Farmer suicides and hunger deaths plague flagship village of SP government.
“Have you heard of kangaali mein aata geela? That is our situation,”says Sugha Singh as he sits outside Balwan Singh’s house along with other village men under the tree on a warm February afternoon. He is referring to an old Hindi idiom which means getting into more hardships one after another. They are mourning the death of Munni Devi, 78, who died on the first death anniversary of her son, Balwan Singh. Last year, on the same day, he committed suicide after he came back from his fields. His gram harvest was half of what he had expected. He was slated to pay Rs five lakh loan-Rs 2.5 lakh for the tractor and Rs 2.5 lakh for the farmers’s credit card from the bank. His fourth of the six daughters was to get married next month and there was no money. He came home and consumed pesticide.
Occasions of mourning are not rare in Bilharka village. It is situated in the Naraini block of Banda district in Uttar Pradesh. It is one of the last villages on the UP-MP border, with a population of 3,000 people. The primary crops grown in this belt are pulses, gram, rice, wheat and peas. The village has five Brahmin houses, 100 Thakur houses, roughly 100 that belong to Jatavs, and the rest of them are equally divided among other backward castes like Kevats, Pals, Dhobis and others. Situated in far away rocky terrains, accessing the village is a colossal task which involves driving over 12 km on an intermittent narrow mud path. In 2012, it was chosen as one of the 10,000 villages under the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Samagra Gram Vikas Scheme, the flagship scheme of the Samajwadi Party government to ensure basic amenities in the most backward villages of the state. This includes infrastructure development such as link roads, rural electrification, availability of potable water, sanitary toilets and a total of 33 infrastructure and beneficiary oriented programmes. Traces of these promises or their implementation are hard to find here.
In these last five years, twelve farmers have committed suicide–but that is only one of the problems. Narain, a fifty year old farmer says, “There has not been any crop yield in the last four years. This is the reason why we have to take a loan of at least Rs 50,000 for extra fertilisers to make the soil more fertile.” Puttilal, another farmer adds, “Roughly, the overall debt on the village is close to R 13 crore, an average of Rs 13 lakh per family.”
With such a high amount of debt and zero recovery, the villagers are more and more dependent on local moneylenders who charge an exponentially high rates of interest. Chatar Singh says, “Banks refuse us loan point blank. So we have no choice but to go to the sahukar who charges Rs five per Rs 100 as monthly interest, that too on mortgage. There is hardly anyone left who has any gold or silver left in their houses.” According to this calculation, they roughly pay 60 percent interest on the principal amount.
This explains the four suicides in the last one year.
“Migration is an all time high since that seems like the only option to escape hunger and poverty. Most of our boys first leave for Delhi. Once they reach there, the local brokers send them off to Pune, Gurgaon, Ludhiana, any place that gives them a job. But the money is not even enough for them sustain themselves, forget sending any money home. Coming back to the village pulls them into depression completely. ”
Pradeep Singh was 22 when he left for Ahmedabad. He had studied till class X. His father, Kirpal Singh,85, had a loan of Rs 10 lakhs because of the incessant crop failure over the years. Even after working for three years in a ply and hardware factory, Pradeep could not save enough money. The little he did, was taken away by the broker as security money. Meanwhile, his elder brother, Kuldeep Singh, who worked as a guard in Pune suffered from bouts of jaundice because of unhygienic, low quality food that he consumed in order to save money. This permanently weakened him and both the brothers came back to the village. For the next one year, Pradeep was the only earning member of the family. “With no crop yield and not enough work under schemes like MNREGA, Pradeep had to often ask the neighbours for bowls of grains to feed the family,” recalls Guddi, his sister in law. One day, Pradeep told his sister in law, “If I have to die of hunger, I’d rather hang myself.” The next day he killed himself. “He didn’t want us to do this but now we actually live on alms from the neighbours,” a shivering Kirpal Singh says. “Chacha used to pay our school fees but the teacher did not let us sit in the class since we could not pay the fees after his death,” says Ruby, his niece, a class VI student.
Out of the four farmers who committed suicide last year, only one’s family was compensated by the government. Pradeep was not counted as a farmer because he also worked in MNREGA project to make ends meet. “The other three were above the age of sixty. The officials said that they are too old to be called farmers and they may have died of illness,” says Gyan Singh, a forty year old farmer.
With a large Brahmin and Thakur population, in the past BJP has gained active support from these communities in the village. But in the upcoming Assembly elections in the state, support for the party is depleting. “Modiji unnecessarily wasted time on a scheme like demonetisation. As it is we were dying here. Now, we cannot even live in any other city,” says Kanhaiya Lal, 35, who came back to the village after working for three years in a Ludhiana mill.
After demonetisation, at least 100 migrants have returned to the village. Most of them had to come back because they were not paid wages. “The employers either did not have money to give or said that come a few months later and take the cheque,” says Devi Singh, a migrant worker in Ghaziabad who had to come back.
Like other parts of the country, Bilharka has also been hit hard by the move and the discontent among locals is growing. The closest bank to the village is a branch of Allahabad Bank, which is seven km away and most people had to stand in queues for two to five days to get money. “Only the poor people lined up outside the banks. The rich were directly helped by bank managers, the same managers who ask us for bribes and commission for every possible scheme including drought relief. Had the bank managers sanctioned that money to us, so many farmers could have been saved from committing suicide,” says Nathua Singh, a 50-year-old farmer.
When asked if this will affect their vote choice, Devi replied, “Modiji said that the rich are also getting affected like the young but actually the rich are comfortable, the poor are suffering more. If he can’t see our suffering, we can also make him invisible.”
