In drought-hit Bundelkhand, corruption is not just a tired cliché from a bad Bollywood movie, it is a life-threatening human rights emergency.

Sesame shoots in the fields of Bundelkhand make it seem there is no drought. But the crops are stunted and useless.

Bundelkhand, which comprises six districts in Madhya Pradesh and seven in Uttar Pradesh, has had a drought for seven years except the last one. At the peak of farming season this year, rains were half of normal.

In between Mahoba and Chhattarpur districts lies Khajuraho airport. Swanky roads and five-star hotels dot the tourist destination and belie the silent human catastrophe unfolding just kilometres away. Drought may have ravaged the fields but State apathy and the brazenly corrupt officials are more brutal.

Multitudes throng us in every village we visited. Willing to clutch at straws in their desperation, their voices would go: “Have you written about my mentally challenged son?”… “I applied for old age pension long back.” … “I have been anxiously waiting for my widow pension card.” “They haven't paid my NREGA wages.”

Inaccessible healthcare

Eighty-five-year old Motiya, slumped on a cot, gives out a heartrending cry as we step into his dingy hut. His wife sleeps nearby. Both have had fever for four days. Motiya has bed sores and can barely move. Villagers say that often worms crawl out of his mouth. “The other day my father defecated in bed. I cleaned him up. Where is the money to get them medicines?” asks Motiya's son Chaniya, a daily-wage labourer in Seelaun village of Chhattarpur. The government hospital is 25 km away, and rarely stocks medicines.

Cattle, abandoned on highways, and the old are among the causalities of this drought as families flee a disaster. In village after village, elders have in vain applied for pension that provides Rs. 275 a month. Often the local officials demand bribes from penniless petitioners. Also, families who own more than five acres of land are not classified as being Below Poverty Line or BPL. It does not bother the officials that the drought has rendered income from land inadequate.

Dalit woman Jhharokhan Paswan in Chandauli village of Mahoba could not complete the last rites of her husband who died of grinding hunger last year. “My blind husband died a slow painful death,” she says. A tattered sari covers her old body. Had the grain bank supported by ActionAid partner organisation Kriti Shodh Sansthan not given her 40 kg of wheat, she would have had to go on begging. Last month, she threw a dried-up chapatti on the district collector's table. He promised to mark her as BPL. And she is still waiting.

Against the wall

Despair is all too common in Bundelkhand. Rani's husband Priti Pal Singh jumped into a well in Chandauli three months back. Their three acre land had stopped yielding, and he couldn't repay a loan of Rs. 80,000 he took for his daughter's wedding. Rani has asked for a job but the sarpanch argues over how an upper caste woman can go to work! Though only slightly better-off, villagers have been generous enough to offer food. “I dread to think what will happen if they stop. Sometimes I too feel like jumping into the well,” her voice falters. Nights spent listening to her children crying out of hunger are still fresh in her memory.

Corruption exacerbates poverty in Bundelkhand. The running of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or NREGA is an example. The scheme that promises 100 days' work could have been a lifeline for rural families. But the money earmarked for it is being cleverly pocketed by formidable village council leaders and unscrupulous officials.

NREGA wages have not been paid to 200 people of Akauna village in Chhattarpur for eight months. Officials have yet to answer queries posed in March under the Right to Information Act on how many villagers got jobs in Akauna. Eighty villagers in Seelaun are yet to get remuneration. In village after village, inhabitants underline that those who are close to the panchayat leaders get NREGA work or a BPL tag.

Village council heads often refuse to accept written applications. Hence, little evidence remains of how many rural folk sought jobs and how many got them. The Afforestation Mega Campaign in Uttar Pradesh — a scheme worth Rs. 1582 million — was launched last year to boost the NREGA in drought-prone Bundelkhand. Mahoba was supposed to get 10 million saplings. “Only 40 per cent of the saplings have been sown, the rest are on paper,” reveals Manoj Kumar of Kriti Shodh Samsthan.

Six rivers have gone waterless in Mahoba. So, without food, water and jobs, people have no choice but to migrate to metropolises. Chhattarpur Collector E. Ramesh Kumar was quoted in The Hindu dated September 5, “This is not distress migration.” He attributed the movement to seeking better opportunities.

“In Delhi we live in plastic huts next to roads. At times we fall from high rises doing construction work. Does that sound like a better opportunity?” asks Ramlal.

Ramesh Kumar, in a telephonic exchange, says he is only a few months old in Chhattarpur. And that “some shortcomings” perhaps do affect some villages.

Great divide

The distance between Bundelkhand's poor and their political leaders is huge. Asked whether elected representatives have visited them ever since the polls, there are laughs all around in Chandauli.

Even as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has said the country has enough food stored to prevent high inflation, hunger is widespread in Bundelkhand.

Those who are entitled to subsidised grains in Seelaun assert the full quota of 35 kg hardly ever reaches them. Numerous people across villages wryly confess that their meals consist of chapattis and salt. Bangle seller Ramesh Lakhera says, “I remember the taste of dal.” Lakhera's earnings have plunged, and lentils cost a steep Rs. 90 per kg.

“Nearly 65 per cent of families are malnourished in 500 villages of Mahoba,” says Manoj Kumar.

In Banda district, 48 per cent of the children aged three or less are underfed. Government records reveal there are 130,000 malnourished children in Chhattarpur and 600 in Tikamgarh district. However grim these statistics may be, there's more.

“We have discovered 40 undernourished children in Kandva village of Tikamgarh who have not been mentioned in anganwadi registers. Ten are severely malnourished,” says Narendra Sharma of ActionAid. Government-supported anganwadis supposedly provide nutritious food to toddlers and pregnant women.

In Mahoba, 165 anganwadis don't function at all.

Denied rights

Rural families in Bundelkhand are routinely denied their right to health and life as they are often unable to access lifesaving treatment. The health system is seldom held to account. “Lately we rushed a young man bitten by a snake to the nearest health centre. They sent us away. He died on the way to a bigger hospital,” says Lallu Khan of Mahoba. Last year five children died of diarrhoea in Seelaun. Ramkali Ahirwar from Pratappura says bitterly, “We go to doctors when we are about to collapse. We die at home everyday.”

Asked whether the Uttar Pradesh government headed by a Dalit leader has made any difference to their lives, Phulia Rani, a Dalit woman in Chandauli, says “No.”

Meanwhile, the state website proudly announces “the historic decisions including increase in the budget for the welfare of Dalits and tribals by 41per cent”.

The author is a development journalist based in New Delhi and Hyderabad.