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Dried Wells, Broken Dams, Distressed Villagers Define UP's Multi-Crore 'Bundelkhand Package'

Corruption, poor quality construction materials and the specious implementation of schemes combined with the Centre’s flawed MSP policies have rendered the attempt to transform the region useless.

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Chitrakoot/Banda: On a freezing night in early January, as anchors on television and radio jubilated in the new year and extolled the many ‘achievements’ of the incumbent government, Madhav Prasad, a 55-year-old farmer in Bundelkhand, lay anxious on a cot in his hut. 

The crops of wheat and mustard in his five-acre field were on the verge of drying up. It had been many days since he had last irrigated his fields because of an acute water crisis in the region combined with regular power outages.

Suddenly that night, power was restored after days. It was late, but since Prasad can’t afford to run his water pump on diesel, he seized the opportunity and rushed towards the well, braving the strong, chilly winds of the season. There, he turned on the pump with much anticipation.

For about 20 minutes, Prasad heard the splashing of water in the well. But soon the tap ran dry. When the farmer peeked into the well, he saw that the water supply had run out. This was nothing new. For the past several years, he had faced such a problem when he needed to water his fields. He sat beside the well, waiting for the water supply to be restored. The night passed and day broke, but there was no sign of water. Then there was a power outage again. Dejected, Prasad returned home. 

Madhav Prasad is a resident of Atari Majra village in Chitrakoot district. This area, falling in Bundelkhand’s Patha region, has been facing a dire water situation for the past several years. “For us, each day is a struggle to arrange a meal,” says Prasad. “We sowed the crop, but the rain failed us. This well has already dried up. How can we water our fields?”

A well which was built as part of the Bundelkhand Package. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

The well was dug in Prasad’s village some 10 years ago under the government’s Bundelkhand Package to address the water woes of the area. According to government records, Rs 2.5 lakhs was spent on digging the well. The villagers had been promised that the well would irrigate fields and supply them with drinking water. But Bitolia, a 40-year-old villager, still walks 1.5 to 2 km every day to fetch water for herself and her cattle. If it rains, she collects water and uses it after filtering out the dirt.

“The water is very dirty, but we drink it after filtering it,” says Bitolia, who is pounding paddy to de-husk it. “Even cows and buffaloes do not get to drink water regularly. For several years our fields have been barren, there is no yield. We sowed some crops this year, but they are drying up without proper watering.”

What the administration calls a well is nothing more than a pit. The children play in it and, when it rains and collects water, the locals catch fish from it. Despite spending lakhs of rupees on the well, the authorities failed to surround the structure with a boundary wall. As a result, soil flows into it when it rains and deposits at the bottom.

Under the Bundelkhand Package, a well was dug in Bhagirathi Pal’s field about eight years ago, but it has remained dry ever since. Pal jumps inside the well to demonstrate that it is no deeper than a pit. 

“We do not have access to drinking water, let alone water for irrigation. The work of digging wells or installing tube wells that the government had started has been left unfinished. Nearby, there is a natural gully or river from which we water our crops. We take turns to use the water. If someone misses their turn, they have to wait a long while before they can access the water again. After several days of hard toil, we are able to produce only as much as to meet our own requirements,” says Pal.

Pal’s village has an ancient well that had been dug by the villagers’ ancestors. Unlike the government’s water projects in the area, the ancient well never runs out of water and caters to the entire village’s drinking water needs.

‘There has been no improvement in the conditions the villagers must cope with.’ Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

Although a tap was installed in Pal’s village under the potable water supply project for which Rs 326 crores has been allocated, it hardly ever has water. While installing the tap, the authorities failed to notice that the tank that supplies water is located in a lower-lying area than the village. Now, the taps are gathering rust.

Other villages tell similar stories. Although the government has spent crores of rupees under the Bundelkhand package to transform the region, there has been no improvement in the conditions the villagers must cope with. The villagers allege that there has been large-scale corruption in the implementation of projects under the package.

“A lot of funds are released for various projects proposed for the area, but it is all pocketed by corrupt officers and politicians. It is why the condition of Bundelkhand has failed to improve,” they say.

What is the Bundelkhand Package?

Located in the geographical heart of India, the Bundelkhand region is spread over seven districts of Uttar Pradesh and six districts of Madhya Pradesh. Despite having a good stock of natural resources, these parts are among the 200 most backward districts of the country and face a chronic shortage of water.

While the government blames the lack of water on the terrain, experts and local people insist that a rise in environmentally destructive activities in the last few years, including the degradation of natural water resources, illegal mining and cutting of mountains, has worsened the condition of the region.

After consecutive droughts hit the region between 2005 and 2007, the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre constituted a team led by the erstwhile Planning Commission (now the National Institution for Transforming India or NITI Aayog) to survey the area and learn how conditions could be improved. 

Based on its report, the government in 2009 approved a special package to implement drought mitigation strategies in the region, which was called the Bundelkhand Package. The implementation of projects under the programme continued after the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014.

Meant for the comprehensive development of the entire region, the funds were primarily allotted for schemes of irrigation, drinking water, agriculture, animal husbandry, environment and employment. Initially, the package was approved at a cost of Rs 7,466 crores. However, the Centre approved the continuation of the package during the 12th Plan period (2012-2017) under the Backward Regions Grant Fund with a financial outlay of Rs 4,400 crores.

Most of the fund was spent on addressing the water-scarcity issues of the region. Madhya Pradesh spent 73% and Uttar Pradesh spent 66% of the allocated amount in this area.

Major activities covered under this intervention included the implementation of major and minor irrigation projects, the construction of new dug wells, the deepening or recharge of existing dug wells, the maintenance of tanks and ponds, the distribution of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes to draw water from wells, the installation of tube wells, the construction of check dams and other works for soil and water conservation.

