Monday, July 16, 2007

Between floods and drought

Published in The Hindu, July 15, 2007

Bharat Dogra

An oppressive socio-economic system, deteriorating environment, fickle weather patterns and wrong priorities on the part of the government together ensure an endless cycle of disasters for the people of Bundelkhand.

Providing relief to the parched land and distressed people of Bundelkhand region is becoming a matter of high priority because in recent years many hunger deaths and farmers’ suicides have been reported and distress conditions appear to be peak ing during this summer.

Bundelkhand’s mythology and history are full of inspiring stories. Its temples, tanks and other traditional water sources serve as reminders of the days when people felt inspired to create great works of art as well as utility. The reality of today, however, is very grim.

Spread over about 69,000 sq. km. in seven districts of Uttar Pradesh (Chitrakut, Banda, Jhansi, Jalaun, Hamirpur, Mahoba and Lalitpur) and six districts of Madhya Pradesh (Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh, Damoh, Sagar, Datia and Panna), Bundelkhand has been appearing in the news mostly for wrong reasons. Acute drought and distress including starvation deaths involving particularly the Sahariya community, numerous cases of acute exploitation and land grabbing from Kol tribals, and the killings and abductions by dacoit gangs.

Acute distress
However during the last three years, even such distressing news has been overshadowed by reports about suicides of small farmers and other weaker sections as well as hunger deaths. In Barokhar village of Banda district, hunger and economic distress became so acute in the family of Ameena that she committed suicide after taking the life of her daughter. In Palra village of the same district, Lalu hanged himself after he was denied a BPL (concessional) ration card despite living in acute poverty. Chunbud, a worker of Semariya village in Chitrakut district, went to the extent of digging his own grave as he was unsure of his family being able to arrange for his funeral. He then committed suicide by flinging himself in front of a train.

Padui village is an example of the extent to which people have been driven to a state of hopelessness. As many as eight suicides related to poverty and debt have taken place in this village. Pushpinder Singh, co-ordinator of Gram Swaraj Prahri, a social organisation, says, “This village’s problems started with the disruption of canal water supply. When irrigation was available, people had got used to fertilizer and tractors. But this costly technology later led to the indebtedness of many farmers.”

Sitaram Raidas (45 years) of Nivaich village, Sadar tehsil, Banda district, learnt that his antyodaya card had been cancelled even though he remains extremely poor. On the same night he had a heart attack and died . The next morning villagers collected donations for his funeral. The villagers say his name had been entered for employment guarantee scheme but he did not get a job card and he had no work for 20 days. His sons Chunnu (14 years) and Vanshgopal (16 years) are away working as migrant workers.

In the dalit basti of Panchampur village, most of the houses are locked up as people have been forced to migrate. Over a dozen other families have been reduced to begging. This tragic situation has been caused by a combination of an oppressive socio-economic system, rapidly deteriorating environment and the adverse weather conditions of recent years.
In recent decades a small number of rich and influential families have managed to corner a major share of the earnings from the forests and mines. Of course, a significant part of the loot is shared with politicians and officials, but in many parts of Bundelkhand, a part of the booty also goes regularly to dacoit gangs. Senior politicians attend social celebrations in the families of leading dacoits, and of course seek their “blessings” to win elections in return for offering them protection. In the case of agricultural land too, some of the richest families have been regularly grabbing the land of the weaker sections.

Need for humane policy
From the perspective of poverty alleviation, it is important to plan an agricultural development strategy which makes it possible for more food to be grown on the fields of small and poor farmers. 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. Farm technology should be in tune with the low resource base of the most farmers and their inability to make big investments particularly in increasingly uncertain weather conditions. The tendency for equating agricultural progress with the spread of crop varieties which respond better to higher doses of chemical fertilizers should be given up. On the other hand, the potential for obtaining good yields using local resources such as compost, neem or other plant-based pesticides should be explored as much as possible. The growing market for organically grown farm produce should be tapped to obtain good returns for farmers.