What about the state government that gave a special status to the village? “That argument must have some basis to cut ice. Just giving status does not mean any work has been done,” says Sadhu Singh.
The biggest problem in the area is malnutrition. Naraini block has close to 300 malnourished children according to the recent survey conducted by the district heath department. “Everything is connected to it,” says Kuldeep. He says, “Since the malnutrition levels are very high, it leads to weakness, illness and eventually death. The officials do not count it as ‘hunger deaths’ because they say that such death technically do not qualify the official category.”
What leads to such high rates of malnutrition?
Sugha Singh blames it on the massive corruption and the apathy of the state government. He says, “As it is there no food to eat because of the debt and agrarian crisis. Go to any house and you will most of the people surviving on roti and namak (salt). They cannot afford any nourishing food.” Baldev Ram adds, “The mid-day meals distributed in the school for children is very low in quantity and quality. If a child is entitled 100 gms of something, the teachers are only given 50 gm. In a khichdi, they add lots of haldi and namak to make it inedible and end up saving the rest of the grocery which is later sold in black. Even the anganwadi workers never come to the village to distribute panjiri to expectant mothers and their young ones. Which is why they keep falling ill so often.”
The closest Primary Health Centre is 7 km away in Kartal village. “It neither has doctors nor medicines. Last month, four people died because of wrong diagnosis because there are no machines to conduct basic checks,” says Bhagwati. She adds, “Quack doctors are thriving in the neighbouring villages because of malnutrition led diseases. And we have no option but to risk our lives with them.”
Accessing ration through the PDS system is another problem that plagues the village. According to the local PDS list, there are 500 entitled people. But only 90 people have BPL and Antyoday cards. The new online registration system has led to further confusion. Only 30 percent people figure on the list, even when they have registration receipts from the local broker who was paid Rs 100 per card for this job. According to Sachin Singh, the local kotedar, only sixty percent of the ration is dispatched to him every month. “We, the kotedars protested and went on a strike for two months but we had to finally give up when the BDO threatened that our licences will be revoked after people in Mukera village looted the kotedar’s shop for want of ration.”
The depleting water table, now below 300 feet, in the village was one of the primary reasons for the aggravated agrarian crisis in the village. “Weren’t we supposed to get more water and irrigation facilities as a Lohia gram? Why were we not given any water in the last five years?” asks Devi. In the last few years, no new borewells or irrigation facilities have been added to the village. As a result, negligible crops could be sowed in the fields for lack of water. Only vast expanses of parched fields surround the village now. He says the tankers that were sent in last year’s drought were personally used by the village pradhan, Pradyuman Singh. “He only works as an agent of the Block Development Officer. To show that the road is constructed under the Lohia gram scheme, he constructed a patch from the road to his house with cemented drains. Rest of the village doesn’t have any of this. Who do we complain to about this corruption? We have never seen a government official visit us in these five years.” he complains.
According to the Lohia gram vikas scheme, one of the key projects is the electrification of the villages. But in this village it proved counterproductive. “Firstly, the power supply per day is no more than two to four hours-just enough to charge mobile phones. Secondly, the bills that most villagers were receiving were as high as Rs 30,000. So most people surrendered their connections,” says Maghai Ram.
What about other schemes by the state government like Samajwadi pension and laptops to young students?
Kishan Lal says, “Only two young men were given laptops in the village. One of them is my son. He watches cinema on it all day. Similarly, the samajwadi pension scheme which was supposed to be given to the poor and landless is only given to five people in the village. Forget the special schemes by the SP government, we do not even get access to basic ones.”
There are 32 disabled people in the village but only seven get pension from the government. Ram Bhaiya says, “Even the Lohia Awaas scheme was allotted only to rich people who could pay bribe, not to the poor and the landless. There have been cases where the wife was allotted and Indira Awaas and the husband was allotted Lohia Awaas according to pradhan’s recommendation.”
Indira Awaas Yojana, now known as Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, is a social welfare flagship programme, created by the Indian Government, to provide housing for the rural poor in India while Lohia Awas Yojana is a similar program started by SP government at state level. “Forget construction of toilets even safai karmis, who are supposed to regularly visit all Lohia grams, are nowhere to be seen,” he says.
Has there been any kind of development in the village in the last five years? “Forget development, the officers do not even inform us about the government schemes to apply for. They think it is a tauheen(insult) to come to our village,” says Devi Singh.
What about the police? The closest police station is 30 km away. Kanta Prasad says, “If you push the police too much, they threaten you. It happened in Kali’s case.”
Kali is a 70-year-old Thakur woman who lives with her brother in law in the far end of the village. Raja Ram, her husband died ten years back. He had taken a loan of Rs 10,000 twenty years ago from Chotu Singh’s father and mortgaged his 87 beeghas of land. Over the years, the interest accumulated and since no accounts were kept, Chotu Singh took over the land and paid Kali a mere Rs 15,000. “When she tried to approach the police along with her sons, they threatened them with the goonda Act. They left the village in fear and did not come back.”
Kanta says, “There have been at least 50 incidents of crime in the village in the last one year but not a single FIR was registered.”
When contacted, Pradyuman Singh, the pradhan of the village said, “I have been working for the village’s development but the illiterate people of the village don’t have the aptitude to notice. They are lying.” Mahendra Singh, Block development Officer, Naraini was unavailable for comment.
So who will they vote for in the upcoming elections?
“Neither did Modi think of us nor Akhilesh. We will vote for the one who does not make false promises, one who makes officers do their work. Jab pet na bhara ho toh vikaas ka kya karenge. (When our stomachs are empty, what will we do of development?)” Kirpal Singh concludes.
All photos by Neha Dixit