Also read: Ken-Betwa Link: Jal Shakti Secy Had Rejected Provisions on Water-Sharing Between UP and MP

Since this much-hyped flagship programme of the former UPA government is now past its implementation period, it is crucial to assess its impact on the ground in Bundelkhand. In this regard, The Wire visited various districts of the region, studied government documents obtained under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and the data available in the public domain and interacted with local people and experts. Based on this, an account has been prepared mainly covering the following three points:

  1. What is the current status of various structures built or installed under the package, such as dug wells, tube-wells, check dams, dams, canals, etc?
  2. Have people benefited from the projects? Has the region’s water scarcity issue been resolved? Has the fallow land area reduced?
  3. Are the problems that Bundelkhand faces really owed to its geographical terrain? Or is this merely an excuse by the government to cover up failures?

 

Current status of structures built or installed under the package

 

Aadesh Adivasi is tired of hearing about schemes. “In the 35 years of my life, I have seen governments change and a slew of schemes announced, but we have never profited from any of it,” he says. 

Aadesh Adivasi (centre). Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

A resident of Bundelkhand’s Kaimhai village in Uttar Pradesh, Aadesh has been blind since birth. His parents passed away when he was quite young and he lives with his sister. The village is quite inaccessible since the only path connecting it to the main road passes through rough and rocky terrain with wild bushes on both sides.

According to the tribal residents of the village, there is only one hand pump for the entire village’s water needs. As part of the Bundelkhand Package, a well was dug in the locality, but its water has turned black, is replete with insects and many dead creatures can be seen floating on the surface. It is not fit even for the cattle to drink.

Wells

Villagers complain that the authorities constructed wells at places where there is no underground water stream. As a result, the wells remain dry for the most part of the year. When it rains, water does collect in the wells, but it becomes murky in a few days.

Government records confirm the villagers’ claims. According to the documents, before digging these wells, the Uttar Pradesh administration had not carried out any hydrogeological studies to ascertain that the locations of the dug wells were appropriate.

There were also reports of high nitrate content in water at many places in Jhansi and Lalitpur, but the administration did not pay heed to this information while digging or deepening the wells.

Many farmers have complained that the wells dug by the authorities are no deeper than pits in which soil from surrounding areas gets deposited. Therefore, the wells are unlikely to benefit anyone. This despite the fact that the Uttar Pradesh government has spent 18% of the sanctioned amount only on the construction and deepening of wells.

Many farmers have complained that the wells dug by the authorities are no deeper than pits in which soil from surrounding areas gets deposited. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

The utility of these wells has also been questioned in a report to assess the package prepared by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) led by NITI Aayog.

Published in 2019, the report said, “Considering the regular deviation of rainfall from its normal in these districts, and in major parts especially in Jhansi and Chitrakoot, groundwater development is already 60% in Jhansi, Lalitpur and Chitrakoot districts and 110% in Mahoba. Also, falling water level has been reported in the majority of blocks in Jhansi and Chitrakoot from 2006-2016. As such, sustainability of these wells for long term operation is questionable.”

Under the package, the Uttar Pradesh government has built new wells only in four districts: Jhansi, Lalitpur, Mahoba and Chitrakoot. No reason was given for why other districts were ignored.

According to documents accessed under the RTI Act, a total of 8,098 wells were built in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, with an expenditure of Rs 156.78 crores under the first phase of the scheme.

Along with this, a budget of Rs 65 crores was spent on the distribution of machines (pump sets) and HDPE pipes. In total, the construction of one well cost around Rs 2.5 lakhs.

Meanwhile, 6,942 wells were deepened and recharge pits of 6,931 wells were also constructed during the period. The government sanctioned Rs 168.76 crores for the work, of which Rs 43.76 crores has been spent so far. Upon calculation, it turns out that nearly Rs 32,000 has been spent on deepening or recharging one well.

However, despite failing to implement the project successfully, the administration once again allocated money to dig more wells. Only this time, the budget was hiked to Rs 5.44 lakhs per well.

Documents reveal that the government granted an additional sum of Rs 105.29 crores to dig 1,935 new wells in the third phase. 

The administration has failed to justify the unequal benefits granted to different districts under the package. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

In addition, 7,248 private tube wells were energised by spending Rs 99.67 crores under the package. For this, Rs 1.37 lakhs per tube well has been incurred in expenditure.

Funds were also spent on the energisation of 1,100 tube wells in Jhansi, 2,389 in Jalaun, 821 in Lalitpur, 574 in Hamirpur, 1,349 in Banda, 86 in Mahoba and 920 in Chitrakoot.

However, the administration has failed to justify the unequal benefits granted to different districts under the package.

Check dams

For his essential needs, Santosh Kumar Prajapati relies on a river flowing outside his Godhani village in Banda district. The water from the river is used in irrigation and for cattle. Sometimes, he also uses it for drinking. 

But in 2016-17, the government built a check dam here. It is alleged that since the work of its construction was entrusted to a corrupt contractor, he pocketed all the money. As a result, this dam, built for about Rs 28 lakhs, broke within six months.

A Rs 28-lakh check dam which broke in six months. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

The dam’s breakage was not a matter of concern for the villagers. They faced a bigger problem. After the construction of the check dam, the debris and water started collecting there, due to which the natural sources of the river were also closed.

Now there is not enough water in the river. This gets even worse during the summer.

“The construction of the check dam made things worse for us,” says Prajapati. “When the dam was not there, the river had enough water for all our needs and even for our cattle. After its construction, the river began drying up. Its streams were blocked with the debris that entered the river. The quality of the structure was already poor. Had it been properly constructed, it could have watered our fields. But the dam broke, and the river streams were choked.”