This area has several vulnerable groups such as the Kol tribals, Sahariya tribals, Kabutras, Bansors, Bedni and Saperas. A special effort needs to be made to strengthen their rights and improve their socio-economic position.

The presence of granite in Bundelkhand makes it difficult to rely on groundwater in most places. Keeping in view the limited supply of ground water that could be obtained, handpumps and tubewells were either not successful or caused a rapid drying up of ordinary wells used by other people, mostly poorer people.

As forests disappeared, the possibilities of rainwater being conserved below the ground decreased and as traditional tanks were neglected, the possibilities of surface conservation also decreased. This is how water scarcity became acute in many villages despite the increased spending on water schemes. Neglected tradition

Bundelkhand has a rich tradition of constructing tanks in a highly skilled way. Unfortunately, many of these have been badly depleted or damaged due to encroachment and lack of maintenance. Many dam projects in recent decades have proved to be a failure. So there is an urgent need for the proper maintenance and repair (including clearing encroachments) of all existing tanks which can still be salvaged. This should be done with the involvement of the local people as a people’s movement. Similarly, new sites should be selected for the construction of new tanks wherever possible. The maintenance of tanks used to be a part of the culture of these villages. An attempt to revive this should be made.

Recently the government has made available lots of funds for the Ken-Betwa river link scheme while the repair and maintenance of many invaluable tanks is neglected. This project involves two rivers, the Ken and the Betwa, both of which arise in Madhya Pradesh.
The Ken-Betwa project consists mainly of a new dam and a 250 km canal to link the two rivers, transferring water from Ken to Betwa. However, people in the Ken river areas as well as independent experts question the main assumption on which this project is based — the existence of surplus water in Ken.

Wrong estimate
The government says that displacement will be limited but people point out that already estimates of people to be displaced are rising much above earlier estimates and all direct and indirect displacement due to the dam and the link-canal should be included to get a realistic estimate. A part of the Panna tiger reserve and a larger forest zone will also be submerged by this project.

Local people also argue that problems relating to many previously constructed projects on these rivers should be tackled first. Gaya Prasad Gopal, a senior social activist of this area, was closely involved in the relief work for two massive floods caused by the sudden release of water from dams. He cannot forget the destruction caused by these floods. “We should first try to correct the existing system so that such tragedies are not repeated in future.”Not the solution
At a “Water Parliament” of Bundelkhand region, many speakers, including social/ environment activists and independent experts, expressed concern that this project can worsen the water scarcity in some areas and floods/ water logging in other areas. A resolution passed said that lakhs of people in both Ken and Betwa river areas will be exposed to unprecedented tragic consequences as a result of this project. This resolution then called upon the Government of India to abandon this project.

It is tragic that massive funds are sanctioned all too readily for projects of dubious merit while smaller demands for highly useful repair and maintenance of tanks are neglected. Clearly there is a need for correcting priorities, or else the cycle of floods and droughts may worsen.Survival at stake

A recent survey of four blocks of the Bundelkhand region of U.P. by Action Aid and partner organisations confirmed threats to food security and even survival of several villages.
In Naraini and Mankipur blocks only five per cent had access to nutritionally balanced food, while in Madhogarh and Rampura blocks, it was 10 to 15 per cent. These levels of malnutrition reflect the situation in a bad year like the current one.

In Madhogarh, and Rampura blocks and in Manikpur block about 25 per cent of the families can’t afford to fill their stomachs even with nutritionally poor diet like roti-chatni or roti-namak while in Naraini block the percentage of hungry people was even higher.

Indebtness of most rural households is increasing at a fast pace. This include indebtedness to banks as well as private moneylenders. In some villages people said that all families are indebted. Many families receive bank notices for recovery of loan, while some have even been locked up in tehsil jails in highly distressing and humiliating conditions.

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