Why Bundelkhand is on the verge of the worst-ever famine

Blame it on misplaced policies and priorities


Shubhendu Parth | February 5, 2016

The sun had just set in this village of Tikamgarh district in Madhya Pradesh. The sudden darkness engulfed us as our car was about to hit the well-carpeted single-lane road at the end of a nearly 2.5 km dirt track. Our vehicle came to a screeching halt. As the dust began to settle, 10, 50, 60… over 100 faces emerged in the yellow beam of the vehicle’s headlights. They were signalling us to stop. While a few men were standing in the middle of the road, some were even sitting there blocking more than half of the road.

“Sir, let us move out of this place,” said a local who was traveling with us as a guide till the nearest main road, lest we lose our way. “They are from the colony of scheduled tribes from the village that we just visited. We have already heard them.”

Yogendra Yadav, who was leading a volunteer team of Swaraj Abhiyan (a political group he and Prashant Bhushan formed after quitting AAP) that I was accompanying to study the impact of rain deficit in Bundelkhand region, asked the driver to stop.

As he rolled down the window, we could hear women, children and elderly requesting us to listen to their story. I could easily identify Om Prakash whom I had spoken barely 20 minutes ago during our visit to Kodiya village earlier in the evening. He seemed better off than others and was motivating others to speak up their concerns without fear during our visit at the village.

“They are from two nearby ST (scheduled tribes) colonies. They want to tell you their side of the story,” Om Prakash said. What is it that they want to tell us now, I thought. Is there more of drought than what meets our eyes or is it about the atrocities by the upper caste and the well-off? The man had pulled me in a corner during our earlier interaction in the village to inform me that the number of rape cases and exploitation of the women folk has gone up recently.

“People have deserted their homes or left their families and moved to cities and towns for better jobs and work opportunities. A lot of women and young girls are staying alone. Some people in the village are taking advantage of the situation,” he had whispered to me.

“I am not an officer or MLA or minister,” Yadav told the crowd. “I cannot do anything except try to convey your message and write a letter to the chief minister and other ministers. My journalist friend can write about the drought situation and your plight,” he added.

“Kachhu baat nahi, saab. Hamar mann ke baat to aap sunhai sakat ho. Shayad aap kachhu kar sako, nahi to aaj talak kou hamar sudhi naahi lin (It does not matter, sir. At least you can listen to us. Perhaps you will be able to do something. No one else has even bothered to even ask us how we were doing),” said another villager, Sundar, in local Bundeli language. He was around 45 years and I had spoken with him in the panchayat ground of Kodiya.

“Sahab, mora mori lei kachu nahi hai khan ko (Sir, I do not have anything to feed my son and daughter),” said a women as we got down from the car. The crowd of over 150 people walked behind us as we headed towards a shed that had an incandescent bulb at the door. Soon the villagers spread a sheet that was made by stitching together HDPE (high-density polyethylene) fertiliser bags, and under the headlights of the two SUVs we were travelling in, it became our jan sabha – the third on our first day of the four-day tour of five districts across Bundelkhand region. We were on our way to Tikamgarh town in Madhya Pradesh for the night stay after visiting Mastapur and Kodia villages earlier on this hot winter afternoon.

The great water emergency
The helplessness was all pervasive. They wanted to grab the only opportunity to get heard – to convey their plight, and their worries that the nearby Jamni river had water just enough to last two months; they had just one tube-well that could fill only two pots in 15 minutes; or the fact that the only well, located one and a half km away, had almost dried up with just a month’s water for animals. The old pond nearby had completely dried up, despite the fact that the villagers had silted it.

“Every family contributed one man each day for over a month to silt the pond and deepen it. But it did not help much because of scanty rain,” said a villager. Om Prakash had told me that the villagers were hopeful that the canal which was supposed to bring water from the Jamni and Katraunda dam would improve the water level in Kodiya but there was no progress on this since the forest department was yet to give its clearance. Besides, for reasons unknown, the authorities had changed the route of the proposed canal, shifting it a few a kilometres away from the village.

Interview: Yogendra Yadav, leader, Swaraj Abhiyan

“We are facing a huge shortage of drinking water. The nearest well that still has water is one and a half kilometre away. How many times can we bring water? Do we give it to our kids or the cattle?” said a woman with child in her lap.