He adds: “There has not been a single tube-well in the village for more than 30 years. Farmers who own large tracts of land have the resources. But they do not give water to small farmers on time.”

Most of the farmers in the area believe that the check dams not only fell victim to corrupt activities and failed to benefit the villagers, but actually hindered the natural flow of the rivers in their vicinity, aggravating the situation.

Also watch: Bundelkhand Has Mandis Worth Rs 635 Crore. So Why Are Farmers Still in Trouble?

The Uttar Pradesh government has installed about 1,400 such check dams in the Bundelkhand region and the Madhya Pradesh government has built 350 stop dams. 

In Uttar Pradesh, the departments of Forests, Minor Irrigation and Agriculture took over the project work while in Madhya Pradesh the Rural Development Department was entrusted with its implementation. 

On an average, the Madhya Pradesh government spent about Rs 37 lakhs to erect one check dam. Meanwhile, different departments have spent different amounts on check dams in Uttar Pradesh.

According to documents, the state forest department spent about Rs 10 lakhs on setting up one check dam whereas the Minor Irrigation Department spent Rs 28.67 lakhs for the same. To build the additional 326 check dams in the third phase, the department increased the cost and allocated a budget of about Rs 31 lakhs to install one dam.

Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh’s agriculture department spent Rs 15 lakhs on one check dam.

The purpose of a check dam is to retain excess water flow during the monsoon rains which can later be used for irrigation. However, the condition of these structures built under the Bundelkhand Package is quite deplorable. Many of them are either broken or are unable to retain water owing to faulty construction.

Many check dams are either broken or are unable to retain water owing to faulty construction. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

In the 2019 report, the NITI Aayog said that about half of these check dams do not have water and therefore farmers are still dependent on borewells or wells.

NITI Aayog also admitted that poor quality materials were used in the construction of these dams, rendering them futile.

The check dams have now become dumping grounds piled with rotting garbage. The water surfaces are covered with broken branches, leaves, straw, and moss. In the NITI Aayog survey, only 26% of the farmers claimed to have benefited to some extent from the check dams.

Major irrigation schemes

In Chitrakoot, there was a glimmer of hope for 70-year-old Rampal of Rasin village when he heard that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was going to visit the Rasin dam. 

Fifteen years ago, Rampal’s land was acquired by the government to build the dam but he has not received his full compensation as yet. With the dam being renovated and painted saffron for the CM’s visit, Rampal was sure that his dues would be cleared too. 

In March, Yogi Adityanath arrived at the village with great pomp and inaugurated the Rasin Dam as though it was a new project. Photos were clicked and the dam’s scenic view was praised. The old plate bearing the name Chaudhary Charan Singh Irrigation Project was replaced with a plate naming the Uttar Pradesh government’s Irrigation and Water Resources Department.

With the inauguration of the dam, the Uttar Pradesh government may have added another feather to its cap of ‘achievements’, but the main canal of the dam is still running dry. Due to insufficient levels, water also does not reach the canal.

With the inauguration of the Rasin dam, the Uttar Pradesh government may have added another feather to its cap of ‘achievements’, but the main canal of the dam is still running dry. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

The chief minister arrived, inaugurated the dam, and left without a mention of compensation to the farmers. Rampal’s hopes were once again dashed.

Rasin Dam’s construction began in 2003-04 during the tenure of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government. Later, the financing of the project was taken over by the Centre under the Bundelkhand Package, and it was termed ‘a dream project’. The cost of this 2.6 km long and 16.33 m high dam was about Rs 20.80 crores.

But now, like the canal which has no trace of water left, all traces of previous governments have been erased from the dam. 

Interestingly, the signboard installed by the Adityanath government on the Rasin Dam does not contain any details about the expenditure allegedly because of a large-scale misappropriation of funds by politicians and officials under the garb of the project, due to which the actual cost has escalated.

The signboard installed by the Adityanath government on the Rasin Dam does not contain any details about the expenditure. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

The government claims that the dam irrigates 3,690 acres in the Rabi season and 1,966 acres in the Kharif season. However, the condition is such that even those people whose lands were acquired to make way for the dam are unable to water their fields. A saying prevalent in Rasin goes: “Even 80 wells and 84 ponds in Rasin could not quench its thirst.”

Forty-five-year-old Sarmania says that 12 bighas of her land were acquired for the dam, but in the name of compensation she has received only Rs 1.5 lakhs. She still has to visit various government offices to claim the remaining amount.

Another village local, Krishna Dutt Tripathi, says that he has not received any water supply despite giving his land away. “Those whose land is near the canal can irrigate it, but others are still craving water. The dam might be an achievement for the government, but for us it is nothing but a failure,” says Tripathi.

Showing his property papers, Munni Lal, another resident, claims that there must be more than a hundred others who have not received compensation even 17 years after the project was implemented.

At a short distance from Rasin, a minor dam in the Semra village and a canal linked to it was repaired under the package at a cost of about Rs 6 lakhs. The objective was to clean the canal for capacity expansion so that more farmers could be benefitted.

The dry canal in Semra village. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

But the canal is completely dry since the dam does not have enough water to reach the canal and facilitate irrigation.

The Uttar Pradesh government has spent more than 17% of the Rs 353 crore allocated under the Bundelkhand package in such irrigation projects.

Most of this money was spent on 41 canal-related works, which included renovation, repair for capacity expansion and reconstruction as required. 

Government documents show that the Uttar Pradesh government spent more than Rs 236 crores in this area. Despite this much expenditure, many canals are still as dry as dust.

In addition, Rs 77.47 crores was released for the Bandai dam project in Lalitpur, Rs 89.88 crores for the Shahzad Dam Sprinkler Irrigation Project, Rs 76.49 crores for the Kulpahar Sprinkler Irrigation Project in Mahoba and Rs 18.24 crores for the Majhgawan Chilli sprinkler irrigation project in Hamirpur.

