Khuba Chand increasingly finds himself alone in Iglas, a drought-parched village in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh. Unable to sow a crop without rain, his son and older brother left last winter for New Delhi, to work as labourers.

But Chand has remained with his wife and daughter, unwilling to abandon his four cows and a buffalo. “There are very few people left,” said Khuba, 53. “Many have moved with their families. They sold their cattle cheap. Some couldn’t sell mainly because there were no buyers.”

He hopes to hang on. “But keeping the cattle is not easy,” he said. “There is hardly any greenery left in the village. There is a severe shortage of fodder and water for cattle.”

As drought becomes the new normal, Bundelkhand, a parched region split between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, is clearing out. The region of nearly 70,000 sq km once received 800-900 mm of rainfall a year, according to the India Meteorological Department. But over the last six to seven years, the amount of rainfall has nearly halved, with the number of rainy days falling from 52 to 24 in the June to October monsoon period, according to DK Dubey, a scientist with the weather agency.

That has caused repeated and widespread crop failures, and a growing tide of farmers abandoning their land to try to find work in nearby cities.

Khuba Chand's village of Iglas is emptying out. Photo credit: Shuriah Niazi/Thomson Reuters Foundation

‘Emptied out’

Around half of the 40 lakh farmers living in the region have migrated temporarily or permanently since last year, according to Bundelkhand Jal Manch, a nonprofit in the area.

In Chand’s village, in Tikamgarh district, only a quarter of the 70 farmers who lived there 10 years ago remain. Chand’s neighbour Milan Khan, 80, remembers when farmers were able to produce enough grain and milk to make a reasonable living.

That has become increasingly difficult over the last 15 to 20 years, he said. “Due to successive droughts, most villagers have exhausted all their savings and are not in a position to invest in agriculture this year,” Khan said. “They have no money to buy seeds, fertiliser and pesticides.”

His wife, Roshani, blames the changing weather. “In Bundelkhand, the weather has become erratic,” she said. “We get very little rain during the monsoon.”

As a result, it is hard to grow vegetables, she said, and “wheat and other crops have been failing regularly”.

Hulas Prajapati, 40, a farmer in Ater village, in neighbouring Chhatarpur district, is similarly losing hope. “When I was young, we used to have enough production both for our consumption and sale in the market. But during the last decade, production has been continuously decreasing,” he said.

As a result, “villages have emptied out”, he said, with most of his neighbours heading to cities last year after both their rainy and dry season crops failed. Now uncultivated fields surround much of the village.

According to a study carried out by Bundelkhand Jal Manch in May, up to 55% of the region’s farmers have migrated, at least temporarily, since last November. The study, conducted in about 200 villages, found that most of the migrants were 15 to 45 years old.

Offices of the district magistrates in the region and the office of Madhya Pradesh’s minister for revenue said they do not collect or release figures on such migration.

Many homes in Ataria village are locked as families have migrated in search of work. Photo credit: Shuriah Niazi/ Thomson Reuters Foundation

Thin safety net

India has a national employment guarantee scheme under which those in need of work in rural areas can be paid for 100 days of it each year. The scheme works as a social safety net for villagers, like those in Bundelkhand, who may find themselves struggling for an income in tough times.

But the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is not proving sufficient help in Bundelkhand, villagers say. It provides employment to just one adult member of each family, and with so many people seeking help some are not getting a full 100 days of work.

The Madhya Pradesh government announced last year, for instance, that it would no longer include work to desilt and deepen water ponds as part of employment under the job scheme.

Some drought-hit families in Madhya Pradesh who relied on that work now have lost it, villagers say.

The state government also said villagers could dig new ponds themselves and use the rich, extracted soil to boost their farming efforts but the state did not have the money to pay for the work.

Today, Bundelkhand, once a region green with forests and fields, is becoming increasingly barren, with scare irrigation facilities in place to compensate for disappearing rainfall.

Many areas are relying on groundwater for drinking and limited irrigation but the underground water table too is receding alarmingly, farmers say.

According to a report by the Central Ground Water Board, water levels have fallen by 10 to 20 feet in almost all districts of Bundelkhand over the last five years.

Banwari Lal, 59, a farmer in Ratanpur village in Sagar district, said the region’s main rivers, the Ken and the Betwa, are now merely sluggish streams for much of the year. “The rivers flow when there is good rainfall during the monsoon season,” he said. “Otherwise they don’t have enough water to maintain the flow. Most of the dams in the region have also run dry. Large numbers of cows, oxen, buffaloes and other animals have died in my and nearby villages, as there is no water for them. The situation is grim.”

In Uttar Pradesh, several parts of Bundelkhand have been declared drought-hit by the National Institute of Disaster Management. Crop failures and migration are common there as well, with even drinking water disappearing in some villages.

Adityanath, the state’s chief minister, said his government is constructing wells, farm ponds and water tanks in many affected villages and the central government has provided about $192 million under the National Disaster Relief Fund to disburse among farmers as emergency aid.

But the measures have not been enough to stop large-scale migration of villagers to urban areas.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has also announced a $20 million relief package for farmers in drought-affected areas, including supplies of drinking water and fodder for animals.

Parched villagers are now looking to monsoon rains, which have started in the region, for relief. The met department has said there is low probability that 2018 will be a drought year.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.