Mahoba (Uttar Pradesh)/New Delhi: Some time in March, Dhan Prasad Anuragi led his pregnant cow Kajal a couple of miles outside his village and abandoned her.
The 55-year-old farmer, who lives in Balchaur village of Mahoba district in Uttar Pradesh, says he had no choice.
He couldn’t afford to feed the cow and his only hope was that she would survive by foraging.
He found the carcass of the animal a few days later, next to the highway a short distance away from Balchaur.
Stray cattle are everywhere in drought-hit Bundelkhand—roaming the highways at night, foraging in barren fields where no crops have grown in the past year, even just lying down and dying on bone-dry lake beds.
In Balchaur, a village of about 350 families, more than 100 cows have perished in the past three months. Villagers say they have lost count of the goats and buffaloes lost to drought.
In Bundelkhand, a region spread across 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, letting cattle loose is not new. It is a tradition known as Anna Pratha; farmers untie some of their cows and bulls in the kharif (monsoon crop) season in times of drought and leave them to fend for themselves.
Things (always) become better and the animals return.
The past few months have been different.
The region is reeling from the impact of successive crop failures, brought about by back-to-back droughts that decimated the rain-fed kharif crop and the unseasonal rains that damaged the winter harvest last year, and fields that have been left unsown this year.
The collateral damage? Livestock, for which there’s no fodder. So, almost every household in Balchaur has abandoned cattle to the harsh elements in a region that resembles a desert moonscape.
“This time, we do not expect the cattle to return home. We are left with little to eat, there is no fodder or water for cattle,” says 68-year-old Nand Kishor Naik. “I haven’t seen my village like this...not in my lifetime.”
Villagers are also dealing with a worsening shortage of drinking water as nearly all tanks and wells are parched. In villages such as Balchaur, most hand pumps are dry.
With the monsoon still two months away, entire families have migrated to other states in search of work. Locked homes are another recurrent sight. Those left behind—old, disabled and the children—are struggling for a square meal.
‘This is famine’
In Mahoba district alone, at least 3,000 cattle have died of hunger and thirst, according to Abhishek Mishra, who runs a local non-profit, Arunodya.
“On paper, the Uttar Pradesh government has set up 39 fodder centres in the district, but not one is functional,” he says.
“More tankers are supplying drinking water on paper than in villages. People are borrowing money for food. You cannot call this a drought anymore. This is famine.”
The desertification of Bundelkhand—the region witnessed 13 droughts in the past 15 years —is also due to the neglect of traditional water conservation practices. “Unlike Marathwada, farmers here do not grow water-guzzling crops like sugarcane. Yet water is scare as successive governments ignored the 12,000 Chandela-era tanks, only 1,300 of which survive now,” said Sanjay Singh of Jalaun-based non-profit Parmarth.
“(Since 2009), Rs.7,200 crore was spent on a central package, but it was used to construct market yards and dams without village-level planning. Today, the tanker lobby supplying potable water is getting stronger and in 65 out of 75 blocks,groundwater is over-exploited,” he added.
Dhan Kuar, 35, has silently accepted her loss. A cow and a calf, the only assets she ever owned, died two weeks ago. Her husband died of ill-health some years ago. She has to run the household of four on the earnings of less than an acre of land.
Despite living in stark poverty, she does not have either a red permit or a white permit—local argot for ration cards issued under the National Food Security Act. The red-coloured ration card meant for antyodaya, or the poorest of poor families, will get her 35kg of foodgrains a month. The white card, meant for the non-antyodaya families, 20kg.
Uttar Pradesh took almost two-and-a-half years to implement the National Food Security Act, which entitles 75% of India’s rural population to subsidized food, but a visit to villages in the Bundelkhand region shows most families have been left out of the scheme.
Many have the white permit—a piece of paper that looks more like a photocopy than a ration card—but without a single entry for the year. Just 70 of the 350 families in Balchaur get subsidized food.
Hunger is commonplace, and families such as Kuar’s are close to starvation. They subsist on rotis with a spice on most days, a few potatoes or tomatoes, occasionally. No pulses. Not a glass of milk for children.
Kuar knows that a bribe of Rs.1,500 can get her a below-the-poverty-line ration card. But she never had that kind of money.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav recently launched a special Samajwadi food scheme as part of a Rs.538 crore relief package for the region, where antyodaya families were handed a month’s supply of grains, pulses, oil and milk powder.