Documents reveal that while the Uttar Pradesh government has spent a huge amount on the construction of dams and check dams, natural water resources like ponds have been ignored.

Initially, the Centre had sanctioned Rs 45.94 crores to repair minor dams, tanks, ponds and lakes in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh for drought mitigation, of which only Rs 4.40 crores has been spent.

Of these structures, 10 were repaired in Jhansi, three in Jalaun, one in Banda, nine in Chitrakoot, four in Mahoba and only one in Hamirpur.

The Madhya Pradesh government has also spent most of the funds on building dams. 

Under the project, Rs 1,434 crores was spent on five major and 167 minor irrigation projects, including the major Rajghat project. The state government erected a few new dams and revamped some earlier projects. 

Moreover, several new link canals were also connected to the dam to divert water over lengthy stretches.

Drinking water scheme

Funds under the Bundelkhand Package were also allocated to ensure the availability of clean potable water to every household. 

According to government records, in its first phase, 2,725 hand pumps were installed in Uttar Pradesh on which nearly Rs 92 crores was spent and 12 piped drinking water supply projects were implemented. 

In the second phase, the state government spent Rs 234.08 crores on related works. 

Despite the implementation of these projects, however, many people in the area are still forced to fetch drinking water from several kilometres away. In the summer, the situation gets worse.

In Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, 1,287 such schemes were implemented with an expenditure of Rs 100 crores in the first phase, of which 1,168 projects were tube-well-based and 119 projects involved dug wells. 

In the second phase, the state approved three projects costing Rs 252.48 crores, known as the Collective Water Supply Scheme.

As such, the Madhya Pradesh government has spent Rs 352.48 crores from the Bundelkhand Package to achieve drinking water security in its six districts of the region.

Apart from this, the forest departments of both the states spent a huge sum on activities related to soil and water conservation, such as soil and moisture conservation through plantation, watershed management in forests and check dam construction.

Documents reveal that the forest departments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have spent Rs 103 crores and Rs 187 crores respectively in this direction. However, the impact assessment of interventions has not been done. 

Also read: A Hailstorm Has Triggered a Cyclical Crisis of Agricultural Distress in Bundelkhand

Officials of the department claim that though the forests have benefitted from the project, the overall impact has not been ascertained.

B) How far did the package benefit the people?

The project was launched with the objective to enhance the irrigation potential of the area’s water resources to boost crop production and uplift local farmers. The state government claims to have successfully implemented its measures in the area.

However, data from government sources belie these claims.

The Land Use Records (LURs) obtained from the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, show that cultivated land (Net Sown Area) in Bundelkhand has considerably reduced.

Dry land in areas that fall under the Bundelkhand Package. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

For instance, in 2009-10, when the package was launched, 3.50 lakh hectares were cultivated in Banda district. But in 2017-18, the figure came down to 3.44 lakh hectares.

However, the period witnessed a growth in the total cropped area, owing to multi-cropping. The total cropped area of ​​Banda district was 4.34 lakh hectares in 2009-10, which increased to 4.75 lakh hectares in 2017-18.

Similarly, the cultivated area in Jalaun was 3.48 lakh hectares in 2009-10, which slumped to 3.44 lakh hectares in 2017-18. However, the total cropped area has increased from 4.26 lakh hectares to 4.80 lakh hectares during this period.

In Mahoba district however, both the cultivated area and cropped area saw a decline. In 2009-10, 2.34 lakh hectares was cultivated, which came down to 2.06 lakh hectares in 2017-18. The total cropped area also dipped from 3.37 lakh hectares to 2.70 lakh hectares.

In total, the cultivated land area of 20.12 lakh hectares decreased to 19.48 lakh hectares in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand districts after the implementation of the package. 

Meanwhile, the total cropped area of 27.77 lakh hectares slightly increased to 27.87 lakh hectares in 2017-18.

The situation in Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region is no different. The total cultivated area in Chhatarpur and Panna has reduced. In Tikamgarh, there has been a decline in the total cropped area, which was 4.24 lakh hectares in 2009-10 and 3.79 lakh hectares by 2017-18.

Ironically, there has also been an upsurge in the area of fallow land in Bundelkhand, even though the scheme was introduced with the objective of rendering vast tracts of such land cultivable.

According to the LURs, Chitrakoot had a total of 20,000 hectares of uncultivable land in 2009-10 which rose to 36,290 hectares in 2017-18. Similarly, the fallow land area in Lalitpur and Mahoba districts increased from nearly 18,000 hectares to 41,290 and 49,850 hectares respectively by 2017-18.

In Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district, the fallow land area increased from 21,860 hectares in 2009-10 to more than 45,000 hectares in 2017-18. Meanwhile, such area in Chattarpur increased from 71,340 hectares to 87,100 hectares.

In spite of the package, due to lack of proper irrigation facilities, crops dry up. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

Together, the seven districts of Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh had 1.86 lakh hectares of uncultivable fallow land in 2009-10, which increased to 2.61 lakh hectares in 2017-18. 

In the six districts of Madhya Pradesh, the area was 1.67 lakh hectares in 2009-10 which increased to 2.07 lakh hectares in 2017-18.

Since the implementation of the Bundelkhand project, there has been an increase in total irrigation area in five out of seven districts of Uttar Pradesh, whereas Lalitpur and Mahoba have seen a decline.

In Lalitpur, 2.57 lakh hectares were irrigated in 2009-10, which came down to 2.29 lakh hectares in 2017-18. Similarly, the irrigation area in Mahoba has come down from 89,910 hectares to 78,340 hectares.

