By Abhishek Jha:
While a drought may appear to be a natural calamity, the situation of the farmers in the face of it can be aggravated by our response to it. A new Cobrapost report unravels this aspect of droughts through a look at the droughts that regularly afflict the Bundelkhand region, which is comprised of seven districts in Uttar Pradesh (Jhansi, Jalaun, Lalitpur, Hamirpur, Mahoba, Banda and Chitrakoot) and six districts in Madhya Pradesh (Datia, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Damoh, Sagar and Panna), and has been vulnerable to drought throughout history. According to a 2014 report published by National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), a drought in the UP part of the region “became evident in 2004-05 with a 25% shortfall in monsoon rains. The rainfall deficit increased further to 43% in 2006-07 and 56% in 2007-08, leading to severe (metrological) drought conditions in Mahoba, Jhansi and Chitrakut districts. Except Tikamgarh and Datia districts, drought in the Bundelkhand region of MP commenced from 2006-2007.”
Following this shortage of rainfall, there was a severe decline in water supply (hydrological drought) in the period 2005-2007. Since more than half of the workers of the region are agriculture dependent, this was a severe crisis. The same has continued throughout, with reports of drought even this past year.
A Bundelkhand relief package was approved by the Central government in 2009 which promised Rs. 3506 crores for the state of U.P. and Rs. 3760 crores for M.P. to mitigate the drought conditions. Several hundred crores more have been provided to both the states as Additional Central Assistance since then. However, little or none of that has benefitted the people on ground, although huge portions of it have been marked spent for projects on paper. The complaints of the people range from inadequate support, poor implementation of schemes, to demands of bribe from the administration, all pointing to possible mass corruption in the disbursement of the package.
There were several schemes that were part of relief package, which could provide assistance to those involved in agriculture. Cobrapost interviewed people from four districts of the region Lalitpur, Jhansi, Chhatarpur and Tikamgarh and asked them about the implementation of the schemes related to the package.
Across districts, a common refrain heard from all interviewees is that they were asked to pay a bribe to get the compensation, which included – depending on their occupation – payment for procurement of tools, a herd of goats for rearing, a plot of land for rehabilitation, construction of wells, etc. Farmers who were promised money for procurement of tools were given substandard tools, which soon broke down. Similarly, several villagers complain that the goat-herd provided was diseased and several of the goats died. One Lachchi Ram from Kumhariya village of Jhansi was asked to build his own well, at which he tried and failed, while spending Rs 77,000. Although the well was supposed to be built free of cost for him, he was not even paid a reimbursement for his expenditure and labour.
Similar complaints of negligence are made for other public amenities that were to be provided. Sometimes the work done led to more harm than good. The check dams, being of poor quality, broke very soon. Canals built for irrigation either flood the fields or don’t reach them, wells and dairies that were built are defunct. In Vijaygarh, another village of Jhansi, local officials allegedly tried to cover up their acts during an audit by getting a contractor to fill an incomplete well with water from a tanker.
The complaints, however, did get some attention and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, visited the region in December 2011. However, Bhanu Sahai, Chairman of the Bundelkhand Package Monitoring Committee tells Cobrapost that the enquiry that was ordered has not seen any result. He also complains of the lack of transparency arising from non-computerised records, which he suggests are a ploy to embezzle money.
The sheer scale of apathy and neglect that the region has faced could become an election campaign. But one can hardly hear any mention of Bundelkhand in the increased rhetoric exchange happening ahead of the UP Assembly elections in 2017. Afraid of being reminded of one’s own dirty laundry, all parties are reluctant to make any real problem an election campaign. The BJP that rode to victory on the scam-ridden history of the incumbent governments in Maharashtra and Haryana could hardly talk of ‘development’ in Bihar. A sting conducted by Cobrapost had similarly exposed the perpetrators of the 1990s massacres of Dalits in Bihar just before the elections. Although the report saw perpetrators flaunting links with BJP leaders, the Grand Alliance did not speak a word on it, because it was the JD(U)-BJP coalition led by Nitish Kumar that had shunted the Justice Amir Das Commission investigating the massacres. In election rhetoric, Bundelkhand too is likely to be completely forgotten, just like its relief package. It is important that we pay attention to these reports and force political parties to acknowledge and solve the problem.