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January 15, 2016

Bundelkhand now on a grass diet

[This is an AHRC Statement

People in Bundelkhand are being forced to eat grass for survival. This dire situation is being aired in reports after report of news channels. Grass and weeds are traditional diet in the area, counter officials of the Uttar Pradesh government. Neither is entirely wrong.

What villagers are being forced to eat is not exactly grass, but Fikar, traditional millet of the area, known for being drought resistant, unlike wheat and rice, and therefore handy in such situations. There was a time when Fikar was abundant. Due to various reasons and pressures, local villagers stopped growing Fikar decades ago; today, in desperation, they are being forced to eat whatever little Fikar they can find.

The ensuing cacophony in the media has missed all the necessary points that must be addressed to arrest hunger and imminent starvation in Bundelkhand, home to 18.3 million people, spread over an area of around 7,000 square kilometers in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The debate should have focused on finding long-lasting solutions for the woes of the region – chronic water shortage in the area, with water bodies drying up, being the foremost.

The debate should also have focused on the failure of repeated government interventions to mitigate the crisis; it should have tracked how funds earmarked for the people are getting siphoned-off by vested interests, entrenched deep in the system; it could have underlined the delayed response of the state: Uttar Pradesh waited until November to declare 50 of its districts drought hit, despite being well aware of the drought conditions much earlier; it may have even highlighted the total failure of the crop insurance scheme, which had pushed farmers to pay premiums for the same; and it could have targeted the local moneylenders for fleecing farmers, with interests rates as high as 10 percent a month.

The role of the public distribution system in addressing such crisis in real time could also have been subject to discussion; for instance, universalizing the public distribution system in drought affected districts and rushing all supplies to the needy, as suggested by noted economist Jean Dreze, could have been debated. The situation of Bundelkhand was not unknown to the authorities after all, and they must have been aware what another drought, the fourth consecutive one, could do to the region. They would also have known that the total number of droughts suffered by the region stands at 19 since 1987, the worst of them arriving in the last 15 years, reaching the nadir in the 2005-2009 period.

The deepening agrarian crisis in the area is reflected in the increasing number of farmer suicides in the area. The National Crime Records Bureau, official crime statistics keeper of India, pegs the numbers of farm suicides in Bundelkhand at 568 in 2009, 583 in 2010, 519 in 2011, 745 in 2012, 750 in 2013 and 58 in 2014. The sharp fall in 2014 despite no significant changes on the ground suggests the fudging of data to avoid embarrassment, something brought out by many studies on the issue.

Attributing a significant section of these suicides to “other” non-agrarian causes – with “personal reasons” being the categorical trick of choice – has been one of the favourite tricks of this jugglery. Such statistics do not need to explain that most of the “personal” reasons behind farm suicides are precipitated by the agrarian crisis; for instance, crop failure, leading to the incapacity of marrying-off daughters in a patriarchal society, beset with diseases like dowry. Simply taking farmers suicides out of the "Self-employed (farming/agriculture)" category and putting these dead men and women in the category of "Self-employed (Others)” is another trick that the authorities routinely employ to camouflage farm suicides data. Unfortunately, the authorities seem to have forgotten that their primary task is to help citizens in distress, not fudge data to deny the very existence of distress.

Hiding the extent of distress, however, was not easy in the case of Bundelkhand, with the then union government recognizing it and having announced a "Bundelkhand Special Package" with total budgetary outlay of Rs. 7,266 crore, for drought mitigation over three years starting in 2009. The package earmarked Rs 3,506 crore for Uttar Pradesh and Rs 3,760 crore for Madhya Pradesh. The package failed to achieve anything on the ground because of a lethal combination of lethargy and corruption.

A review of the package exposed the fact that Uttar Pradesh had spent only 16.57 percent of the total allocation until February 2012, the final year of the package, while Madhya Pradesh spent a mere 21.70 percent by this date. The situation is similar this year too; the authorities kept sleeping when untimely hailstorms led to serious crop damages that in turn caused a spurt in farm suicides; furthermore the authorities did not start providing employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act until it was too late.

An enduring solution to the Bundelkhand farm crisis is not going to appear out of some magic wand. The authorities at both the state and the union level need to wake up to the crisis and understand it with all its nuances. They need to understand that offering piecemeal solutions to address the crisis will not help anyone. The need of the hour in Bundelkhand is to attend to the serious water crisis. It would require a concentrated and all-out effort to rejuvenate the water bodies, to conserve rain water and ensure that the area, already critically short of even drinking water, does not fare worse.

Simultaneously, the authorities also need to put a mechanism in place that responds to the individual farmers in distress in real time. It would not be a tough task, given the availability of revenue officials down to the last villages, if it were not for the lethal mix of corruption and insensitivity that makes the officials often work against and not for the farmers.

The authorities would also have to ensure the removal of the local moneylenders and putting a functional banking system in place; debts incurred from moneylenders at astronomical interest rates are often the primary reason behind farm suicides, one of the worst impacts of the crisis.

Till they do address the aforementioned issues, all the big schemes will only end up benefitting those that tweak the system for their interests. The “people forced to eat grass” stories would make it to national media on a few occasions, while hunger and starvation would continue to haunting the region on a daily basis.

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