On November 24, at a farmer protest in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, Haridev Singh told a story. The story goes that there was a dead elephant in the palace. It was a truth universally known, but not acknowledged. Haathi dolta nahi, bolta nahi. Aankhen bhi kholta nahi. (The elephant doesn’t move or speak. It doesn’t even open its eyes.) Is the elephant really dead, asks the credulous king. You say that lord, not us, the wise ones cunningly reply. “That is the sad state of drought. We are dead as the elephant but no one, no one, wants to talk about it,” Haridev Singh told the gathering at the Bhartiya Kisan Union rally. Since November 19, when the state government declared drought in 50 of Uttar Pradesh’s 75 districts, a few hundred farmers have sat on protest in one corner of the tehsil headquarters in Mau block. They launched a hunger strike that day. No one took notice.

Earlier that week, 150 km away in Kabrai block, Mahoba district, Darhat’s XI faced off against the Tikamau village team in the quarter finals of the Grameen Cricket League. With an entry fee of Rs 501 per team, 32 villages jumped into the fray, for a pocket-sized trophy, and more importantly, assured lunch packets. At the Darhat vs Tikamau match, which the former won, children skipped school to play, cheered on by elderly farmers who had no fields to till and no jobs to do. The village pond, which once served Tikamau, Baripura, and Darhat, had dried up. It was the perfect cricket pitch, and the tournament was a suitable distraction from a ruinous drought.

The drought in Uttar Pradesh was made official in November. Nine out of 29 states in the country are facing drought conditions this year, having received rainfall that is at least 20% below normal. In Bundelkhand, comprising seven districts in Uttar Pradesh and six in Madhya Pradesh, drought is an unwelcome but frequent visitor. The 2014 report ‘Bundelkhand Drought – Retrospective Analysis and Way Forward’ reveals that “the region experienced a major drought in every 16 years during the 18th and 19th centuries, which increased by three times during the period 1968 to 1992”. Since 2004, it has become an annual affair, with the districts seeing varying degrees of meteorological, hydrological or agricultural drought.

Each year, the recurring drought brings more devastation. With every passing crop season, Bundelkhand gets by on a little less than before – to eat, earn and live on. Debt burden and farmer deaths are on the rise, while the water table continues to fall. Families are migrating out in search of a steady livelihood, but economic security remains elusive. Social structures in villages are crumbling, as all farmers – big, small, and marginal – suffer losses. More and more children are dropping out of schools. According to a recently held rapid survey of Bundelkhand, conducted by Swaraj Abhiyan in 108 villages across the seven Uttar Pradesh districts, more than 80% of households surveyed are cutting down on consumption of dal and milk, 22% have withdrawn their children from schools, and 97% have reported an increase in debt. The report also reveals that farmers are conducting distress sales of their cattle and land, and that the availability and quality of drinking water is decreasing. Bundelkhand households are going hungry at least once a week.

Farmer protest, Mau - On November 24, Bhartiya Kisan Union launched a hunger strike protesting the state's silence on drought. Credit: Khabar Lahariya

No relief in compensation

Consider the case of Mau block, one of the two worst affected in Chitrakoot district (Manikpur is the other). How much does it cost to sow paddy in one bigha? Ram Singh, zilla president of Bhartiya Kisan Union whose 28 bigha of paddy and jowar crops failed, draws up a rough estimate. Four kilo of seed per bigha at Rs 300-400 per kilo. Eight rounds of cultivation, at Rs 500 per round. Two boris (one bori is 50 kilo) of Di Ammonium Phosphate at Rs 1,200-1,300 per bori. All other expenses included, Rs 8,000 per bigha.

According to tehsil reports, accessed by Khabar Lahariya, in Mau block, 1,639 hectares of land is under paddy cultivation by seemant and laghu farmers (seemant = up to 2.5 acres land, laghu = 2.5 to 5 acres). All 1,639 hectares of land have reported a crop loss of 33% and above. The compensation rate, as per central government rules, is Rs 13,500 per hectare. (It is Rs 6,800 per hectare for non-irrigated cultivated land.) The total drought relief Mau block has sought from the state comes to around Rs 2.2 crore, which works out to approximately Rs 1,500 per bigha. (One hectare is equal to 2.47 acres, and one acre is four bighas in eastern Uttar Pradesh.)

For a paddy farmer facing total crop loss, the state compensation is only around one-fifth of the investment.

Take sesame. The oilseed is being promoted by the state government as the crop that will turn around the fortunes of the Bundeli farmer, if not now, in the future. Sesame was cultivated in 1,556 hectares in Mau by small and marginal farmers. The crop loss reported is 100%. “Til ke to beej bhi wapas nahi mile hain (We didn’t even get the seeds back),” said Ram Singh. The Swaraj Abhiyan survey has also reported that 61% of land under sesame cultivation in Bundelkhand has failed. Farmers are now using bundles of dried up sesame as chaara (fodder) for cattle.

