Even as the Centre-State political tussle over Bundelkhand goes on, drought-hit Chhattarpur district of the region is on its way to becoming the epicentre of exodus. While farmers have been migrating from the region for the past three years, this year every day thousands of people are making an exodus, induced by distress, in a bid to eke out a living in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab.

The reasons: crop failure, massive debt, chronic unemployment and a practical failure of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

According to local estimates, Chhattarpur alone has seen over 1,50,000 farmers migrate over the last one month. Even though it has been declared drought-hit, farmers complain almost uniformlythat no relief has reached them yet.

The district administration maintains that as long as there is a standing crop, the drought situation cannot be fully assessed.

Even as the government remains in assessment mode, entire families can be seen waiting at the Chhattarpur bus stand to catch the next bus. Similarly, the Jhansi railway station witnesses farmers and their families coming every day in droves to board trains to Delhi.

“Every day 8,000 to10000 people leave,” says Rakesh Naik, a private operator at the Chhattarpur bus tand. “People have been migrating for the last three years, but never like this. Go to the villages, if you really want to see palaayan [migration],” he says.In villages, rows of houses lie locked, the occupants having migrated. The few houses that are still occupied have only children and old men and women as they cannot work.

“All three of my sons have migrated to repay loans,” says Suniya Bai (60) of Akona village in Rajnagar block. Tears roll down her cheeks as she looks at her 17-year old daughter Neelam.

“Now we don’t have money for her marriage. My sons return once in a while, but how much can they give and for how long? They have their own families to support,” she says.

Every one seems to agree that distress migration this year is unprecedented. But Collector E. Ramesh Kumar does not agree. “Well, people are moving, but it is definitely not distress migration,” he says. People have a tendency to move out for better opportunities. I have come from Andhra Pradesh because I have better opportunities here. It is simple,” he adds. But a farmer, Shambhu Dayal, asks: “Why would we want to leave our homes? There they call us thieves and murderers. The police keep questioning us and we have to bribe them,” he says. Dayal, from Dheemarpura village in Tikamgarh district, is working in Haryana. Dheemarpura, inhabited solely by the traditional fishing community of Dheemars, is on the verge of occupational extinction.

After the ancient Sindur Saagar Lake, their only source of livelihood, began drying up three years ago, most of them had to quit their traditional occupation and leave the village to find employment outside. Now almost 70 per cent of the houses at Dheemarpura lie locked.

Disturbing trends

A disturbing trend — defying conventional migration patterns—is that people are moving out permanently as opposed to temporary or seasonal exodus all these years. There is also a shift from short distance, rural-rural migration for agricultural labour, to long distance, rural-urban migration for employment in the construction sector.

Till last year, farmers left only after Diwali or towards the end of the kharif season, and returned home for rabi harvest by March. However, this year, they are left with no option other than leaving during the mid-kharif season.

“S abke upar karzaa hai (Everybody is in debt),” says Kariya Ahirwar, a Dalit farmer from Majhora in the Bakswaha block. “I borrowed Rs. 50,000 at an annual interest of 60 per cent for this wasted crop. The only way I can repay it is from the rabi gram if I am lucky or by leaving the village for work.”

As farming in Bundelkhand depends almost entirely on monsoon, farmers have to wait another year for rains or migrate to Delhi to become daily-wage labourers.

The families are moving with all their belongings, including foodgrains and piles of wood, so that they can manage at least for the first few days on reaching Delhi.

But survival it is, after all. In their own villages, it is difficult for them to make ends meet. Most farmers have preferred not to work under the NREGA as wages for work done seven or eight months ago are yet to be paid.

However, migration hardly seems to solve their problems. The cycle of exploitation that starts with debt at the village level, continues at the bus stand, where high fares are collected, and culminates in desperate living conditions and poor wages in Delhi.

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