It was the monsoon — or the lack of it — of 2006.
The body of Kishori Lal Sahu – father of eight girls – was found hanging from a tree in his field. His daughter Kamla (17) tells me, “The canal near our filed became defunct. Babuji tried his best to get water from other sources but in vain. He sold off land, tried selling milk, took loans through brokers but could not improve the scene.”
Kishori's body was found hanging in his filed – exactly where the defunct canal lay.
The administration, however, said the farmer killed himself as one of his daughters was having an affair with a village boy. It's another matter that the village panchayat gave a clean chit to the girl.
It was Saturday. Official drought of July 2009. I was in Pandui – a nondescript hamlet in Banda district (some 240 km south of Lucknow). I was in Bundelkhand. I was in a different world alltogether. I had heard of unseen miseries. I was seeing untold woes. It was one of the most moving assignments of my life.
On Friday afternoon, I had brought home an automatic washing machine. I was very happy. But before I could ‘feel the magic’, I got a call from office. I was to leave immediately to cover drought. When I, along with our chief photographer, got into an office car, I didn’t know what I was up against. I had no idea those bottles of packaged mineral water and packets of chips were soon to bring me so much guilt. We reached Mahoba late in the night.
Bundelkhand comprises seven districts of UP — Hamirpur, Mahoba, Banda, Chitrakoot, Lalitpur, Jalaun and Jhansi. Drought is a perennial feature. So are suicides, hunger deaths, migration and debt traps. At Pandui in Banda district, I met family members of Chunbat Dhobi. Chunbat killed himself when he could not payback the loan he never took. “The brokers admitted in a village panchayat that they trapped him. My husband became a labourer from a farmer. He sold off land but could not get out of debt trap,” says his wife Lakhsminiya. I was standing in her hut. There were clear indications she was going without food for long.
In Bundelkhand, I noticed, deaths follow suicides. These are termed natural. But they are disturbingly linked. The administration routinely probes suicides and hunger deaths but the vicious cycle continues. There’s been only 25 per cent rain. Only 30 per cent agricultural land is under cultivation. Cattleheads are perishing. People are migrating. Land being sold off.
How can all this be possible?
Villagers say banks put pressure for recoveries. But if they have taken loans, they not criminals. They are in a way partners with banks' projects which want to make money using them as convenient platforms. The cut that we have to pay up while taking loans is one main reason for failure of projects. It's like buying a tractor with two wheels less. Seventy per cent of money in banks comes from villages. If farmers get five per cent of that as loans, it's not a divine favour. Industries contributing only 30 per cent to the total capital in banks get 95 per cent of that as loans. Farmers contribute Rs 70,000 crore to the country's economy and the budgetary allocation for us is just Rs 10,000 crore – Rs 145 per farmer! And how much of it reaches to the grassroots is no secret.
At Jalalpur village in Mahoba, I met Sita Devi. She said she was better of digging a well in scorching heat under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) along with other labourers. It was a battle for survival, against nature. Now she is fighting government officials too. She tells me, “They (the officials) owe me Rs 3,000 by way of payment for the work I did. It’s been months since they promised to pay. There’s no hope now."
The well was dug last year. Sita is not alone.
In Mahoba, there is acute shortage of drinking water. "Drinking water is purified and sourced from wells and ponds. There's hardly any water in them now," says Rajendra Singh, who runs an NGO. "Villagers have to keep waiting for hours for the wells to recharge water," he added. Women fetching water from far flung areas is a common sight.
Is declaring districts of Bundelkhand, or for that matter those in other regions of the state, actually a solution or an acknowledgment? What does the new status entail? Does it guarantee a solution to all prevailing woes?
Ironically, most districts are still awaiting ‘perennial guidelines’ to ‘officially’ combat drought in its severest form. I guess allocating special funds would not help. The whole region -- which prospered only a couple of decades ago -- is going through a severe climate change due to destruction of mountains and forests and excavation of sand from rivers. The problem has to be looked at in a different way. Efforts to balance the region’s ecology — dominated by dry, deciduous forests — have not been sincere. Every year certain districts are declared drought hit but by the time it happens most of the damaged is already done. Back-to-back plantation drives worth crores of rupees have come a cropper.
While returning, I was mostly silent. I knew I had stories. But I was thinking of something else. I was reminded of the character of Mohan Bhargav in the film Swades. But do I have that much courage? Perhaps, I don’t.
But hey! It’s not my fight. I’m not party to it. My job is to inform people and let them take informed decisions.
It’s not after all very difficult to get rid of guilt pangs!