The Bundelkhand region is facing the fifth consecutive drought. And every night there is the same scene that unfolds at the Jhansi Railway Station: rows of men, women and children sleeping next to each other with their meagre belongings bundled in bags or polythene sheets, waiting to migrate to the cities. For these people, ‘getting out’ is the only option. Back home in the villages, there is very little water for farming and even less for drinking. And nobody apart from them seems to be bothered.
The calamity facing Bundelkhand is enormous. The condition in the region, comprising six districts of Madhya Pradesh and seven of Uttar Pradesh, has been noted in a report by J.S. Samra of the National Rainfed Areas Authority. “Hydrological drought was evident from 15 to 47 per cent decline in the filling of reservoirs in MP, 28 to 64 per cent in UP in the last three years. Seventy per cent of the tanks and ponds have dried up and there is a steep fall in groundwater,” it says. Considering that 80 per cent of people here depend on agriculture and livestock rearing, the lack of water has resulted in distress migration. While employment programmes can sometimes offset the loss of agriculture, there’s no alternative for drinking water. Most of the water sources have dried up and one estimate says that nearly 5,000 tankers provide water in these districts every day. A rough calculation shows that on an average one tanker is available for 3,200 people or 640 households.
This shortage of water is not only limited to parched throats. While women are being forced to spend on an average six to seven hours every day in search of water, the elite are using the vital resource as a tool
of exclusion. “The Jain sarpanch of our village makes sure that the tankers reach his home and community first,” says Muralidhar, a kewat, in Banda, UP. “The other castes have to do with only one well.”
In some areas, skirmishes for drinking water have become common. The UP government has reported 12 cases of ‘looting’ of water tankers in the last one month; 35
reports of water conflicts have been filed in police stations across the state. On June 7, four Dalits were arrested in Mahoba for ‘capturing’ a water tanker. Since then, policemen have started escorting water tankers in the district. Thousands of farm animals, a major asset for villagers, have died due to water and fodder shortage. In the MP side of Bundelkhand, the state government has marked many handpumps with signs saying ‘No Water’, ‘Less Water’ or ‘Water Available’.
This drinking water crisis is man-made. Bundelkhand was never a water-deficient area. The governments’ water policies and the lack of disaster preparedness has led to this bleak scenario that seems to have not formed a blip on the national radar. There has been no dearth of government funds either. According to the Centre’s Department of Drinking Water Supply, the UP and MP governments and the Centre have together spent Rs 50,562.16 lakh between 2005 and 2008. Even the Rs 8,000 crore package that is being finalised for Bundelkhand only allocates Rs 1,500 crore for water conservation in both states. But experts say that this is not enough considering the bad condition of the traditional water harvesting structures and for building new ones.
“The governments’ focus has been to extend the coverage of handpumps and tubewells and extracting groundwater. The recharge aspect has been completely forgotten,” says Indira Khurana, Director, Policy and Partnerships, WaterAid (UK)-India Liaison Office. “The traditional water harvesting systems have not been maintained properly while deforestation of the catchment area of such structures has led to soil erosion. And this has led to the silting up of the tanks.” Sanjay Singh of the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sanstha agrees. “Whenever there is a water crisis, the government feels the solution lies in digging new borings. But where is the water?” he asks. In Singh’s opinion, the government and the communities need to join hands to repair old water harvesting structures and build new ones to capture whatever rain falls this year and recharge the famished aquifers.
There are around 4,000 traditional water-harvesting structures that are nearly 1,000 years old in this region. Considering that the average rainfall is between 750 mm to 1,250 mm and it rains around 100 hours a year, there is no doubt that if these structures were maintained, the severity of the drought could have been reduced. “The problem is sultani not asmani,” says Utkarsh Sinha of Centre for Contemporary Studies and Research, Lucknow. “The UP government is pushing for water-intensive cash crops like mentha despite huge depletion of groundwater due to the drought.” He adds that the water table has drastically depleted in villages which have taken to mentha cultivation.
The monsoon clouds have reached Bundelkhand earlier than usual this year. But no one is complaining. This is a golden chance to replenish the empty water bodies and aquifers and capture rainwater for a dry day. As for the governments, it’s their chance to change the course of decision-making.