“There is no water. The entire pulse crop was destroyed because of a hailstorm during last season. Had sown 50 kg and somehow just managed to reap as much. Majority of the rabi crop has dried up. Whatever is left will come handy as fodder,” said a man who had informed us that all of his five acre land is barren because he could not sow anything. The voices started echoing.

“Most households have one or two cattle. We take them to the nearby well for water. The water from the well is not good for human beings. There is a hand-pump near the house of the Bade Maharaj (sarpanch). Sometimes we bring water from there. But it is quite far. How many times can children and women go there?” another villager added. Still another chipped in, “We used to irrigate our land by pumping water from the pond but now it has dried up. The river is also drying up. It may last for a month or two.”

It was the same story at Mastapur village and the main Kodiya village. And there seemed no end to it – Lakhairi, Bar and Matguwan in Tikamgarh district; Papta and Mamaun in Chhatarpur; Rajwara in Lalitpur; Sijahri, Basora, Palka and Majhalwara in Mahoba; Gehbra, Bhabani, Bhamai, Baijamau and Garaha in Hamirpur – all of them had tales of economic hardship, water and food scarcity, large-scale migration, unemployment, distress and crisis written across the villages and on people’s faces. And then there were elders and cattle abandoned to fend for themselves because the family and the owners had no means to buy food and fodder for them.

“Both my sons are away. I don’t know where they are but I believe they are earning well somewhere in cities, enough to feed and take care of their children and wife,” said Buddhudin of Sijahri village in Mahoba district in UP. He has a few acres of land that has remained fallow for two years and a house whose walls may collapse any day; in fact, except for the external wall, the main door and a small hallway that now serves as his place of rest, the internal walls have already given away to the neglect.

With his age nearing 85, he does not have strength, and more importantly courage, to work anymore. Three of his five sons died, and he lost his wife also some years back. “I manage with whatever my neighbours give me. But it seems even they will not be able to support me any further. How many times can I ask someone from the village to bring me water from the tube-well?” “Bahut door hai nalkoop,” he says adding that days pass without taking bath because his one pitcher is not sufficient for all the water needs of the day.

These villages have a common story to tell, Yadav pointed out later. “The region is going through an unprecedented water emergency. If we go strictly by rainfall data, Bundelkhand has seen droughts worse than this. However, this year’s drought has hit the region on top of the long escalating misery of almost 10 years’ of freak weather and a series of rainfall-deficient agri seasons.

“Bundelkhand and Marathwada [in Maharashtra] are the two worst drought-affected areas in the country. When we set out for the Samvedna Yatra last year, there was a lot of talk about Marathwada. And the condition is indeed very bad there. The ground water had dipped to 600 feet, and there is a massive migration of people for work. But as soon as we reached Bundelkhand, we realised that it was the real epicentre of the drought in the country.”

Drought or famine?
A survey by the Swaraj Abhiyan and my interaction with the villagers clearly indicated an acute shortage of potable water for humans and cattle and other domestic use. The current water resources can provide water for humans and cattle for not more than 60 days and while 90 of cultivable land has no irrigation available.

Yadav’s fear of an ensuing famine is echoed by majority of villagers and elders whom I met during my whirlwind visit to 17 villages. Ask anyone in this region – from a school-going child to a middle-aged woman or a relatively prosperous farmer – about the problem and one gets the same answer, as if the crisis has united people across caste and creed.

My guide in Mahoba, Vijay Kumar, the newly elected sarpanch of Kabri Mahoba, pointed out that the 700-year-old lake that was built by the Chandel king near Sijahri village in Mahoba had completely dried up for the first time. “This is all because of the government’s wrong policies,” alleged Bhavani Din from the same village. The village hill surrounding the lake has been given to miners for stone mining which has completely destroyed the natural catchment area. “If we lose the mountains how will the rain water reach the lake? The rain water used to flow down from the nearby hills to fill up the lake. With the hills gone, the water gets absorbed in the soil or gets evaporated,” added Baijnath, another resident of Sijahri.

