Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh: On March 12, dozens of villages in the Chitrakut district, Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh were shattered by a cruel hailstorm. Several vehicles were stranded on the roads, their windscreens smashed by the exceptionally heavy hailstorm and several people were injured.
A similar situation unfolded in some of the other parts of Bundelkhand – particularly in several villages of the district of Banda.
In these villages, farmers looked at the cruel hailstorm with disbelief and extreme distress. Their rabi (winter) crops had ripened and would be heavily damaged by the hailstorm, they realised.
The hailstorm lasted for about 25 minutes. As soon as the sky cleared, the farmers rushed to their fields to see that their crops – the result of five months of hard work – had been flattened and were in ruins. Their hopes were shattered. Whether it was the wheat crop, or the arhar or gram pulse crops, or the sarson oilseed crops – they had all suffered heavy damage. Some farmers had picked up such large hailstones in their fields that one single hailstone was found to weigh over 250 grams.
This was not the first hailstorm of this season. Officials had been finalising reports of the damage caused by the earlier ones. Now they have hastened to announce that the damage caused by the new and more destructive hailstorm will be assessed soon so that the proceedings for at least some compensation can be initiated.
However, in the village of Bharatpur, I met farmers from the weakest sections of society who had little hope of getting any compensation. The reason, they explained, was that they were the poorest farmers with no or very little land of their own. Hence they would lease land from bigger landowners as sharecroppers. The sharecroppers have to bear much of the expenses and do all the hard work, while the landowners get half of the produce whilst sitting at their homes. When a hailstorm (or any other calamity) damages or destroys the crop, the government gives compensation only to the landowner, while the sharecropper, who has borne much of the expense (often by borrowing) and provided all the labour for five months, gets nothing.
Subsequently, farmers and their organisations have expressed their dissatisfaction at the hasty and unsatisfactory way in which damage was being assessed. They have organised protests and blocked highways in several places. Meanwhile, a deep gloom pervaded the modest dwellings of the affected farmers and sharecroppers.
In the village of Kulsari of Naraini tehsil, a farmer Gola Yadav collapsed after seeing the heavy damage to his crop on March 12. He died, leaving behind a debt.
On March 15, Munni, a woman sharecropper from the village of Aau (under the Atarra police station), who had been in deep distress following heavy damage to her crop, committed suicide by hanging herself. When her husband Ramjas saw this he fell unconscious and was revived after a lot of difficulties. As they did not have their own land, they had leased land from others and cultivated wheat, sarson ( mustard) and gram by putting in a lot of hard work and their meagre savings.
This is just one aspect of the many-sided injustices farmers, sharecroppers, farmworkers and other weaker sections face. As I learnt in Bharatpur village, access to development is very low for weaker sections. The Dalit basti has only two handpumps for 70 households, which dry up during the summer season. The people struggle to get even a small amount of water from the tankers which provide some minimal supplies.
A few villagers here got work under the NREGA, but they complained that they were being deprived of their wages. They further complained that the pradhan kept their job cards to fudge entries and accounts.
I also visited another settlement ‘Dafai’ (Karvi Block) where about 95 Kol tribal households live. Here only one handpump exists and when it breaks down, the residents have to beg for water from other villages. Most of the children here do not go to school because they are not treated well in the village school located some distance away. NREGA work is rare and timely wage payments are even rarer. In fact, even legal homestead rights are not available to these villagers and contractors exploit this vulnerability and force them to work in conditions akin to bondage at crushers.
Yet, even in the middle of this darkness, there are signs of hope. Ranjana Kol is leading efforts to ensure that this community get rights. Mira helps the community under a Lok Manch fellowship. Mira and Ranjana are making efforts to start educational work soon in the village. A women’s organisation Chingari has set up units in both villages and takes up several development issues particularly those relating to better access to development schemes. In Dafai, there is a larger struggle for basic homestead rights. In Bharatpur, a courageous and committed Dalit girl Nandini has already begun working hard to teach the children of her community.
In the days to come, proper compensation to farmers for hailstorm damage will become a big issue, but the activists of weaker sections are asking whether the poorest farmers which include sharecroppers will also get some justice, or whether they will continue to be ignored as in the past.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist. His latest book on Gandhian thinking is titled Man Over Machine: The Path Towards Peace.