Mau block has sought drought relief of Rs 7.9 crore for jowar, bajra, sesame, green and black gram, pigeon pea and paddy sown in 10,100 hectares of land cultivated by small and marginal farmers. Add another Rs 2.4 crore relief for brihad kisan (big farmers), the total relief package comes to a little over Rs 10 crore. Given the yawning gap between a farmer’s laagat (expense) and the government’s muavzha (compensation), will Rs 10 crore be enough? Will the Rs 2,057.79 crore relief package for the entire state be enough?

When will the state government move from doling out relief packages season after season to mitigating drought? What happened to the Bundelkhand Special Package – Rs 7,266 crore in 2009 for three years, an Additional Central Assistance of Rs 3,450 crore for its implementation, another ACA of Rs 200 crore in 2011, and a “financial outlay of Rs 4,400 crore” under the Backward Regions Grant Fund in the XII Plan?

Dal today, gone tomorrow

Pavan Kumar is in Class VII. He wears the khaki uniform well, his hair is brushed, and face powdered, but he is not in school today. “There are 8 students in my class, three in class 8, and 15 in class 6,” he told us. But half the children don’t come to school, he adds. At the government primary school in Lapaun village, Chitrakoot district, classes 6, 7 and 8 sit together. Attendance is thin, for both children and teachers. “Teachers don’t come on time. Sometimes they only come in the afternoon,” Pavan said. When we ask what he is learning now, Pavan tells us about the number line. He sketches an imaginary line, places numbers on it, all wrong. His class hasn’t yet learned to add, subtract or multiply.

Pavan Kumar, class 7 student at government primary school, Lapaun, has stopped getting dal and milk in their meals. Credit: Khabar Lahariya

What about midday meals? “Yes, we get one every day,” he said.

What do you eat? “Tehri.”

On other days? “Just tehri.”

A six-day menu is painted on the school wall – sabzi and soyabean on Mondays and Saturdays, sabzi and dal (pigeon pea) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, tehri (rice and vegetables) on Fridays, and 200 ml warm milk on Wednesdays. The absence of dal, soyabean, and milk from the school meals, farmers say, is a causal effect of the drought.

All roads that lead to Lapaun, a village of 808 voters, under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana start and end abruptly. The village is so far flung that residents refer to it as the “Sri Lanka of Uttar Pradesh”. When the state declared drought, Lapaun and the neighbouring village Katiyadandi went up in uproar. “Hahakar mach gaya tha yahaan. Humara gaon to akaal layak hai (Our village should be declared famine-hit),” said Desh Raj Yadav, a small farmer with 8 biswa (0.5 bigha) of land.

After a single spell of heavy rain in July, Desh Raj Yadav’s front wall caved in. He hasn’t been able to rebuild his home yet. Arjun Lal died in December 2013 after his five bigha were acquired for the construction of a dam, leaving behind a wife and four daughters, all of whom are under 10. Children enrolled in private institutions have been withdrawn. Urmila Pandey’s newly-married daughter Bandana scolds her mother for inviting her home. “Khana nahi hai to kyun bulaya (Why did you call if there is no food),” she says, eyeing the namak-roti fare. Rajkumar Patel’s pants have faded, and the zipper doesn’t work. He can’t remember the last time he bought clothes.

The drought has brought in other peculiar problems into the village. In Mau, caste lines have begin to blur as big and small farmers struggle to feed families, continue education and find employment. Like farmer Ramrakhi in Katiyadandi village. An upper-caste farmer, his crops have failed. Yet, he prefers to go hungry to finding a job as a manual labourer.

Or take Pankaj Singh. The 23-year-old can’t find a suitable bride. One of the very few big farmers in Lapaun, Pankaj, whose father owns 90 bigha, complains the loudest about the drought. “The drought has turned life upside down. I can’t find a match in my caste, now I will have to marry down,” he said angrily. The drought has, unintentionally, equated the small farmer with the big landowner.

Who has seen the lekhpal?

The lekhpal is a person of importance. A direct link between farmers and the administration, the lekhpal is a keeper of records, of crops sown and failed, of compensation released and received. A preliminary survey was held two months ago in Mau block to take stock of the drought. On the basis of the reports made by Mau’s 48 lekhpals, the tehsil prepared the compensation report and sent it to the state government on November 2. Each lekhpal was responsible for three villages. “They did a plot-to-plot survey, every entry can be found in the khasra and khatauni [books of records],” said tehsildar Gulab Singh.

But here in Lapaun, residents say that they’ve never seen the lekhpal. They don’t know what he looks like or when he last visited the village.

Across the districts of Chitrakoot, Banda, and Mahoba, villages visited by Khabar Lahariya allege that the lekhpals never visited to conduct they survey. Residents also allege lekhpals of petty corruption. “Unless you slip a commission, you will not get the cheque on time,” said Gulab Chandnirala, a Dalit farmer from Lapaun.

