The Bundelkhand region (comprising seven districts of Uttar Pradesh and six districts of Madhya Pradesh) is once again making headlines for its drought situation. With a population of around two crore, the region is facing drought for the fourth consecutive time and has witnessed an increase in the number of unnatural deaths and farmers suicides. The rainfed area is drought-prone as it receives only 75 per cent of the national rain average.
In the 21st century, Bundelkhand got due media attention for the first time when, in 2007, Rahul Gandhi became general secretary of Congress party and regularly visited Dalit households in the region. Before that, it was largely remembered for historical presence of Rani Lakshmi Bai and Banafar warriors Alha-Udal, and as a cultural icon, Khajuraho was the biggest symbol of Bundeli pride.
Rahul tried to kickstart his political career from this drought-hit area, which was at the peak of the agrarian crisis between 2005 and 2009 that caused huge migration, farmer suicides and lack of industrialisation. In November 2009, when UPA-2 government came up with a Rs 7,200-crore package for the region, the main focus of the package was the development of water shades and minor irrigation projects, completion of major pending irrigation projects, creation of new mandis for the farmers and the distribution of goats among the poor. In 2013, the Akhilesh Yadav goverment in Uttar Pradesh sought the benefit of the Rs 1,600 crore irrigation scheme from central government of which Rs 100 crore was allotted for the renovation of 16 big water bodies or talabs in the area.
But none of these initiatives have brought about a decline in the farmer suicides or helped reduce migration. More Bundeli farmers than ever are killing themselves and the rate of migration is on the rise. In some cases, the villagers have no choice but to stay back owing to the grim possibility of finding a job in Delhi-NCR. As no authentic data on migration is available, one can only make ground checks. If you visit a real estate site in Delhi-NCR, you will find that every third labourer is from Bundelkhand. This was not the case until a decade ago. Interestingly, it is not just the male members who are migrating, entire families are being uprooted. Today, only the elder members of such families are left in villages.
So what went wrong with government policies? I believe that these policies were not aimed at delivering on their claims. I remember a meeting with National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA), the body responsible for the execution of the Bundelkhand package from April 2011. Its CEO JS Samra explained to me the problems of the region and the benefits of the package in detail. As a native of Bundelkhand, I found that the NRAA was not identifying the real problems and socio-economic conditions of the backward region.
I asked him whether he would be satisfied if the initiatives mentioned in the package were to be implemented in his own village and if he could call that development. He said, "No." The Bundelkhand package met the fate most others do - corruption.
The question at hand is: what can be done now? Let us imagine a scenario in which the region witnesses normal rainfall. Will this result in a sharp decline in migration? Perhaps not. I reached this conclusion in February 2012 when I was covering elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. That year, the monsoon was normal and the wheat crop flourishing in the fields of Bundelkhand. Attempting to strike a conversation, I asked a farmer in Jhansi district, "So things are going well, I am seeing a good crop, I am sure that rate of migration is dropping."
The 60-year-old farmer said, "No, even a good crop is not able to reduce migration. The normal crop can ensure the food availability, but as the per capita farm holding has plunged to a new low, it can't support big families." As in other parts of India, the farm holding is very low in Bundelkhand. As per the agricultural census of 2011, the average farm holding in the country is 1.5acre.
In Bundelkhand, most of the cultivation is undertaken by marginal farmers. It is a well-established fact that a small farm size increases the input cost of agriculture. So the policymakers need to think in the direction of cooperative farming, and, so far, there has been no progress on this front. The founder of modern India, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote to his chief ministers on June 2, 1950:
''Land reform will not go only in this direction (abolition of Zamindari), but should also aim at co-operative farming and greater food production. For the present, however, we must concentrate on the immediate issue and that is the abolition of Zamindari and Jagirdari systems and their like.''
The immediate task was partially accomplished in the Nehru era, but co-operative farming is yet to receive policymakers' attention.
The second option available to some of the Bundelkhand farmers is to go back to basics. Nowadays, a myth called "ghas ki roti" is circulating in the media. This so called "Fikar Roti" has nothing to do with grass. In fact, it is a small, traditional millet of Bundelkhand. Fikar, Kodon, Savan, Jwar, Bajra are traditional millets of the region and can be easily grown in Bundelkhand's arid land.
As these millets earlier came with less per acre yield, in the 1950-60s, when India welcomed the Green Revolution, Bundelkhand switched to wheat and forgot the millets. However, today, when
India is a wheat and rice surplus country and traditional millets are finding their place in the palatte of the upper middle class, small farmers can switch over to their cultivation and earn better.Cooperatives and NGOs associatied with organic farming can help the farmers find a market for the traditional millets. In real terms, the so called "ghas ki roti" can become a traditional solution to the Bundelkhand agrarian problem.
So far, we have been talking in terms of agrarian solutions, as the benefit of an industry is almost non-existent in the region of beautiful rivers. Tourism and minor minerals are the other alternatives. Any person familiar with the region can say that it has as much tourism potential as Rajasthan.
The region is well connected by air, train and road. Bundelkhand is home to heritage sites like Khajuraho. There are many beautiful palaces, forts and fortresses in the region that can be developed along the lines of Rajasthan.
The region also has beautiful terrains with lush greenery, ravines, hillocks and small rivers and streams - these make for a beautiful landscape for tourists. So far, the tourism activity is concentrated at Khajuraho and Orchha, and other historic sites are away from the eyes of the world. If the government ensures a safe law and order situation and local businesspersons make a foray in the sector, the situation can transform in a big way.
This will result in job creation for the lower and middle-level income groups. During a conference on tourism potential at Orchha last year, I witnessed that there is no dearth of zeal in the people of Bundelkhand.
The other alternative is to mine the minor minerals. Bundelkhand is famous for granite and silica deposits, but numerous rules and regulations and environmental hurdles pertaining to stone crushing lead to illegal mining of major ores - this has resulted in losses to the exchequer and gains for mining mafia. Adopting a middle path with adequate environment restrictions can create jobs at the village level.
The third aspect is MNREGA. The scheme has helped the rural population when it was initiated during UPA-1 and gathered support for the Congress for the 2009 elections. The present NDA government is not very enthusiastic about the implementation of the scheme, so most of the MNREGA job card holders can neither find work, nor compensation. The Modi government announced the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojna, with a focus to irrigate the remaining 55 per cent of India. If the NDA government diverts more funds in the direction, and construction work commences at the village level, the money will benefit the poor and help the cope with the agrarian crisis.
The prime minister had also announced a pension scheme for farmers, but the results are yet to be seen.These initiatives can spell a long term solution for the agrarian tragedy that is Bundelkhand. For immediate relief, the central and state governments must make fundamental changes in farm insurance. The assessment of crop damage is dependent on the Patwari or Lekhpal system that takes at least one year to finally release the crop insurance.
In Modi's Digital India, this can be done within hours by employing technology. If farmers receive insurance money on time, they can be prevented from the worst - suicide.