Moolchand Kumar Prajapati and Jaidevi broke down as they spoke of their son Sunil, 24, who hanged himself last week.
The past year was exceptionally difficult for the Prajapati family, which owns barely 1.5 bighas (about half an acre) of land at Gehra village of Mahoba district in the heart of Bundelkhand. After two successive crop failures, the rabi crop this year looked promising, but a few spells of hailstorm dashed all hopes. Reeling under a debt of Rs. 2 lakh, the fresh stretch of drought, the third year in a row, proved to be the crippling blow for a dispirited Sunil. He left behind his wife and a month-old infant. “He lost his mental balance under this stress,” Moolchand says.
As thousands of families in Bundelkhand hit by severe drought, Moolchand’s family struggles for survival. They could grow only 25 kg of oilseeds in the season and have to travel 10 km on a broken path to the nearest market to buy basic food items. This is the worst crisis faced by the family, which received just Rs.750 as compensation for damage to crops but have not received a penny as drought relief yet. The Prajapati family’s woes typify the agrarian crisis in the Bundelkhand region.
The Samajwadi Party government has declared 50 districts drought-affected. From June to September 30, the State received only 53.5 per cent of the average rainfall. In 33 districts, the figure was between 40-60 per cent, while in 16 districts, rainfall was below 40%. Most of these districts are in Bundelkhand and adjoining regions.
Driving through Banda, Mahoba, Kanpur Dehat, Fatehpur and Chitrakoot districts, one is met with vast swathes of parched agricultural land. Dry crops lie wasted on acres and acres of farmland. For miles, there is little sign of green. Canals and ponds have dried up. Since the terrain is rocky, tube wells are difficult to dig. Officials admit that with sinking groundwater levels, the water crisis will get worse. In the absence of resources, farmers are forced to feed husk to their animals, which are starving to death.
“I have never seen such a poor monsoon. We did not need an umbrella. Even potholes did not get filled,” said Ashish Sagar, an environment activist based in Banda. In the district which is at the centre of the crisis, less than 10 per cent of sown land was harvested this season, M. Venkateshwarlu, Divisional Commissioner, says.
Due to the distress, farmers are forced to take loans in the hope that the government would waive their debts. However, they are caught in a debt-trap and are struggling to make ends meet. Though officials cannot confirm if there have been starvation deaths in Bundelkhand in the current season, they admit to reporting an increase in deaths due to sadma (shock).Suicides and migration
In Padui village in Banda district, on November 27, a farmer, Devi Deen Sahu, died of a “heart attack” while he was in the field. Villagers believe he was in despair because of repeated losses of crop and a Rs. 1.7-lakh debt. Padui has achieved notoriety for farmer suicides over the past decade. The limelight attracted politicians and many relief measures for the region. But little has changed in Padui. Its farmers struggle for a living and locals say over 400 young men have migrated to Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and New Delhi in search of a living, in the past few years.
Many farmers even abandoned their land and migrated to other States to take up farming on smaller plots. The sources of irrigation have failed and power supply does not last more than 12 hours a day. Farmers are forced to spend money on diesel pumps to irrigate land. “One bigha of land requires 10 litres of diesel,” says Nandkumar Dwivedi, a farmer. While farmers blame natural calamity and government apathy for their extended woes, Mr. Sagar says the crisis has worsened due to the “destruction of the natural infrastructure” of the region. “Forests have been depleted and hundreds of ponds are dying or are encroached upon. Rampant illegal sand mining and corruption have ruined rivers and pastures are vanishing,” Mr. Sagar said. The State has suspended all revenue collection till March 31 and has intensified a drive to extend employment under MGNREGS to 150 days. The Samajwadi Party government has also sought a relief package of Rs.2,050 crore from the Centre even as a team from New Delhi is on a tour of the parched region to assess the situation.
The officials also claim they are disbursing Rs. 4,500 for non-irrigated land and Rs. 9,000 for irrigated land as compensation to each farmer.Long wait
However, when it was pointed out to them that many farmers had complained that they were yet to receive the compensation, Suresh Kumar, District Magistrate of Banda, said: “We have given out relief to 4.5 lakh farmers through transparent means. Some exceptional cases may be there where people have not received the full amount.”
Officials say they are identifying families with members unable to work under MGNREGS and providing them one quintal of wheat and 50 kg of rice. “Our priority is to make sure they don’t starve to death. We are ensuring that fair price shops work efficiently. We are seeking help from NGOs to provide counselling to farmers,” said Mr.Venkateshwarlu.