People carry water from the Ken river on bullock carts to their homes in Backcha Gadar village.(Haider Naqvi)
People carry water from the Ken river on bullock carts to their homes in Backcha Gadar village.(Haider Naqvi)

Rain deficit bleeds Bundelkhand dry

Water scarcity in Bundelkhand has rendered farmlands useless and vast swathes of land have wild outgrowths instead of crops.
Maudaha, Hamirpur | By Haider Naqvi
UPDATED ON JUL 11, 2019 07:28 AM IST

On June 19, Rajkali woke up as usual at 4:30 am only to find her husband, Sheetal Babu, 40, hanging from a tree in the far left corner of the courtyard. Because of the drought, he had not farmed his 18 bigha of land in two years and his outstanding bank loan had swelled to Rs 3.35 lakh.

“I have to work as a labourer to feed all these mouths, and my eldest son is more interested in wandering around with his friends,” said Rajkali, sitting in her tiny kutcha home that opens into a courtyard crowded with people.

“I need him [her 14-year-old son] to work with me in Hamirpur or Maudaha, where I can get Rs 300 a day. If he works, I will get an extra Rs 100-150,” said Rajkali, who has to provide for her family of 10.

The government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), which offers Rs 176 for a day’s labour, doesn’t work for her because of delays in cash transfers. “What would I be left with after paying the mandatory 15% commission to the gram panchayat secretary, and what’s worse is that the payments come in months. Last year, the payment backlog stretched to 10 months,” she added.

Her husband Babu, like many other men from Mundera, which has a population of 1,600, had moved to Kanpur to work as a daily wager. “He earned Rs 400 a day, which was not enough to repay the loans he had taken for farming. Like water, our destiny too has disappeared,” said Rajkali.

Village headman Ram Kishore says Babu suffered losses as scanty rainfall had ruined his crops. “He did not have Rs 400 per bigha needed to pay to private borewell operators who provide water when they have it.”

Water scarcity in Bundelkhand has rendered farmlands useless and vast swathes of land have wild outgrowths instead of crops. “In the dark zone of Hamirpur, where the groundwater level has fallen by an average 100-150 feet, the majority of farmers grow just one crop. At present, water availability is more than 250 feet largely across Bundelkhand and at some places it goes much beyond that,” said Shashi Shekhar, a local water activist in Banda.

Bundelkhand, which comprises seven districts, has been facing a rain deficit for many years, leading to drought-like conditions. “The average rainfall should be around 800-850mm but it is roughly half of it in the last decade or so,” said Gopal Bhai, 80, convener of the Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Seva Sansthan, a body working for the alleviation of water crisis.

“It has caused recurring loss of crops in the region, which has agriculture in the core of its economy. Little changes in the way we do things to solve this crisis can make a huge difference. We have shown the way but who listens,” he rued.

The collateral impact of this persistent crisis has been on local children, many of whom have been taken out of schools to work. Rajkali’s son Mahendra has already been taken out of school and his mother wants him to become a wage labourer as soon as possible. His three siblings also no longer attend school.

They are not the only ones. Virendra was taken out of school when he turned 13 to work in a dhaba in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar town. The same year, Ramkesh was forced to leave school and join his brother in a brick kiln in Etawah town in UP. A senior official in the UP labour department said on condition of anonymity that water stress has exacerbated this problem, and even after the children have been rescued, parents are reluctant to put them back in school. In one case last year, he said, parents of children rescued from a dhaba in Banda refused to lodge a police complaint.

Farmers in Bhamai, a village of 2,000 people about 2km away from Mundera, haven’t sown anything the last two years, and around 70% of the male population has moved away from farming to work in brick kilns or to find unskilled jobs in cities.

“When there is no water, what is the point in farming? This is not only the story of Bhamai, same is the case with adjoining villages too,” said Bade Singh of Bhains Mari village, where around 1,300 people live. Around 55-60% of the population moves out of the region every year in search of jobs, according to data available with Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Seva Sansthan.

“This population returns at the time of sowing in July, hoping to find work in the farmlands and stays here for four months before moving out again because of water shortage. In a nutshell, the stay depends on monsoon and water,” said Gopal Bhai.

Rajkali, who prepares for one such move to Hamirpur or possibly Kanpur with her children after “teravi” (a Hindu ritual performed on the 13th day of the death of a person) finds it a better option. “When men can’t do farming how can I with small children,” she asked.

Sifting through her options, she is now training her eldest daughter Dipanshi, 12, for household chores with the help of her sister Rameshwari.

Dipanshi was withdrawn from the Anganwadi school two years ago, and the youngest daughter Priyanshi after Babu’s death.

“We do not have food to eat or water to drink. The bottom line is, education is the least my children need,” Rajkali said, adjusting the saree on her head. “Dipanshi can take care of household issues when I am away.”

As prospects of rain do not look good again this year, the entire Bundelkhand region is locked in an unending struggle.

The 2,000 inhabitants of Bakcha Gadar village depend solely on water from the Ken river. They put water containers in bullock carts and navigate through treacherous 3km-long mud tracks three to four times a day to fetch water from the river and distribute it among 350 families. “They have to pass through my fields that we are no longer using in the larger interest of the village and people,” said Ranvijay Singh, a villager.

The two handpumps in Bakcha give saline water, which is unfit for consumption or use. The administration sends one or two tankers a day, but it is not enough to cater to the needs of the entire village.

Kamlesh Singh, a village elder who leads the caravan every morning, says the perennial river remains the only source of water to the people.

“Here animals and human drink the same water,” he said, pointing to the dogs and buffalos in the water.

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