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The price of misery: Rs 10, Rs 20, Rs 800

Those are the amounts two successive governments found fit compensation for farmers in the drought-hit Bundelkhand region. Some want to dump the cheques this summer — in the ballot box. Pankaj Jaiswal reports. India Yatra

india Updated: Mar 18, 2009 09:56 IST
Pankaj Jaiswal
Pankaj Jaiswal
Hindustan Times

There was money burning in a bonfire on an afternoon in May 2006 - cheques of Rs 10 and Rs 20 handed out by the Mulayam Singh government to farmers as compensation for three years of failed crops.

A year after furious farmers set up the bonfire outside district administrators' offices in the Bundelkhand region, another monsoon failed to arrive in Jalaun.

So 53-year-old Gulab Singh walked into his scorched fields in May 2007, uncapped a bottle of pesticide and ended his life.

The father of two owed local moneylenders Rs 2.5 lakh in Gadhar village, part of the drought-prone Bundelkhand region 200 kilometres south of the state capital of Lucknow.

Earlier that month, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party had come to power, and the misery-ripped farmers got a raise.

They got cheques of between Rs 600 and Rs 800 for their loss.

"If they still had a ballot box, I would drop this cheque in," says Beni Prasad, also of Gadhar village, waving a cheque for Rs 800.

Six of the seven districts that make up semi-arid Bundelkhand are listed among the poorest in the country.

It has had five successive years of severe drought and a decade of scarce rain.

But there are only the most basic irrigation facilities in the region, with the odd canals full of debris and poorly maintained.

Government relief is scarce because most of the land-holdings are above the 5-acre cut-off set by the Central government.

Singh's family owned 12 acres. It's been two years since the suicide, but they have received no compensation.

"His death should have had changed something, but it hasn't," says Devesh, who has a post-graduate degree in economics but must now stay back in the village to take care of his younger sister, mother, wife and three-year-old daughter.

Ahead of the general election, there is a growing resentment against a government that is seen as arbitrary, ruling by remote.

Meanwhile, Mayawati's government - which has been criticised by political opponents and Bundelkhand residents for poor governance and spending crores on massive statues and monuments - has made a last-ditch effort to look good to the electorate before the general election and claimed that had been no farmer suicides or starvation deaths in Bundelkhand "in recent times".

Three-time member of Parliament Ganga Charan Rajput from a Bundelkhand district insists this is untrue.

"I had filed an application under the Right to Information Act in 2006 and the RTI reply by state police said 1,275 farmers had committed suicide in the region between 2001 and 2005," he says. "I then collected area-wise figures from the police and sent them to both the central and state governments, to ensure they knew the details of the situation."

The BJP-BSP (2002-03) and Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party (2003-07) governed the state through most of that time.

In the years since, residents say suicides have continued but officials and the police often put them down to unexplained deaths.

Now, the politicians are back in Bundelkhand, making a political battlefield of the deaths in the area.

In January 2008, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi visited Jhansi and accused the state government of not doing anything to save the region.

Within hours, Mayawati rushed to the district and said the Congress-led government at the Centre was not releasing any relief funds for the drought-afflicted region.

"It's time for politicians to make fools of us as again," says Rajendra Singh, standing among the dry twigs in his parched field. "It's time for us to make fools of ourselves by hoping."

First Published: Mar 17, 2009 23:20 IST