Radhe Lal and Rajesh have let their cattle loose in the fields. Here, they keep an eye out for the animals to return.
Credit: Yashas Chandra

The problem of lekhpals runs even deeper. Take Banda for instance. For 703 villages, and 1.31 lakh farmers, 438 lekhpals have been appointed, i.e. one lekhpal for two villages or one for 300 farmers. More than 110 posts are lying vacant. Earlier this year, when the entrance examination for the post was announced, one lakh forms were sold. Engineers and postgraduates applied in hordes for a post that has a minimum qualification of 12th pass. Selected lekhpals haven’t yet received their appointments.

Farmer protest, Banda - Rail roko protest launched by Bundelkhand Kisan Union on November 5.
Credit: Khabar Lahariya 

Death and a funeral

On November 24, at noon, 50-year-old Sadal Khan was found dead in his fields. At his funeral two days later in Mahokar village, Banda district, his wife, seven children and their young families were in mourning. “He was worried. He wouldn’t let on but he’s been worried for months,” said his 32-year-old son Mohammed Idrees.

Consider the financial burden: To sow the last crop of chickpea, paddy, and masur, Sadal Khan had raised Rs 50,000, borrowing from friends and moneylenders in the village. At the Banda District Cooperative Bank, he was entitled to a loan of up to Rs 15,000. The last entry in his passbook is from October 22, 2014, when he took Rs 7,987 from the bank. A cash memo of that date reveals he had spent that amount on purchasing fertiliser. Their four bigha land took a battering in the March hailstorm. The crop had failed, for which he received two cheques of Rs 3,000. Three months ago, one of his daughters-in-law suffered from a paralytic stroke. The treatment in Kanpur set them back by Rs 2 lakh, which was borrowed. He had to mortgage the family jewellery to raise some of the amount. With no farm work, his sons took manual labour jobs. They got no work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. They find odd jobs twice a week, at Rs 200 per day, says Idrees.

As he stared at his empty fields, Sadal Khan’s heart failed that day.

When we ask Idrees if his village has recorded any more deaths, he nods. Farmer Devideen died a day after Sadal Khan.

In Banda town, at the main square, like a modern-day Marie Antoinette, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav smiles from billboards, posing with his 76 kilo birthday cake. The Banda collectorate is all but empty. We meet administrative officer Kruparam Bhargav to ask about the farmer deaths. “The district has not seen a single death due to drought yet,” he said, dismissing the daily reports in the local papers. According to an IndiaSpend report, over 5,000 farmers have died in Bundelkhand in the last five years. Banda district recorded 83 deaths earlier this year, after the hailstorm. The applications were sent to the state government, Bhargav tells us, of which only 18 families received cheques for Rs 5 lakh this April.

Ram Kishen Patel, 58, died on March 21, 2015, in Kabrai block, Mahoba district, after the hailstorm wreaked havoc on his 30 bigha land. He owed the Allahabad Grameen Bank Rs 1 lakh and had borrowed Rs 2 lakh from the village sahukar (moneylender) Kalicharan Verma. Seven months later, the government assistance of Rs 30,000 is yet to come. On November 19, farmer Bageshwar died in Delhi, at the railway station, minutes before his train arrived. But, at the Grameen Bank branch in Kabrai, there is no record of any farmer deaths in the village. “We haven’t received any information of deaths. See, we’ve just been asked not to collect any loan or interest amounts,” said Anup Bhargav, the branch manager. The bank has Rs 1.15 crore in non-performing assets this year, Rs 36 lakh in irregular loan amount, and a credit-deposit ratio of 123%.

Eighty per cent of Bundelkhand’s farmers are under debt. As part of the drought relief, the Uttar Pradesh government has suspended the collection of loans until March 2016. “That doesn’t help us at all,” said Ram Singh. “How will we repay the loan and the interest for this period when we don’t have any income?”

Almost all residents of Pithaurabad village, Banda district, have packed their bags and locked their doors. Farmer Raghavendra Kumar and his wife climb into a truck. His daughters, Anamika and Anita, follow them, still wearing their school uniforms. They’re heading to the brick kilns of Punjab. Others are heading to Delhi, Ahmedabad and Surat. Every day, villages in Banda and Chitrakoot districts are emptying out. On ground, it appears that MGNREGA has failed to provide a steady alternative to agriculture. However, as per 2015’s MGNREGA reports, out of 1,69,155 persons who demanded work in Banda and Chitrakoot districts, 1,69,042 were allotted jobs, i.e. 95% individuals found work. “Yes, MGNREGA is working, only on paper,” says Ram Singh. “Where are these works that we have done? Why haven’t we been paid?”

What else can a farmer do in Bundelkhand? Ram Singh says, “We have no option but to leave. Some left after Diwali. Many will leave after the elections. How else do we raise our families? Kisan kisan kaise rahe?”

This story was first published in Khabar Lahariya.

Read other reports on the Bundelkhand drought here.