In 2013, farmer Shivpal killed himself. His son, Jagjit, has still not recovered from the loss.
He says, “My father had taken a loan from a government bank as well as a private money lender. He had a bigha of land and three sons, including me. He hanged himself from a tree.”
Shivpal’s suicide was not the first in the twin village of Paduee-Madhopur in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh.
For that matter, the worsening agricultural distress caused by repeated crop failures because of back-to-back droughts in the semi-arid Bundelkhand region has been in the spotlight since July 2006. Kishorilal Sahu had committed suicide then.
The suicide triggered outrage, particularly after a senior district official suggested that Kishori had killed himself because one of his daughters was “characterless”. The insensitive remark made the villagers furious, recalls Ashish Sagar, a drought and right to information campaigner in the region. For some time, the villagers observed ‘chulha bandi’, a strike by putting out the kitchen fire, to protest the farm crisis.
“My husband had around six bighas and a loan of nearly Rs 1 lakh. Owing to crop failure, debt distress and the fact that he had six daughters, he hanged himself,” Shobha Devi, his widow, says.
Bundelkhand straddles southern UP and northern Madhya Pradesh. Seven districts — Banda, Mahoba, Jhansi, Chitrakoot, Jalaun, Lalitpur, and Hamirpur — are in UP. Only about 32% of the region’s cultivated area is under irrigation, but even that fails at the time of drought.
When crops wither, many farmers wilt under debt and despair. There have been six confirmed farmer suicides in Paduee-Madhopur since 2006. There have been two more such incidents but they cannot be attributed, at least directly, to drought. Human rights organisations say the figures are way higher – in thousands. Each time there is an election, politicians land up to promise relief. But villagers think little will change.
Politics of packages
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who was the party general secretary then, visited the village in 2008.
Ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh announced a Rs 7,266-crore package. Of that, Rs 3,506 crore was sanctioned to the UP part of Bundelkhand.
The package covered 2009 to 2012 initially, but was extended to March 31, 2015 because the state government did not utilise the money within the deadline.
But funds were not utilised the way they should have been. Then deputy chairperson of the now-defunct Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, expressed dismay during his review and inspection of the package in December 2011. He found the work that had been done to be substandard and ordered withholding of the second installment of funds to UP.
In October 2015, Yogendra Yadav’s ‘Swaraj Abhiyan’ survey led by economist Jean Dreze studied the drought-affected regions of the country, including UP’s Bundelkhand.
“The scenario in UP’s Bundelkhand is far more grim than what it has been in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha. Instead of packages, some concrete, region-specific long-term measures are required to tackle the region’s problems. Packages have proved futile,” Yadav says.
Acheylal Raidas is an ailing Dalit in the village, whose case explains how distress intersects with electoral politics.
“In 2008, Rahul Gandhi came to me while I was ill. I had just lost my 16-year-old son.” Gandhi told him that he should consider him his own son. Raidas voted for the Congress in 2009, but Rahul never returned. In 2012, he voted for Akhilesh Yadav, but still, no relief came his way. In 2014, he voted for BJP, but there was still no change.
But there has been a shift just recently. “Akhilesh Yadav fulfilled the promises that Rahul Gandhi had made. He gave me a Lohia Awas (brick house) and Rs 2 lakh,” he says.
As elections approach, villagers expect politicians and the media to trek back to the region. Gandhi has already pledged to waive loans and reduce power bill.
The ruling Samajwadi Party is giving out ‘drought relief ration boxes’ to the poor. Several BJP leaders have spoken about statehood for the region. Despite the din, few in Bundelkhand expect the 2017 verdict to address their distress.