Hari Ram, a 27-year-old farmer, jumped in front of a speeding train on 1 November near his village of Mailoni in Mauranipur in Uttar Pradesh, around 70 km from Jhansi. It was the third such incident in Bundelkhand in the recent past, taking the toll up to 68 in the past five months.
Myopic policies blended with rampant corruption and continuous droughts have brought the people of this region — spread over Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — to the precipice. The spate of suicides proves yet again that despite political rhetoric, not much is being done in drought-prone areas, whether it is Bundelkhand or Vidarbha in Maharashtra.
Bundelkhand has been hit by drought for the past three years. The conditions, and the debt trap had forced these farmers to take the extreme step.
When Tehelka met Ram’s young widow Shanti, she could not control her tears. “As our crops were destroyed, my husband took a loan of Rs 2.5 lakh from the Dhavakar branch of the State Bank. Then, another disaster struck as the tube well in the farm dried up due to drought. As a last resort, he took a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh from a local moneylender to make the well deeper.
“The water came, but as the drought persisted, it stopped. The moneylender started harassing him for debt recovery.
“When this year also our crop was destroyed due to unprecedented drought, his spirit broke and he made the fatal decision.”
In Syawri village of Jhansi district, 48-year-old Veer Singh used to be a happy man. His crop was growing well and he had fixed the marriage of his daughter Nidhi, who is a graduate. However, in April, heavy rains and hailstorm destroyed the crops. He set himself ablaze leaving behind his two children, wife and grandmother.
“Local MP and Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti visited our family and promised to help us but nothing happened after that,” says Vinod Kumari, wife of the deceased. “We owe debt to UP Gramin Bank on my husband’s name and my mother-in-law’s name,” she adds. Many such incidents have been reported from various pockets of Bundelkhand and no adequate relief has reached the bereaved family members from the state government.
The picture of drought in Uttar Pradesh is grim as it has hit 50 districts of the state and destroyed more than 33 percent of crop. Seven districts — Jhansi, Lalitpur, Jaulaun, Hamirpur, Banda, Mahoba and Chitrakoot — are the worst-hit where until now 68 farmers have committed suicide.
The areas of Bundelkhand in UP are undergoing panchayat elections with a huge inflow of money. Party workers are going door-to-door with the election campaign. Yet, the political class appears disconnected from ground realities.
Despite three successive droughts, the local politicians and bureaucracy failed to respond to these traumatic conditions. The entire picturesque region, dotted with valleys and natural forests, and which is believed to have sheltered Ram and Sita, is now under famine-like conditions. Water scarcity is adding to their problems. They have no alternative employment or source of livelihood. Marriages are being broken due to extreme poverty. Many farmers are migrating in large numbers from their ancestral villages to cities to work as daily labourers.
“Ecological distort and illegal mining activities are mainly responsible for Bundelkhand’s disaster,” says environment activist and founder of NGO PRAWAS, Ashish Sagar, who has been fighting to restore green cover of the area.
UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav had carried out a “Green UP, Clean UP”, project to plant 2.5 lakh saplings on a single day — 7 November. The project made it to the Guinness Book of World Records. “If you visit the plantation, you can see that 80 percent has failed. The forest officials selected saplings which were not suitable for the rocky terrain of the area,” says Sagar.