In Madhya Pradesh, the total irrigated area in Tikamgarh has fallen from 2.19 lakh hectares to 1.58 lakh hectares. Despite crores of rupees spent on irrigation projects under the package, the irrigated area in this district has reduced by 61,000 hectares.

The Centre had released more than Rs 384 crores for the construction of wells and irrigation facilities in Uttar Pradesh under the package, for which activities were undertaken in four districts: Jhansi, Lalitpur, Mahoba and Chitrakoot.

Similarly, Rs 236.36 crores was spent on link canal-related works, apparently with the objective of broadening the scope of irrigation.

However, documents reveal that the total irrigated area in these districts of Bundelkhand has decreased despite huge amounts spent on wells and canals.

According to the LURs, 5,827 hectares of land was irrigated by the link canal in Chitrakoot in 2009-10 but in 2017-18 the area reduced to 4,582 hectares. 

Godhni, a village in Bundelkhand. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

Similarly in Lalitpur, 74,610 hectares of land was earlier irrigated through the canal, but after the implementation of the project, it came down to 56,500 hectares.

There has been a significant decline in the area watered by a link canal in Banda as well. In 2009-10, 99,700 hectares of land was irrigated by the canal, which slid to 87,000 hectares in 2017-18. A similar trend was observed in Mahoba.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, Jalaun and Jhansi are the only districts which witnessed a slight growth in the irrigated area through canals.

Collectively, in Uttar Pradesh’s seven districts, 4.51 lakh hectares of land was irrigated by link canals in 2009-10, but in 2017-18, the area shrank to 4.22 lakh hectares.

Considering the data on irrigation from dug wells, it was found that 6,352 hectares were irrigated through wells in Chitrakoot district when the package was implemented. But in spite of thousands of wells dug under the project, the irrigated area slumped to 4,543 hectares by 2017-18.

Similarly, the total irrigated area in Lalitpur was 82,420 hectares in 2009-10, but in 2017-18 it was reduced to 63,200 hectares.

Meanwhile, the area watered by wells has increased slightly in Jhansi and Mahoba since 2009. Back then, the figures for the two districts were 84,700 hectares and 55,300 hectares respectively. 

However, towards the end of the project, the area increased to 92,900 hectares and 59,400 hectares respectively.

In total, 2.28 lakh hectares of land was irrigated through wells in these four districts in 2009-10. But since the project’s implementation, it came down to 2.20 lakh hectares in 2017-18.

Meanwhile, Banda’s forest cover spread over 228 hectares was also reduced during the project. According to records, the forested land area of ​​5,421 hectares in 2009-10 decreased to 5,193 hectares in 2017-18.

Similarly, Hamirpur district has lost 389 hectares of forest land. A forest cover of 78 hectares in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district also disappeared during this period. Ironically, this has happened despite enormous funds being spent on the conservation of forests under the Bundelkhand Package. 

Mandis uncared for and farmers turning to cultivation of water-intensive crops

In 2017, on the occasion of World Environment Day, the then chief economic adviser to the Government of India, Arvind Subramanian, had remarked in a lecture, “We love some crops and their farmers too much and other crops and their farmers not enough.”

Also read: ‘We Just Need Traders to Buy Our Crops at Govt-Mandated Rates’: Farmers from Bundelkhand

Subramanian was referring to those policies of the Centre which emphasise the purchase of only certain varieties of crops, particularly cereals like wheat and paddy, at Minimum Support Prices (MSP). As a result, most of the farmers find the cultivation of these crops more lucrative. In a way, the government policies have left the farmers with little choice.

The farmers in the perennially drought-prone Bundelkhand region are no exception. Though crops like paddy, wheat, and sugarcane consume a lot of water, in the absence of better markets for other crops, local farmers are increasingly opting for the cultivation of these water-intensive crops.

According to WaterAid India’s 2019 report titled The State of India’s Water, the production of one kilogram of wheat requires around 1,654 litres of water. On the other hand, one kg of rice requires 2,800 litres of water.

Wheat sowing has increased rapidly in Bundelkhand, and it consumes a lot of water. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

In India, nearly 85% of groundwater is used for agriculture, and according to the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, 80% of this water is spent on three crops – wheat, paddy and sugarcane. Clearly, excessive production of these crops is bound to deplete the ground water level.

Experts claim that this type of cultivation method is absolutely unsuitable for a parched region like Bundelkhand. However, statistics reveal that a large number of farmers have switched to wheat and paddy production during the last ten years instead of growing less water-intensive crops like urad, mustard, jowar or bajra.

When the Bundelkhand project was first launched, a total area of 43,675 hectares was under paddy cultivation across seven districts of Uttar Pradesh. Of this, Banda had the maximum share at 30,889 hectares.

But in 2020-21, the total stretch under paddy cultivation is spread over 74,022 hectares despite the crop’s yield being quite low in the region.

According to the data of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, the average paddy yield in Uttar Pradesh is 2.70 tonnes per hectare, whereas in Banda it is 2.11 tonnes, 1.61 tonnes in Chitrakoot, 1.99 tonnes in Jhansi and 2.07 tonnes in Mahoba.

Similarly, the paddy growing area in the six districts of Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh was 1.47 lakh hectares in 2009-10, whereas in 2019-20, the area increased to 2.30 lakh hectares despite the paddy yield in these parts being much less than in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region.

The current yield of paddy in Tikamgarh is only 0.59 tonnes per hectare while it is 0.81 tonnes in Chhatarpur, 1.07 tonnes in Damoh and 1.11 tonnes in Panna.

Like paddy, the cultivated area under wheat has also shown an increasing trend in Bundelkhand.

Farmers are forced to grow more water-intensive crops as they don’t get fair price for pulses and oilseeds. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

The wheat-sowing stretches in ​​Uttar Pradesh increased from 7.37 lakh hectares in 2009-10 to 8.80 lakh hectares in 2019-20. 

