Political parties and leaders have been vying with each other in recent times to express concern for the people of Bundelkhand; Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has repeatedly visited the area and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has issued statements to accord the highest priority to Bundelkhand.
The reason for this concern is the wider realisation that the Bundelkhand region, spread over a vast area of UP and Madhya Pradesh, is passing through extremely difficult times and requires very sensitive handling. The Samajwadi Party government in UP and the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh have been implicated in several allegations of corruption and misrule. However, if they are able to provide substantial relief to the people of Bundelkhand, this can help mask some of their misdeeds and craft a benevolent image when the parties need it the most.
Bundelkhand is best known as the home to Khajuraho, a popular tourist attraction, as well as for the brave struggle of Jhansi ki Rani against the British rule. However, over the last two decades, Bundelkhand has regularly been in the news due to prolonged drought conditions, erratic weather patterns, the acute distress of farmers, and widespread hunger and malnutrition, amid growing concern over climate change. People in the region say rainfall has decreased, as has the period of rainfall, and cases of untimely rain are now more common. The damage caused by hailstorms, frost and storms has increased. Even if normal (total) rainfall is recorded, it is uneven and an untimely distribution in the year can play havoc with farmers and farming.
Meanwhile, local factors such as the destruction of forests, indiscriminate mining practices, encroachment and neglect of traditional water sources, the onslaught on bio-diversity and traditional crop varieties, serious distortions in development planning, massive corruption, poor governance and increasing inequalities have also contributed to the fast deteriorating agro-ecological conditions in Bundelkhan.
These factors have greatly reduced the resilience of the local communities. In 2015, conditions in Bundelkhand deteriorated rapidly, and villagers were hit by a triple whammy: first, the ripening winter wheat and gram crops were destroyed by untimely heavy rains and hailstorms from February to early April. Then, a drought destroyed the summer kharif paddy and pulse crops. Finally, the drought was so prolonged that the rabi crop could not be sown in a major part of the farmland over the November-December period.
When I visited the region in November and December, I saw that the hunger and malnutrition situation had worsened and railway stations were overcrowded with departing migrant workers. There was no sign of NREGA (rural employment guarantee) work and although nutrition schemes were in place, these were not functioning according to the norm. The price of fodder had escalated sharply, farm animals had become vulnerable, villagers were worrying about food and drinking water, and many cases of farmer suicides and other incidents of deaths trauma were reported. The feedback from many migrant workers was that they were having difficulties in finding jobs elsewhere and several of them had to return to their villages after falling ill or when not paid their wages.
At the time of my more recent visit to four districts in the second week of February, the distress of the people had increased further. A very high mortality rate among farm animals was also reported from several villages.
It is evident that this is going to be an extremely difficult year for the people of Bundelkhand. How will the farmers face the looming hunger, with grain stocks having already dried up? What will be the impact of these conditions on women and children? People say it will be even more difficult to manage the shortage of drinking water and fodder. With debt levels already at a high, how will the farmers sow their next crop?
While people wait desperately for relief and employment, it remains to be seen to what extent corruption can be controlled, especially in these days of extreme distress. Bundelkhand has a history of large-scale corruption even in times of distress, because of which the benefits of previous ‘packages’ has seldom reached the people.
Is India’s democracy capable of preventing hunger and trauma deaths in a situation as serious as the one in Bundelkhand? With all its zeal for cow protection, can the country save the starving cows, bullocks and other farm animals in the region? Can we save the children of Bundelkhand from hunger and extreme distress? These questions will loom large in the region in the months to come and the governments, both Centre and state, must be proactive in tackling these issues.