Umakant Nayak, Raju and Dharam Das narrated a similar story of the Purana Talab in Papta village of Chhatarpur. The large pond, which is popularly known as Khajua Talab because its water causes itching, has also dried up – for the first time, as far as the three men in their mid-20s could remember. This pond has been the traditional source of drinking water for cattle and livestock.

A dam one kilometre away from Khajua Talab, built two years back to conserve water of the Mamun Talab – a catchment area that gets replenished with rain water that flows from the surrounding hills and highland – too has very little water. “It will dry up by April or May,” remarked Kasturam Adivasi, who has a five-acre farmland adjacent to the dam. “The dam still has some water left for animals but I cannot pump it to my fields. It is illegal. My bore-well has no water. The crop and the land are fast drying up,” he said. Kasturam has a family of seven. While his father and two elder brothers have left for Indore and Ghaziabad in search of work, he along with his mother and two sisters looks after the cattle back home.

The impact is there to see: the deficit rainfall and dried-up water sources have badly affected sowing of the rabi crop. Driving through Lalitpur, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Mahoba and Hamirpur, one could see a series of fallow fields – some that had been tilled but not sown, others that still have the remains of the last season’s produce, some with a drying crop that farmers have now given up on and left for the cattle, somewhere villagers are playing cricket or cards.

According to a rough estimate based on our interaction with farmers and the village level survey by the Swaraj Abhiyan, not more that 10 percent of land in any district of the region had any cultivation.

But was the situation always as severe?

From bad to worse

Spread across 70,000 sq km in 13 districts in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Bundelkhand region mainly constitutes non-arable land that has traditionally been rain-fed with diverse crops. However, experts have always tagged its topology as complex, under-invested, risky and vulnerable. The report of an inter-ministerial central team headed by national rainfed area authority CEO JS Samra in 2009 on drought mitigation strategy for Bundelkhand also pointed out that the extreme weather conditions like droughts, short-term rain and flooding in fields have for centuries added to the uncertainties and seasonal migrations here. Scarcity of water in the semi-arid region, poor soil quality and low productivity have further aggravated the problem of food security in the region during the last 30 years.

Bundelkhand: factsheet

Area: 70,000 sq km¬ (slightly bigger than Sri Lanka that is spread across 65,610 sq km)
Population: 1.83 crore (as per Census 2011); Population growth rate: 18.06 percent

Economic profile

  • Approximately 60 percent of the population is workers. Of these workers, almost 60 percent are working in the agricultural sector as cultivators and agricultural laborers.
  • The landless in the region primarily earn their living as agricultural labour and as workers in mines and quarries.
  • There is a large-scale migration to bigger cities and metros as well.
  • About 46 percent of net sown area of Uttar Pradesh and 45 percent of Madhya Pradesh Bundelkhand is irrigated with poor and erratic supplies.
  • Ground water over utilisation is predominant and open dug-wells provide much needed water for irrigation and drinking.
  • Over 58 percent of credit in the region was raised at high rate of interest – ranging from 3-8 percent – from non-institutional sources. Cooperative banks served only 7-10 percent of loans, catering majorly to big farmers.
  • Average 96 percent farmers depend on earning from crop and livestock.
History of drought

1873-74: The ‘panic famine’

1896–1897: The all-India famine began in Bundelkhand early in 1895 and spread across many parts of the country, including the United Provinces, Central Provinces and Berar, Bihar, parts of the Bombay and Madras presidencies, and the Hissar district of Punjab. The princely states of Rajputana, Central India Agency and Hyderabad were also impacted.

1895 (autumn): Poor summer-monsoon rain triggers drought in Bundelkhand district.

1896: Famine in the region after bad winter monsoon that followed 1895 summer crop failure.

1905-06: Bombay and Bundelkhand provinces were affected by severe drought and cholera outbreak.

Recent droughts

2002-03: Six districts of MP and three districts of UP affected

2004-10: Below average and erratic rain reported in most part of the region during the period with the UP part of Bundelkhand suffering 25 percent shortfall in monsoon rains in 2004-05. The rainfall deficit increased further to 43 percent in 2006-07 and 56 percent in 2007-08, leading to severe metrological drought conditions. Drought affected all six districts of MP Bundelkhand and five districts of UP Bundelkhand in 2009.