Similarly, the area under wheat cultivation in Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region has risen from 6.80 lakh hectares to 14.30 lakh hectares.

The average wheat productivity per hectare is 3.86 tonnes in Uttar Pradesh and 3.27 tonnes in Madhya Pradesh. In comparison, the yield is significantly lower in most of the Bundelkhand region. 

It is 3.06 tonnes in Banda, 2.71 tonnes in Chitrakoot, 3.21 tonnes in Hamirpur, 2.82 tonnes in Mahoba, 2.92 tonnes in Chhatarpur, 2.56 tonnes in Damoh, 2.71 tonnes in Panna, 2.50 tonnes in Sagar and 2.83 tonnes in Tikamgarh.

While the administration lauds the boost in wheat and paddy cultivation in these areas as an accomplishment, the stark reality is that such an agricultural shift will intensify the need for water, which portends an aggravated water crisis.

Experts believe that even if the government were to install more dams to augment the current irrigation capacity, the efforts will remain futile unless the cultivation of crops suitable for the climate of the region is promoted.

Also read: It’s Time Agricultural Production Kept Pace With India’s Changing Food Preferences

They suggest that farmers must be encouraged to focus on sowing less water-intensive crops in drought-affected or water-stressed areas, which would be possible only if the government fixes the MSP of oilseeds and pulses like jowar, bajra, tur, mustard, moong, etc. besides wheat and paddy.

But the Bundelkhand Package has failed to achieve the feat. In fact, most of the mandis set up in the area under the programme have never been opened. The premises of these mandis are dilapidated and covered in overgrown bushes. The roads leading to them have worn out, tin sheds have rusted and the walls have turned black.

Mandis made with crores have now been turned into gaushalas. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

The condition of these mandis is so deplorable that the Uttar Pradesh administration converted some of them into gaushalas (cow sheds). Cow dung is now piling up where farmers should have been selling their produce.

In Uttar Pradesh, a total of 138 mandis to serve as agricultural markets for the farmers were set up in seven districts of Bundelkhand, incurring an expenditure of Rs 625.33 crores. But no trading takes place in most of the mandis, which has added to the local farmers’ woes.

Also read: Ground Report | Bundelkhand: Sanitation, Stray Cattle Aggravate Distress

On the Mahoba road in Banda, a special mandi has been set up about 10 km outside the city on which Rs 63.47 crores was spent. Yet no farmer or agricultural trader ever visits it.

The Madhya Pradesh government has also set up 94 warehouses and other marketing infrastructure with the expenditure of Rs 570.32 crores. In addition, a haat bazaar was built at a cost of Rs 64.56 crores, along with 40 Agriculture Input Centres for Rs 12 crores and four seed go-downs for Rs 5.44 crores.

Despite a considerable investment, the mandis are in a deplorable state and the local farmers are forced to grow only those crops for which they get remunerative prices.

According to the data from the Ministry of Agriculture, the area under lentil cultivation in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region has been reduced by about one lakh hectares within 10 years. 

In 2009-10, lentils were sown in a total of 2.66 lakh hectares in seven districts, which came down to 1.67 lakh hectares in 2019-20.

Similarly, jowar used to be sown in a total area of 84,467 hectares in this region, but it slid to 63,104 hectares in 2019-20. During this period, the ​​area under maize cultivation also decreased from 45,632 hectares to 24,089 hectares.

After closing the mandis, the administration makes purchases at small places like this one. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

In the Bundelkhand districts of Uttar Pradesh, urad and arhar or tur cultivation has fallen in a decade by 21,000 hectares and 12,000 hectares respectively. Meanwhile, the area under water-intensive sugarcane cultivation has jumped from 3,957 hectares to 8,518 hectares between 2009-10 and 2019-20.

On the other hand, Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region saw a decline in jowar cultivation with the area being estimated at 13,045 hectares in 2019-20 as against 48,885 hectares in 2009-10. Similarly, gram cultivation also declined by more than 1.77 lakh hectares.

When the Bundelkhand Package was first announced, gram was sown in a total of 5.81 lakh hectares across the six districts of Madhya Pradesh, which reduced to 4.03 lakh hectares in 2019-20. Similarly, lentils were sown in 1.07 lakh hectares, which came down to about 90,000 hectares by the end of the decade.

In 2009-10, peas and beans were cultivated in 72,800 hectares, but in 2019-20 they came down to 13,800 hectares.

Interestingly, around 10-12 acres of jowar can be irrigated with the same amount of water as required for one acre of sugarcane. Yet there has been an exponential rise in the area under sugarcane cultivation during the last decade. Earlier, a stretch of 3,481 hectares fell under sugarcane cultivation, which surged to more than 10,000 hectares in 2019-20. 

Kavita Kuruganti is an agrarian expert and a member of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a network of organisations and individuals working to promote sustainable agriculture. According to her, it is a matter of concern that the government procurement policy revolves only around two or three crops.

“The interest and insurance policy of the country also pushes (farmers) to wrong crops,” she remarks. “Earlier, farmers used to borrow loans for one crop but cultivated the crop that suited them. Now, it is no longer possible as the government monitors everything.”

Commenting upon the rising trend of cultivating water-intensive crops, she says, “Initially, the farmers profit from such crops and therefore take huge loans. But eventually, they face a crisis. It is a vicious circle which has trapped the farmers of the country.”

Kuruganti believes that rain-fed crops and their rain-fed varieties should be grown in a region like Bundelkhand. Farmers in such areas should be offered better packages based on the Integrated Cropping and Farming System Models and Multi Cropping Systems.

