Even As the Drought Intensifies in Bundelkhand, Relief Work Remains a Distant Dream

Drought-hit villagers in Bundelkhand are not receiving the kind of employment and rations they desperately need.

Representational image. Credit: PTI.

Representational image. Credit: PTI.

One would expect the poorest community in a drought-hit region to be the most significant beneficiary of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), but this has not been the experience of the Basod community that lives in its own hamlet in the Mahuabandh village in the Kulpahar tehsil of Bundelkhand. This community is regarded as the most impoverished among all the scheduled caste communities in the region.

Although the hamlet is in a part of Bundelkhand that is among those worst hit by the drought, I was surprised to see, at the time of my visit on June 3, that hardly anyone was employed under the MGNREGA. This was despite the fact that villagers, particularly women, said that they were keen to work under the scheme. There were only about 15 job cards in the entire hamlet, which had about 550 voters. As a result of this, people had become dependent on migrant labour. This led to some superficial flashes of modernity – for example, I met a young man who was wearing a t-shirt with ‘the New York Times’ written all over it. Scratching below the surface, however, made it apparent that despite large-scale migration to cities like Delhi, the community suffered from hunger and malnutrition on a large scale, a problem which peaked as the drought intensified.

Inquiries in five hamlets revealed that the implementation of the scheme and the number of people covered by it had improved marginally in the weeks prior to my visit, although it was nowhere near the scale at which people needed it to be enforced. The implementation of the MGNREGA was inadequate even though the number of young people in several villages had decreased to a startling extent. For example, in the village of Akauna, the rates of migration had been very high, but the young people who remained still lacked employment. Of the residents of the village, 80% suffered from hunger.

The fact that many have migrated should not be taken to mean that the subsisting needs of their households will be met. Excess labour from several drought-hit areas means that many migrant workers remain unemployed. Those who are employed receive low wages and report high levels of injury and illness. Several have been forced to return without any earnings. In Mahuapuva village, for instance, I was told about a group of 15 young men who had been asked to work 16 hours a day for Rs. 200 per day. Their rent and other expenses were so high that they finally decided to return.

Lack of drought relief work

Even though areas that are affected by the drought badly need drought relief work, this has not been started. The implementation of the food security law and range of people it covers leaves much to be desired – many people are denied any subsidised grain at all. Thus, they are forced to become entirely dependent on market purchases of wheat at the rate of over Rs. 16 per kilogram. Old ration cards for below poverty line households are no longer accepted by ration shops or kotedars. Many are covered under the new law, but their cards do not reflect the actual number of members in their families and they end up receiving only half the rations that are due to them. The overwhelming reality is that most grain purchased by people worst affected by the drought in Bundelkhand has to be bought at market rates. Some people reported being asked to pay small bribes in order to get their food security cards or paper, while others said that their rations of grain were stopped arbitrarily. People have been forced to run from pillar to post in order to get relatively small supplies of highly subsidised grain.

The number of people covered under the Integrated Child Development Services is reasonably good for pregnant women, but not so much for adolescent girls and small children. Under the mid-day meals programme, the listed menu is not always followed and sometimes even rotis are not served. Still, on the whole, the implementation of the programme is relatively good.

Farmers who received some compensation for their heavily damaged or completely destroyed crops were keenly awaiting further instalments, discontented by the delay. While some were happy with what they had received, many were complaining about arbitrary payments, as some received more money and some who were considered more deserving received less. Relatively better-off farmers complained that they had been denied compensation from the government despite having been ruined by the drought. Sharecroppers and those who lease land have not yet been covered under the existing compensation policy. These are shortcomings that should have been corrected by now.

Even though several villagers reported the deaths of animals, including cows, buffaloes, goats and pigs, on a mass scale, the government has not yet initiated efforts to check this calamity. Efforts to distribute bhusa or dry fodder have been inadequate and in fact negligible in most places, despite government claims to the contrary. Inquiries made using the right to information law fetched an inadequate response: names of the beneficiaries of bhusa distribution were not provided, so the government’s claims could not be verified. Several farmers also complained about receiving inflated electricity bills, at a time that they were hard pressed to feed their families.

Some social activists have been taking the news of recent Supreme Court orders to significantly improve drought relief work to villages. However, when villagers go to officials to ask about this, they are told that officials have not yet received any instructions to implement these orders.

This is the second of a three-part report on Bundelkhand. You can read part one here