Historians also point out that what was once Bundelkhand district of Agra Province had faced drought in the autumn of 1895 after poor summer-monsoon rains. The Imperial Gazetteer of India (Vol. III 1907, p. 490-91) notes that when the winter monsoon also failed in the same year, the provincial government declared a famine early in 1896. The Samra report further notes that the region experienced a major drought every 16 years during the 18th and 19th centuries. The frequency increased by three times during 1968-1992.

During 1905-06 Bombay and Bundelkhand provinces were affected by a severe drought and a cholera outbreak. “However, drought-associated mortality is unknown for Bundelkhand,” points out the National institute of disaster management (NIDM) in its 2014 report ‘Bundelkhand Drought: Retrospective Analysis and Way Ahead’.

“Historically, the region was thickly forested but is now characterised by bare hilly terrain with sparse vegetation. Besides this the region has many wonders. As a tribal homeland, Bundelkhand is known as a cultural repository of folk dances, songs, festivals, and for the countless monuments that dot the landscape including the impregnable Gwalior, Kalinjar and Govind Mahal forts, the renowned Khajuraho temples and the exquisite Chaturbhuj and Dashavatara temples. The region was ruled principally by the Chandela and Bundela Rajputs and most of the architecture (including a number of village tanks) dates from their reign,” the NIDM document states.

The report also highlights that while chronically drought-prone regions like Rajasthan are known for their resilience and coping systems against the devastating implications of meteorological drought, Bundelkhand has recently become a new hotspot due to consecutive droughts amid susceptibility, poverty and lack of effective mitigation strategies.

In fact, the Samra report clearly pointed out that despite several central and state government efforts and schemes on paper and on ground as well, the risk has been growing with more and more complexities. Reports in the local and regional media, on the other hand, categorically stated that despite the '7,266 crore Bundelkhand package, announced by the UPA government in 2009, and the committee that had been constituted to understand the problems of the region, not much had changed on ground.

What makes the crisis worse is the fact that 79.1 percent of the Bundelkhand population (18.3 million as per Census 2011) live in rural areas and more than one-third of the households in these areas have been identified as below the poverty line (BPL). Lack of agriculture and employment opportunities has further aggravated poverty. The insecurity of livelihoods and lack of supportive governance have led to forced large-scale migration of the local population – over 80 percent of the menfolk in the villages that we visited have migrated to work as unskilled labours in cities.

Seventy-year-old Janka Bhasoor of Kodiya village, for example, has a pension card but he has not been able to withdraw a penny till date because he does not have an Aadhaar card. “I have been working with spade and hammer all my life breaking stones and doing manual labour. Now they say they cannot make my Aadhaar card because the system cannot take photo of [that is, scan] my thumbprint,” he said, helplessness turning into anger occasionally.

He has been abandoned by his two sons – one is in Gwalior and the other in Delhi – and a daughter whom he has not met for five years. “Earlier the PDS shop used to charge me '50 for the ration. I used to beg it from someone, or take up some work to earn it. Now they ask for '100. Where can I get so much money from? If they start paying my pension, I will not have to depend on anybody,” he said.

People have started using grain substitutes like bahera and pikad, wild fruits growing naturally in the region. In a Swaraj Abhiyan survey in October-November, 17 percent respondents had said they were surviving by eating rotis made with ‘fikara’, or wild grass. It was this ‘ghas ki roti’ which brought Bundelkhand in national media limelight.

“No sir, we have not faced such a situation so far,” said Jhagarua Ahirwal. The Kachula Tal that was the biggest source of water for irrigation and livestock in his Mamaun village of Chhatarpur district had dried up and nearly 90 percent of the land is still brown and barren. However, the village at the moment is not facing too much of a drinking water crisis. “The bore-well near Kachula Tal still has water and we are able to pump it to fill the village water tanks [multiple small community water tanks] drinking water. But water level of other bore-wells and a few wells have either gone down or dried up and we really do not think this will last too long,” said Nathu Singh Bundela whose 20-acre land is lying barren.

