Farmer suicides, famine deaths, distress migration—for 18 out of the last 30 years, recurring and long droughts have been the bane of the 21 million poor and marginalized people of Bundelkhand, according to a 2014 study by the National Institute of Disaster Management.
The region, spread over 70,000 sq. km of 13 districts in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, has experienced continuous drought between 2003 and 2010, floods in 2011, a late monsoon in 2012 and deficit rain in 2013, and a second spell of drought starting in 2014, which continues till date.
Following the media spotlight on farmer suicides in the wake of a severe drought in Maharashtra, a number of companies and corporate foundations stepped forward to provide both immediate relief and undertake long-term projects as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) to try and make rural areas in state drought-resistant.
Now, grassroots organizations are seeking CSR funds for Bundelkhand too. As per CSR Rules 2014, companies with a net worth of Rs.500 crore or a revenue of Rs.1,000 crore or a net profit of Rs.5 crore need to spend 2% of their average profit in the past three years on social development activities such as sanitation, environment protection, rural development, etc.
Over 70% of the residents of Bundelkhand are dependent on agriculture. “This year, even if the region does receive rains, as scientists are predicting, it will be of little help because the farmers of this region have no money to even buy seeds,” said Raja Bhaiya, who runs Vidya Dham Samiti, a non-profit organization from Banda district in Uttar Pradesh, a part of Bundelkhand. The organization works with marginalized communities on livelihood and rights issues.
Bhaiya and others like Abhishek Mishra of not-for-profit Arunoday Sansthan believe corporates can help resolve some of the issues that the farmers in Bundelkhand face. Arunoday Sansthan is a Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh-based organization that also works with weaker sections of the community.
But it is not easy finding CSR contributions for the region. According to Atul Mehra, chair of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) Uttar Pradesh chapter and managing director of Kanpur-based Tasty Dairy Specialties Ltd, one reason for Bundelkhand not seeing too many CSR initiatives is because the region doesn’t have many private or government companies that qualify for CSR expenditure.
Agrees Zeenat Niazi, vice-president, Development Alternatives, a not-for-profit working on issues related to sustainable development and CSR implemention in Bundelkhand. “CSR initiatives by corporates across the country commonly tend to be in the region of their operations. Bundelkhand, with little industrial presence, does not usually find favour,” she said.
That said, there are a few companies that have CSR initiatives in the region. For instance, the Mahindra Group has been working in 32 villages of Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh (part of Bundelkhand) for the past six years. The group chose to work in the region despite not having a plant in Bundelkhand because it felt the region desperately needed attention.
“The region was shortlisted based on extensive research and debate within the company. We have close ties with rural communities across the country due to our products like tractors. And though there is stress in different parts of the country, we felt there was no one working in this region and we could make a difference,” said Harshwardhan Nawathe, head, CSR and ethics, at the auto and farm equipment vertical of Mahindra Group.
The Damoh initiative started in 2010 as a public-private partnership (PPP) project with the government of Madhya Pradesh, under the Integrated Watershed Management Programme, now called the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana.
It has, over the years, moved beyond watershed management towards CSR, Nawathe said. The company decided that aside from its contribution via the PPP model, it would contribute to the project from its CSR corpus too. Its total expenditure on Damoh has been Rs.5.15 crore so far, of which Rs.1.15 crore has been on the PPP project and Rs 4 crore has been on CSR initiatives like provision of sustainable livelihood, capacity building, productivity enhancement and de-siltation of old water bodies. In FY16, the firm’s total CSR expenditure—pan India—is expected to be close to Rs 86 crore.
After spending six years in Damoh, the company is looking to expand its work in the region. “We realized that in order to have impact, we have to continue working in the same region, and expand reach,” Nawathe said.
The group has recently launched a CSR project in Hatta, in the same district, in partnership with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. It has completed 8 check dams, 17 ponds and tanks, 1,100 soil conservation structures and created 450 million litres of water storage capacity. These claims could not be independently verified by Mint.
Another company that has come forward to support water conservation and drought augmentation efforts in Bundelkhand is Coca-Cola India Pvt. Ltd.
The firm started work in Jhansi as far back as 2009 under its corporate responsibility and sustainability programme. Yogesh Chandra, CEO, Coca-Cola India Foundation, said the foundation selected Bundelkhand based on “rigorous assessment”.
In partnership with Jhansi-based not-for-profit Haritika, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Foundation for Rural Recovery and Development (FORRAD), Coca-Cola Foundation claims to have spent Rs.10 crore on activities such as water use efficiency, groundwater recharge, community watershed management, soil and water conservation, improving agricultural productivity through crop diversification and integrated pest management.
According to Chandra, “The Coca-Cola India Foundation was set up to empower communities living in locations that are severely stressed and are deprived of water and electricity. What differentiates the Coca-Cola India Foundation is the fact that it choses its areas based on a rigorous assessment process which evaluates the need for any kind of interventions and not because of business interest.”
However, the bulk of relief activity in Bundelkhand is limited to provision of dry rations and water. Like in the case of the CII initaitive launched on 5 June. CII along with eight small and medium-sized industries in Uttar Pradesh announced that it will supply 50,000-1 lakh litres of water a day to four villages in Lalitpur district of Bundelkhand for a month.
Bhaiya insists that for drought stress to reduce in Bundelkhand, those looking to provide help will need to go beyond water tankers. “Firms need to support with patience in order to see impact on the ground, which will not be possible if the projects are only a few months in duration. The need is for farm-bunding, watershed management, cleaning ponds and wells and making rain water harvesting possible,” he added.
For instance, in Hussainpur village of Banda district, women start queuing up at 3 am for water. The 80-year-old well in the village has 7-10 feet of silt and garbage and, according to Bhaiya, it will cost around Rs 20,000 to clean. “If a company were to take up such an initiative, it could change the lives of these women,” said Bhaiya.
Naizi says the scale of the need will require investments on a much larger scale. “Bundelkhand suffers from prolonged and recurrent droughts and the damage may even continue following rains,” she said, highlighting the need for companies to look to invest in long-term CSR projects in the region such as development of check dams and ponds.