By Badri Narayan
Amid the mood of happy expectancy in the country — with talks of start-ups, smart cities, multi-billion dollar FDI and a windfall of jobs — Bundelkhand stands out as a sore thumb. Up against a chronic drought problem, abysmal poverty and political apathy, the people of this region represent an India we chose to close our eyes against many years ago. Forget about food and clothes, some cannot even afford essentials like salt and oil. Members of the Sahariya tribe are now forced to eat chapatis made of grass.
Lack of arable land, acute shortage of water sources and huge dependency on an extortionistcredit system by the poor – the problems of Bundelkhand, spread across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, are many. The biggest problem plaguing the rocky region, however, is drought. Between 1871 and 2002, the region witnessed 22 major drought years, according to a report by the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation in 2009. Drought affected all districts of Bundelkhand on the UP side between 2004 and 2007 and in 2009, it affected all six districts on MP’s side and five of UP, a 2009 report of the Drought Management Division, Ministry of Agriculture, says.
The region has acute scarcity of fertile land unlike Western UP, but this would not be a huge problem if water needs for crops were taken care of. Political indifference has not allowed that to happen. The Betwa accounts for around 50 percent of the water available in Bundelkhand Upland and Bundelkhand Plain sub-regions; the Ken contributes around 25 percent. Both rivers flow through UP and MP. The Betwa, Ken, Pahuj and Dhasan are very important for irrigation in the region. Their seasonal fluctuations however, are very large. For example, the average annual discharge of river Ken is around 800 cusecs, but in winter it is reduced to around 300 cusecs and it dwindles to practically nothing in May. Such fluctuations undermine the security of irrigation, according to the Drought Management Division report.
To make matters worse, the traditional means of irrigation, which include ponds and wells, are now drying up. The declining flow in the rivers has affected other water bodies. Around 70 percent of tanks, ponds and dug-wells have dried up as a result of the steep fall in surface and ground water table, the report says. The Center had sanctioned Rs 18 crore for restoration of Bela Pond, one of the biggest water bodies here. However, poor execution has resulted in no improvement in its condition.
Apart from agriculture, this region also needs alternate occupations such as enterprises, businesses and tourism, and work under schemes like MNREGA, to cater to livelihood issues. This would only be possible when the state and political parties make conscious efforts in that direction. Also, the poor peasants of the region need to be freed from the clutches of debt through right government intervention.
All this calls for short and long duration policy planning. Also it is important that the state ensures time-bound and committed implementation of its policies and controls widespread corruption. The problem of policy formation for the Bundelkhand region is that policies have a top down approach, which fails in ground-level implementation. Under the Bundelkhand Special Package, a fund of Rs 4,400 crore was released in the 12th Plan period (2012-2017). The mandis or markets created under this benefited the authorities and contractors and still there is no concrete roadmap for its implementation. The actual beneficiaries have been local mafias, dominant farmers with links to political parties, and corrupt officials – not the farmers, the poor or the Dalits who form the major share of Bundelkhand's population.
The development model of this region has numerous loopholes. The poverty here is not only nature generated but also the result of systemic failure, which includes poor administrative policies and ineffective governance.