Jhagarua, however, maintained that he has not seen such a crisis in his lifetime (he does not know his exact age but believes it must be 80-85). Krishna Pratap Singh Bundela, a fairly rich farmer with 50-acre land, from Matguwan village and Babulal Yadav from Kashipur village (both from Chhatarpur district), and Udal Singh from Sijahri in Mahoba district and Shivvijay Singh from Beijemau in Hamirpur agrees to what Jhagarua had to say.
At any rate, people are not getting enough nutrition in their food in this situation. There is a general consensus that consumption of dal and other proteins including the milk (from their own cattle) in villages has fallen in last two years.

While we were initially surprised and amused by their sudden smirk and laughter at the mention of the ‘dal’ and ‘milk’, Ramkali of Bar village in Baldeogarh of Tikamgarh district summed it up in a pithy one-liner: “You have a good sense of humour,” she said looking straight into my eyes. “Chu chu karti aayi chiriya, dal ka dana layi chiriya... more bhi aaya, bandar bhi aaya, kaua bhi aaya... bas insaan ke khilawan ko kachhu nahi laya...”
She pulled her veil over her face, as if to hide her shame and said, “I had cooked dal on diwali.” Her confession drew others to join in. “Nobody cooks dal here,” said Kanti Razak the mother of 13-year-old Bhagwan Das and 15-year-old Devideen adding that everybody in the village knew about it but they did not want to make their personal matter public. “Yeh ghar kae baat hai. Ramkali bol gayi to hum bhi kabulat hai... sabhu ko pata hai par parda rakhan zaruri hai,” she said making her point. “Even I have not cooked dal for last few months... I do not even recall when we last had dal – perhaps before diwali,” she said.

“We have exhausted our stock of moong and urda (urad). How long can it last if your crops get damaged for more than two years? We sometimes buy a quarter kg from the market,” said Ramkali’s husband joining in the group that we are sitting with. “Milk is only a dream. We had to abandon our cattle since we do not have fodder or water for them.”

Pushpa and Usha from Mastapur village in Tikamgarh district narrated almost the same story. They manage to buy 250-500 gm dal a month. Their husbands have moved to Kanpur for work and are able to send money once in two months. They are married to brothers and the crisis has forced them to go back to a single kitchen. “We put in some dal with potato or spinach and spread it over months. We cannot afford to buy milk so boil wheat flour in water and feed it to children,” said Pushpa, elder of the two. “Children get milk and egg once in a week at school,” adds Usha saying Sudha Jain and Rajkumari, the accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers have been very helpful for women like them.

Munna Lal Yadav of nearby Lakhairi village blames the government for his plight. “We have to pay '10,000 to get a BPL card made. The MNREGA card costs another '5,000-8,000. How can I afford to get this,” he said. “In any case there is no point of getting the job card. There is no work in the village and even if there is they pay just '161. I can earn at least '200 if I go to Indore.”
Is rural India only about agriculture and penury?

Man vs Nature vs Mis-governance
“When elders say this is the worst drought it may not be because this is the worst rainfall year. This is because they have never seen a river or the pond dried up or because they have never faced such a long spell of crop failure that has completely dried up their kitchen, including the grains that they usually save for use as seeds, not to talk about the lack of fodder for cattle and dal and milk for children,” points out Yadav.

Blaming the government policies for pushing farmers to adopt ecologically unviable cash crops in the region Arvind Kishore, the head of Ma Chandrika Mahila Vidyalaya in Mahoba, makes his point rather philosophically: “Agriculture is meant to provide food for the mankind. It is not meant to make someone cash rich.” Kishore is also a social activist who is trying to motivate farmers to get back to traditional farming. He added that the push towards cash crop like wheat, soya bean and peppermint can only be a short-term game. “If you want a fancy car, don’t think of getting it by selling farm produce. Supplement your income with a business or a job.”

A 2009 WaterAid report on the drinking water crisis in Bundelkhand had highlighted that till as late as the 1970s the region was meeting its domestic and irrigation water demands through traditional methods of water harvesting despite being drought prone. It has termed the region’s ecology as fragile, but one where the forests helped in recharging and regulating rainwater flow and the vast network of tanks and ponds captured water for use during leaner period. “The ponds and tanks also worked as recharge pits. Local communities managed the water sources thus making them equitable and sustainable,” the report noted.

