Ground report

Three years of Modi: ‘There is no work, no money. We are just surviving like this’

In three districts of poverty-stricken Bundelkhand, central and state government policies have had distressing effects on livelihoods of the poor.

In early March, the local administration in Banda, Mahoba and Chitrakoot districts of Uttar Pradesh banned donkeys from carrying sand and stones from mining sites in the region. The ban was ostensibly directed at cracking down on the powerful illegal sand and stone quarrying mafia in Bundelkhand after an Allahabad High Court ruling related to illegal sand mining.

Over 300 families who own these animals and who are dependent on them for their subsistence are now on the brink of destitution. They allege that mechanised sand mining is still rampant, while subsistence workers like them are being harassed by the police.

“If they want to control mining, why aren’t they stopping tractors from plying [in mining sites]?” asked Loknath, a sand worker. “Why are they harassing us, and molesting our daughters?”

As the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government completed three years in power at the Centre last week, Khabar Lahariya reviewed the party’s key campaign promises against the situation on the ground in Bundelkhand. During its 2014 campaign, one of the BJP’s major promises was to create one crore new jobs across India each year. However, government data has exposed that promise as hollow. According to the Union Labour Ministry, there were only 1.35 lakh jobs created in 2016 as compared to 4.21 lakh jobs in 2014. Additionally, Khabar Lahariya found that leave alone new jobs, the State, over the past few months, has driven some of the most vulnerable groups in this drought and debt-stricken region into a precarious economic condition due to a series of insensitive policies such as the Centre’s overnight demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes in November, the newly-elected BJP state government’s crackdown on illegal abattoirs in March, and the local administration’s harassment of subsistence sand workers in Bundelkhand.

The demonetisation shocker

Demonetisation hit India’s agricultural economy at the worst possible time – it was announced at a time the Rabi crop is sown, and left farmers without cash to buy seeds or fertilisers. In a region where farmers are caught in a cycle of debt and fragile subsistence, this was debilitating. Timely and productive cropping is essential for such farmers to simply maintain their fragile economic state and ensure nominal food security. But instead of working in their fields, they stood in line for days to withdraw cash to enable them to buy farming inputs.

“We farmers do not have savings,” Ram Singh, 53, a farm labourer from Banda, said at that time. “Pawnbrokers we go to each year did not have any money either. How is farming going to happen?”

(Photo credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP).
(Photo credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP).

Months later, in his first cabinet meeting, Chief Minister Adityanath waived Rs 1 lakh off the loans of small farmers in order to provide them with some relief. However, this left out lakhs of farmers with mid-sized holdings, who also suffered because of demonetisation. Those entitled to the waiver were also tripped up by the documentation required to avail of it, which had to be submitted less than a month after the announcement was made.

“All this government has given us is the opportunity to stand in one queue after another,” said one irate farmer in Banda, who did not want to be identified.

Slaughterhouse ban

If demonetisation came as a blow to farmers, the state’s ban on illegal slaughterhouses shortly after it took charge in March crippled the livelihoods of those in the meat business in the state. At that time, Chief Minister Adityanath had said that the government would not touch those abattoirs that were operating as per the provisions of the law. However, two months after the ban, meat businesses across the state are still yet to reopen due to the lack of clarity regarding the ban. Though larger meat production shops and units have reopened, several meat shop owners who have recently-renewed valid licenses are still not being permitted to resume business across Bundelkhand. They are in a state of crippling uncertainty of the kind that means their families will not be fed, marriages will be postponed, and debts will continue to pile up.

In Nariyanpur mohalla of Jhansi, a community of butchers had scathing remarks about the government. They said that their repeated petitions to the district administration to allow their businesses to function have been dismissed. “The chief minister refused to give me one satisfactory answer in spite of seeing my application and documentation,” said Jitu Khateek, the president of the union of mutton and chicken sellers. “He is supposed to be a responsible politician. [He] spoke to me as if I was from some other planet.”

A man walks inside a closed mutton market in Lucknow in March. (Photo credit: Pawan Kumar/ Reuters).
A man walks inside a closed mutton market in Lucknow in March. (Photo credit: Pawan Kumar/ Reuters).

Left vulnerable

The BJP had also promised to end corruption at multiple levels as part of its poll promises. The attempted implementation of this abstract promise has been problematic as seen in the case of donkeys transporting sand from mining sites.

In early May, Banda District Magistrate Saroj Kumar told Khabar Lahariya that the Allahabad High Court, on May 2, had directed the administration to lift the ban on sand mining in the area. However, according to the Mallu, the president of the Kamgar Mazdoor Vikas Association, when the donkeys were put to work in the last week of May, the police beat them and refused to let them work. The donkey-owning families have now promised to release their starving animals onto the streets, and take no responsibility for the havoc they will cause, unless the administration withdraws its arbitrary ban.

Notwithstanding all this, Prakash Dwivedi, the newly-elected BJP MLA of Banda Sadar constituency would not brook any questioning of the Union and state government’s policies. “Demonetisation happened, and it is true people suffered a little,” he said. “In the churn of change, some people do get hurt. It is the duty of all citizens to cooperate wholeheartedly with government initiatives in the correct, legal manner. We are trying to make things legal, what is your problem with that?”

Employment scheme crippled

If government policies have hurt the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in the region, there has been no attempt by the government to provide stable alternatives either. Even safety nets put in place by the previous UPA government have been rendered ineffective. For instance, the availability of work in rural areas through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has been dismal over the past three years – the provision of work on demand has been negligible, and unpaid wages seem to be a chronic problem across Bundelkhand. Unpaid wages also works as a disincentive for lakhs of workers who once viewed the scheme as a reliable alternative in times of distress, but now see migration as their only viable option.

(Photo credit: HT).
(Photo credit: HT).

In Dagariya (Jhansi), one of a series of villages where Khabar Lahariya recently reported on gaps in the implementation of NREGA, inhabitants claimed that 99% of the population had no job.

“NREGA to khatam ho gaya hai [NREGA is dead],” said Meera, who said she could not find work under the scheme for over a year even though she possessed a job card. “There is no work, no money. We are just surviving like this.”

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Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation, with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.

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