“It is a completely false notion that building dams in drought-affected or water-stressed areas will resolve the issue,” she says. “When the rivers in India are running out of water, what good will a dam do? Our approach towards irrigation should not involve inundating a particular part of land, but to manage moisture. Those who call drip irrigation revolutionary and view it as a solution are also mistaken. India is already spending the highest amount of water in the world on agriculture.”

She adds: “While there is already a dearth of water, the cultivation methods are also at odds. Chemicalisation in the production of crops has increased their need for water.”

Rasin Bani Mandi, which has been closed for years. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

Pradhan Mantri Annadata Aay Sanrakshan Abhiyan (PM-AASHA) was launched by the Centre to ensure the procurement of pulses and oilseeds at MSP. However, even a government department has accepted that the scheme has not been effective.

The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), an organisation of the Ministry of Agriculture which recommends the MSP, stated in its latest Kharif report for 2021-22 that the performance of the PM-AASHA scheme has been far from satisfactory.

The report claimed that since there is very little procurement, farmers are forced to sell their produce at throwaway prices.

According to government documents, the Centre had planned to procure 51.91 lakh tonnes of pulses and oilseeds in the 2020-21 Kharif season, out of which only 3.08 lakh tonnes has been procured, which is less than even 6% of the target. A total of 10.60 lakh farmers had registered for the scheme but only 1.67 lakh benefited from it.

The situation in Uttar Pradesh is even worse. The Centre had proposed to procure 5,000 tonnes of moong, 55,000 tonnes of urad, 26,150 tonnes of groundnut and 17,900 tonnes of sesamum seeds. But not a single kilo of moong, urad and sesamum seeds was procured.

Earlier in the 2020 Rabi season, the procurement of a total of 6.02 lakh tonnes of gram, lentil, mustard, sunflower, urad and moong was planned from Uttar Pradesh, but merely 38,817 tonnes was procured – just 6.43% of the target.

(C) Bundelkhand’s rainfall pattern

A major premise of various schemes launched by different governments targeting Bundelkhand has been that the region receives very little rainfall.

The Bundelkhand Package was approved on the basis of the Samra Committee’s 2008 report on drought mitigation in the region. 

The report stated, “Low rainfall due to semi-arid climatic conditions in the region affects surface-water availability, while hard rocky terrain limits groundwater availability. The region experienced a major drought every 16 years during the 18th and 19th centuries, which increased by three times between 1968 and 1992.”

Now, when the implementation of these strategies in the region under the Bundelkhand package has failed to bear fruit, the government blames low rainfall.

The question is: Does the region really experience low rainfall? And can the pathetic condition of the region really be attributed to it? As the exact situation can be assessed only through statistics, The Wire has analysed the region’s data on precipitation during the last five years.

Many districts across India, including the Bundelkhand region, experience either low or erratic rainfall. Experts attribute it to climate change among other things.

According to the data of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Ministry of Earth Sciences, the 13 districts of Bundelkhand received 1,086 mm rainfall in 2016, which is about 7% above normal. That year, Banda alone received 1,230.50 mm rainfall, which is 30% above normal.

Mangiriya, a resident of the tribal Camhai village where a well was built under the package. But lack of natural water has rendered it useless. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

Similarly, Chhatarpur received 40% excess rainfall at 1,513.40 mm while Damoh received 37%, Panna 49%, Sagar 17% and Hamirpur 9% more rainfall than normal. In two districts – Jhansi and Datia – precipitation was below average.

Compared to this, these districts experienced lower rainfall in 2017. But then rainfall in the entire belt of Uttar Pradesh was 32% below normal, while in Madhya Pradesh it was 24% less.

That year, Bundelkhand’s 13 districts received 602 mm rainfall which was 40% below average.

In 2018, the situation was just as bad. The whole of India received 14% less rainfall than normal. Uttar Pradesh experienced 17% less rainfall while Madhya Pradesh received 14% less.

Bundelkhand was no exception. It experienced only 871.57 mm of rainfall, which was about 12% below normal. However, rainfall in Datia and Tikamgarh was recorded at 12% and 39% above normal.

The IMD defines normal rainfall as anywhere between -19% to +19% of the average rainfall. Based on this, nine out of 13 districts of Bundelkhand received normal rains in 2018.

In 2019, there was again plenty of rain. In fact, at 1,036 mm, Bundelkhand received more rainfall than the whole of Uttar Pradesh. The state received 814.5 mm rainfall, about 8.5 per cent more than normal.

That year, Madhya Pradesh also witnessed a much higher amount of rainfall, that is, 1446.7 mm or 40% above normal.

Also read: Caste Discrimination in UP’s Bundelkhand is Worsening the Water Woes of Dalits

In Bundelkhand, Banda received 11% excess rainfall, Chitrakoot 18%, Hamirpur 26%, Chhatarpur 24%, Damoh 24%, Datia 34%, Sagar 32% and Tikamgarh 21% excess rainfall.

At the onset of the monsoon in June 2020, Banda received 256.6 mm of rain, which was 149% more than the normal trend. However, in July, August, and September, the amount of precipitation slid below normal.

Meanwhile, Chitrakoot received plenty of rain during the monsoon season in 2020. The rainfall was a staggering 261% above normal in June, 48% in August and 74% in September. Hamirpur also experienced significant rainfall at 41% and 16% above normal in June and July respectively.

The above data shows that the Bundelkhand region is receiving as much rain as other areas of the country, sometimes even more than the surrounding districts. But when the country experiences a below average monsoon, the region also has to bear the brunt.

Despite this climatic trend, however, the administration is still unable to meet the water requirement of the area.

A family from Khandeha village in Chitrakoot district of Bundelkhand, who are in dire poverty even after the implementation of the Bundelkhand package. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

What do the government and the experts say?