It pointed out that deforestation clubbed with neglect of the traditional systems of water harvesting had distorted the equation. “Now Bundelkhand conserves less rainwater than earlier with the results that the region’s overall irrigation water availability has came down. Secondly the availability of drinking water has been impacted. Over a period of time, this has resulted in less recharge of groundwater as the main sources of recharging like tanks, ponds and the forests have vanished. This has left thousands of hand-pumps defunct. It has made the region more vulnerable to drought – without the capacity to conserve water even a small deviation in rainfall causes drought.”

According to experts and various studies, the Bundelkhand crisis and the possibility of the famine is purely an outcome of this cycle of ecological degradation for which both the locals and the myopic rural and agricultural policies of the central and the state governments are to be blamed.
According to the Samra report, the average annual rainfall of Bundelkhand in UP is 876.1 mm with a range of 786.6 to 945.5 mm. In the MP portion, the average rainfall is 990.9 mm with a range of 767.8 to 1,086.7 mm – 13 percent more than what UP receives. The report also indicates that the region receives about 90 percent of the rainfall during the July-September monsoon season, which is usually spread over 30-35 events or spells.

The report also points out that the UP part of the region experienced rainfall deficit of 25 percent in 2004-05 and 33 percent in 2005-06. This went up to 45 percent deficit in 2006-07 and 56 percent in 2007-08, with five out of seven districts reporting more than 50 percent rainfall deficit during the fiscal. Besides, all the districts in the UP part of the region experienced a severe meteorological drought. 
In the MP part, however, rainfall was almost normal during 2004-05 and 2005-06 except in the districts of Tikamgarh and Datia that experienced meteorological drought. In 2006-07 the region experienced overall 37 percent shortfall in five out of six districts, with the deficit rainfall ranging 27-47 percent across the region. The overall shortfall in precipitation went up to 46 percent during 2007-08 with all six districts in MP part of Bundelkhand having more than the threshold deficit of 20 percent for declaring meteorological drought. This was followed by another spell of drought in 2010, floods in 2011, a late monsoon and deficit rain in 2012 and 2013.

Experts point out that rainfall variation within the season is important for crop production and the rain in September is crucial for the maturity of kharif crops and the sowing of rabi crops. Hence, delayed onset of rains, early withdrawal or long dry spells in between can also lead to a drought-like situation.
According to a report in the Mint newspaper in April 2015, the chronic drought during 2003-10 and then again in 2014 prompted farmers to shift from growing a mix of dry crops – like millets and pulses – during the monsoon-dependent kharif season (June-September), to input-heavy and irrigated winter rabi crop of wheat alongside cash crops such as chickpea (gram) and mustard in the November-April season.

This led to a 60 percent increase in area under wheat cultivation in the seven UP districts of Bundelkhand – from 5,50,000 hectares  in 2007-08 to 8,77,000 ha in 2013-14. “This means that today, the irrigated winter crop and not the rain-fed kharif is the main cropping season in Bundelkhand. For a region bypassed by the high-growth years of Indian agriculture beginning in the new millennium, the change in the cropping pattern was the only option available to farmers – at least those among them who chose to stick to their land,” the report noted.

Unfortunately, the alternative crop plan that the farmers had opted for was ruined due to untimely rain. In 2014 and 2015, the rain from end-February through March destroyed crops across the region, it said. “The kharif crop of 2014 failed in the region because of drought, while the rabi crop of 2015 was destroyed because of hailstorms and unseasonal rain. And this was the third successive failure. Marathwada saw some post-monsoon rains in 2015, but Bundelkhand had none so their rabi crop was also destroyed. The lack of rain has also forced the farmers to avoid sowing rabi as there is no possibility of the crops to mature. Hence we are looking at the fourth successive drought in Bundelkhand,” explained Yadav. He warned that if it does not rain this year and urgent preventive measures are not taken by the centre and states, the region would soon face the worst-ever famine.

It is sad to note that despite a formal Manual for Drought Management prepared by the department of agriculture in 2009, neither UP nor MP or the centre have taken any step to mitigate the situation in Bundelkhand for more than a decade now. While both the UP and MP governments have taken note of the situation and have initiated relief measures, Governance Now’s effort to get details from office of the chief secretaries of the two states and the district magistrates of the region fell on deaf ears. The officials just hanged up the phone as soon as they heard “Bundelkhand drought”.




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