The supplies come in a red-and-green carton with the chief minister’s photo displayed on one side and a letter from him assuring that the “government will not let anyone fall prey to starvation” and “families that received the food packets should share it with others”.
This is a tacit admission of the state’s inability to reach all the poor and the drought-hit. Only 11.3% of rural households in Uttar Pradesh possess antyodaya cards; in Mahoba, just 4.2% of households have these cards, so very few benefited from the chief minister’s special food dole.
Govind Das, 45, a resident of Karharakala village in Mahoba district, took away his mother’s package of supplies to feed his family of six. A migrant labourer who often works with his family at brick kilns in Punjab and construction sites in Noida, Das says he makes sure his ailing mother is sent food once a day.
Uttar Pradesh only covered a quarter of its rural population under the erstwhile targeted public distribution system, or TPDS, and could have taken the coverage to as high as 80% under the National Food Security Act, according to Jean Dreze, professor of economics at Ranchi University.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, could in fact have become the biggest beneficiary of the Act, Dreze says. “The problem is that the state is transitioning to a new system in the middle of a drought. The process should have started much earlier,” he says.
In Raipur, a tribal hamlet in Lalitpur district, several families show ration cards without a single entry. Most are still waiting to be included in the new food security scheme. Anjana Sahariya, a mother of five, says her children are chased away from the local anganwadi (childcare centre) because they come from a poor tribal family.
Sahariya depends on the generosity of a relative for food and shelter because her husband is a migrant worker and has not returned home since November last year.
When Swaraj Abhiyan, a non-profit, conducted a survey back in October-November last year in Bundelkhand, it was clear that the region was heading towards famine-like conditions, says Yogendra Yadav, a leader of the organization.
Sixty-seven percent of the households were “often, or some times, not sure of getting two square meals” a day, the survey had found. Also, 38% villages reported at least one death due to hunger or malnutrition in the reference period of eight months preceding the survey.
Yadav is scathing about the situation. “The unfolding disaster with widespread starvation shows the failed state that Uttar Pradesh is,” he says.
Sudhir Panwar, a member of the state planning board and a professor at Lucknow University, says the state government should throw the subsidized public distribution open to all vulnerable households whether or not they are enrolled.
“We took the application process online (for enrolling in the National Food Security Act) to remove discretion of local-level officials, and it seems like the process is taking time,” he says.
While the state government continues to be casual about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Bundelkhand, the centre too has delayed releasing funds to provide relief to farmers for damage to their kharif crop.
Uttar Pradesh declared a drought in November and the centre approved Rs.1,304 crore for relief work in January. But the state received the funds only by the end of March.
So, even the paltry relief of Rs.2,700 per acre for crop loss has proven elusive for farmers.
“Both the centre and states still function with a conservative mindset. We’re yet to move from the colonial famine code, whose goal was to spend as little as possible, to an entitlement-based model of handling a drought,” says Yadav.
Uttar Pradesh is one of the 11 states that declared a drought last year. While states such as Bihar and Haryana never admitted to a drought despite recording deficient rainfall, Gujarat declared one as late as April, five months after the kharif crop was harvested, at the prodding of the Supreme Court.
A public interest litigation filed by Swaraj Abhiyan at the apex court has revealed the hard, brutal reality of drought—that nearly 540 million, or 40% of the people in India, are in the grip of a drought. That the centre did not create the mandated mitigation fund under the Disaster Management Act. That delays in releasing payments under the rural employment guarantee scheme —pending dues of Rs.12,000 crore that were settled only in April—took an additional toll.
Unable to find work and waiting for wages for months when they did find work, many families in Bundelkhand have been left with no choice but to migrate.
For Govind Das’s family, this means taking children out of school and toiling at construction sites on the outskirts of the national capital.
Sidhgopal Yadav, a farmer from Mahoba, says he has lost faith in the ability of the government to rescue the drought-hit.
“Only good rains can save us, and that is what we are waiting for,” he says.
But rains, even if bountiful, will not immediately help either the farmers or their cattle, says Yogendra Yadav. “Both will have to wait till November when the next crop will be harvested,” he says.
November is still six months away.
“And the distance between a drought and famine is collapsing in Bundelkhand,” warns Yadav.