In 2009, Dr J.S. Samra, then secretary to the Government of India in the erstwhile Planning Commission, met the then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh regarding the Bundelkhand Package. When Samra sought his opinion on how to implement the project, Singh told him to follow the scientific approach as he was a scientist and a technical person. 

Singh had insisted that political differences with the state governments should be kept at bay and not hinder the project’s implementation in any way.

In an unexpected move, the former prime minister authorised Samra to grant approval to all the schemes offered by different departments under this package.

Samra not only envisaged the entire package but also catalysed its implementation.

Retiring from service in April 2015, he is currently settled in Chandigarh and is senior adviser at the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), an autonomous organisation.

Expressing disappointment over the fact that the mandis have not been operational despite all the government’s efforts, Samra goes on to accept that the package failed to facilitate all the affected people.

“The problem of drought will be solved only when we learn to manage and collect water,” he says. “We could not supply water to everyone. The area has only as much water as it rains. It is not possible for everyone to have access to water here. Punjab has water for everyone because water flows down from the Himalayas.”

He adds: “It is true that everyone did not benefit from it, but helping some is better than not helping anyone at all.”

Photo: Reuters

When asked about the evaluation of the plan, he cites TERI’s report on the impact assessment of the Bundelkhand package. “It is a report prepared by a third party, after I stepped down,” he points out. 

Dr Shresth Tayal, the lead researcher preparing the report on behalf of TERI, believes that the amount spent under the package is not adequate considering the terrain of Bundelkhand. “Additional funds should also have been disbursed on ensuring the livelihoods of the local people,” he says.

“Suppose the government constructed four or five wells in a village where 500 families live. Will it make any difference in the drought situation?” he asks. “No. Because 490 families would still be without water. If they are away from the canal area, they will not benefit. Rs 12,000 crores may sound like a lot of money, but considering the situation here, it is not enough. Additional relief funds must be allocated for the region.”

He adds: “In order to maintain the positive results of the scheme for the people as well as the region, there is a need for continuous support or a permanent package. Otherwise, the condition of the beneficiaries will deteriorate again and we’ll be back to square one. 

“During our study, we found that many of the beneficiaries of the package in 2009-10 are not availing any benefits now. For instance, suppose the government provided them a well, but it dried up a few years later and the local people cannot afford to repair or recharge it. That’s where government support is needed,” he says.

He continues: “Water conservation efforts undertaken in the region are not adequate. Much more needs to be done to alleviate the water woes of the entire Bundelkhand region, which requires government funds. If we leave it, all our efforts will go to waste and we’ll have to start from scratch again. We have come from 0 to about 15 but we still have a long way to go.”

The TERI Fellow emphasises the need for the immediate maintenance of the existing structures under the package, without which they will face decay.

Dr Jaiprakash Mishra, former agriculture adviser of NITI Aayog who headed the evaluation report on the package, agrees with Dr Tayal. He says, “To ensure better results of the implementation of the package, it needs to be monitored and supervised.”

Also read: Politics Muddies Waters in Parched Bundelkhand

Mishra was involved in the project’s implementation between 2012 and 2018. He is currently working as assistant director general at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

Commenting on the deplorable condition of the various structures funded under the package, he says, “The respective chief secretaries of the states were informed that hydrological studies were not conducted before digging the wells. We had urged them to take punitive action to which they complied. The states were told that an assistance package is not for life, but for immediate relief. The states were hence asked to make a provision for the repair or maintenance of existing structures in their budget.”

He says that the NITI Aayog’s Empowered Group had recommended geotagging these wells to keep a tab on maintenance activities.

Mishra expresses concern over farmers in the area increasingly opting for more water-intensive crops.

“Wherever there is a water crisis, people try to store as much water as possible when it is available,” he says. “We have seen that if the water supply in someone’s dug well or borewell improves even a little, they immediately switch to wheat cultivation, which consumes more water. It is a major problem which arises from the existing market and pricing policies.”

However, when asked if the government’s failure to procure other crops could be a reason behind it, he refuses to comment.

Regarding the mandis in Bundelkhand on which crores of rupees were spent, he says that the traders are reluctant to leave their established trading centres.

“We made a lot of efforts in this direction,” he says. “As a consultant, I called a meeting with the district magistrate to discuss ways to motivate the traders. If needed, they should be offered subsidies. But the traders are unwilling to shift.”

Mishra remarks that the local people must take part in improving the area; public participation is crucial. “Israel has less water than Bundelkhand, but there is no water crisis. With the government’s assistance, people can propel a positive change,” he says.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at a program organised by TERI. Photo: TERI/Facebook

Shrestha Tayal points out that the allocation of funds is done prior to designing the scheme itself, when it should be the other way around. “The local departments should plan ahead for the next 20 years. We should take the bottom-up approach instead of top-down,” he says. “Before we roll out a scheme, we must have the baseline information, which means all the data regarding the beneficiaries’ condition at that point. It would be helpful in the assessment of the outcome of the schemes. Due to non-availability of such data, the evaluation of various projects is skewed.”

Ashish Sagar, a journalist from Bundelkhand, has been following the implementation of the package since its inception. Sagar alleges widespread corruption in the fund allocation for various schemes under the package and also accuses the government of neglecting natural water resources.

“Because dams are assumed to be the only source of water in the region, local people have stopped caring about traditional sources of water, like ponds, johars (minor lakes) and wells. They do not consider them primary water sources, and instead believe in building dams and check dams,” he says.

Sagar says that the government first destroys natural water resources through its policies and then builds dams in the name of development, which is a methodology antagonistic to nature. 

“They erect a dam on the river, block its flow, allow mining activities, and when the river dries up, they blame it on famine and drought in the region,” adds Sagar bitterly. 

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.

This report has been published in collaboration with Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.