not recog­nise all of them as such.

The death of Bikram Aher­wal, 39, a res­i­dent of Patthar­wada Tola of Kha­ju­raha Bu­jurg vil­lage in Babina block of Jhansi dis­trict, is a case in point.

Po­lice records say he died on novem­ber 19 last year, when he came un­der a train while chas­ing away an­i­mals near his fields. His wife Ra­jku­mari re­ceived ₹5 lakh in ac­ci­dent re­lief from an in­surance com­pany too. she says she has all rea­sons to be­lieve her hus­band’s death was ac­ci­den­tal. But she does con­cede that he was heav­ily in debt.

Bikram owed the grameen Vikas Bank ₹2 lakh. He had taken loans for the treat­ment of his 10-year-old daugh­ter who has a con­gen­i­tal heart de­fect. He had bor­rowed ₹50,000 from four money­len­ders, ₹18,000 from yet an­other money­len­der, morta­gaged his wife’s sil­ver or­na­ments for ₹7,000 at five per­cent in­ter­est, and taken away her gold man­gal­su­tra, ap­par­ently to raise money for get­ting a borewell sunk.

Vil­lagers say that hardly four peo­ple have been mowed down by trains in the re­gion in over 20 years, whereas there have been quite a few sui­cides by dis­tressed farm­ers. so they have rea­son to sus­pect that Bikram too may have com­mit­ted sui­cide.

Bikram’s younger brother Bra­j­man wants a proper in­quiry. He too has a bank loan of ₹80,000. “i had bor­rowed ₹32,000 in 2004 for a diesel wa­ter pump. But since there has been no crop for the last 10 years, i am un­able to re­pay the amount. With in­ter­est, it has gone up to ₹80,000,” he says. An­other brother, rati­ram, too, owes a bank ₹80,000.

The three broth­ers had in­her­ited 4.68 acres, which they divided among them­selves. Bikram, how­ever, had sold part of his share for ₹90,000 for his daugh­ter’s treat­ment. “Af­ter his death, we don’t know whether our daugh­ter will sur­vive or not,” says his wife ra­jku­mari. she says she’s ha­rassed by money­len­ders whom she doesn’t know, as they aren’t from her vil­lage and her hus­band never in­tro­duced them to her. she says that the vil­lage head re­fuses to help her re­new her BPL ra­tion card. The prad­han, though, says he’s un­able to help be­cause it’s dif­fi­cult to ac­cess the web­site. sid­dhgopal singh, a pan­chay­ati raj trainer, says it shouldn’t be dif­fi­cult for the prad­han to get the BPL card; be­sides, ra­jku­mari could also avail her­self of the pen­sion for wid­ows and get a job thor­ough nrega.

But it would still be dif­fi­cult for her to man­age, since the pen­sion and nrega pay­ments are mea­gre. And her fears about not be­ing able to get her daugh­ter treated are, alas, well-founded.

The gov­ern­ment is yet to wake up to the dis­tress call. sources say that in Jhansi dis­trict alone, 313 vil­lages are drought-af­fected, and that agri­cul­tural loss was al­most 25 to 30 per­cent more than last year. There’s no con­tin­gency plan yet. in fact, even reg­u­lar work has not been done: vil­lagers com­plain that soil health cards (which come with rec­om­men­da­tions on what crop to sow, what fer­tiliser to use) have not been dis­trib­uted dur­ing the last four years.

Queries about sui­cides are stonewalled: of­fi­cials in the ad­min­is­tra­tion in Jhansi, for ex­am­ple, say they have no sui­cide statis­tics for this year. Al­ready the is­sue is be­ing politi­cized. As Beer Pal singh, Jalaun dis­trict pres­i­dent of the sa­ma­jwadi Party, claimed, he had a com­plete list of sui­cide cases and that he had vis­ited the fam­i­lies to check. “We have clear in­struc­tions to visit each and ev­ery af­fected fam­ily and our party is go­ing to make it a big is­sue in the com­ing state as­sem­bly ses­sion,” he says.

But pol­i­tics apart, what is largely re­quired is the po­lit­i­cal will and de­ter­mi­na­tion to get into the root of the cri­sis. As Anil singh, a former teacher based in orai, the dis­trict head­quar­ters of Jalaun dis­trict, said grow­ing mul­ti­ple crops and adap­ta­tion to cli­mate change could be two such so­lu­tions, be­sides train­ing women on wa­ter con­ser­va­tion meth­ods.

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In Ut­tar Pradesh’s Jhansi dis­trict, 313 vil­lages are drought-af­fected, but there is no con­tin­gency plan yet. Of­fi­cials say they have no statis­tics for farmer sui­cides. But talk to op­po­si­tion par­ties and they have lists of farmer sui­cides, all ver­i­fied with vis­its.

Ra­jku­mari, wife of the de­ceased Bikram Aher­wal, with their daugh­ter

The Chan­dela era Bud­dha Sa­gar lake in Ban­gany vil­lage of Tikam­garh dis­trict (Mad­hya Pradesh) has been re­duced to lit­tle more than a pud­dle

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