Home / Industry / After years of distress, farmers in Bundelkhand have reasons to cheer

In the middle of its second successive drought, in early May, parts of Bundelkhand region in central India looked like a vast moonscape—miles upon miles of parched earth with not a plant in sight. The only signs of life came from emaciated stray cattle, abandoned by farmers in distress. Dry lake beds were the resting ground of cattle carcasses.

The contrast with Bundelkhand this week couldn’t be starker.

The onset of monsoon in June—on time for the first time in nearly a decade—means the landscape has turned verdant. Farmers sow seeds on rain-drenched soil, as cows graze on green pastures and children jump into ponds that have filled up after years.

You would think the drought never happened here, yet experts warn that plentiful rain by itself is no solution, that unless measures are taken now, drought is just a summer away.

Farmers in Bundelkhand faced a famine-like situation after deficient rainfall in 2014 and 2015, but that is not all. The region, spread over 70,000 sq. km and straddling 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, has faced an unending spell of natural disasters—continuous drought between 2003 and 2010, floods in 2011, a late monsoon and deficit rain in 2012 and 2013; and then the droughts.

But low rainfall alone did not cause farm distress. While the reservoirs in the region had run dry, unrestrained and unscientific digging of borewells led to over-exploitation of groundwater at such a rate that often even a good monsoon is not sufficient to replenish groundwater.

Most of the farmers had not sowed seeds or had seen their crops fail miserably since 2010—the year when most of the region received normal to above normal rainfall.

There is relief among these farmers now.

“The pond in our village has filled with water after three years. This pond’s water helps us irrigate the farms across the village. Because of rain, there is prosperity in this village," said 65-year-old Hardayal Latoria, who has sown arhar or pigeon pea in his fields.

The return of rains has also marked the return of pulses on the fields of Bundelkhand.

According to the latest report from the agricultural ministry, published last week, pulses have been sown in an area of 7.1 million hectares this time as compared to 5.1 million hectares in 2015-16. Bundelkhand is among the main pulse-growing regions in India, along with states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra where rainfall is usually less. Although the farms in the region are traditionally irrigated by rain, recent years’ erratic rain patterns have led farmers to shift to supplementary irrigation to grow wheat, which requires heavy water input, and crops such as mustard and chickpea.

“There was a time when pulses used to be grown in Bundelkhand and sent across India and outside India, but not anymore. Crop production was nothing in the last three years as there was barely any rain," said 42-year-old Khushi Ram from Tiliya village in Jalaun district.

“But we have high hopes this time as it started raining on time this time; we have sown arhar. Last few years, there has been no rain or there would be so much in one day that our crop would get damaged," Khushi Ram added, as he stood next to the village well where women from his family were drawing water.

Water has filled the well after nearly three years, villagers said.

The India Meteorological Department forecast in June that this year’s monsoon will be above normal at 106% of the long-period average. If this forecast comes true, then this will be the highest rainfall in India in 25 years. West Uttar Pradesh and West Madhya Pradesh, where the 13 districts of Bundelkhand are located, have so far received excess monsoon rainfall.

Still, problems remain to be resolved from the droughts—compensation, for instance. Farmers in those areas that have faced more than 50% crop damage are entitled to a compensation of 4,500 per hectare for rain-fed crops and 9,000 per hectare for irrigated crops. While increased compensation and easier eligibility norms are designed to help farmers, delays in disbursal is a big problem.

“The amount is 9,000 per hectare, but nobody here has a hectare—people have fragmented land. There is no irrigation and our faith is in rain gods only," said Khushi Ram.

Almost 80% of Bundelkhand’s 18.3 million population lives in rural areas (2011 census), and much of this population is dependent on agriculture for livelihood. Approximately 60% of the population are workers, and of them, nearly 60% are working as cultivators and agricultural labourers, according to a report by the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) released in 2014.

Earlier this month, food minister Ram Vilas Paswan said the government expects pulse production to come in at 20 million tonnes in 2016-17, 18% higher than the 17.06 million tonnes estimated for 2015-16.

The farmers of Bundelkhand are working at it. Pulses are an important determinant of food inflation, and are dependent on rain rather than irrigation. Equally, pulses will suffer if there is excessive rain over consecutive days leading to the washout of germinated saplings.

A visit to villages in Tikamgarh district in Madhya Pradesh presents a starkly different story from April when cattle were let go by farmers and were dying of hunger, and drinking water was a major problem as canals and ponds ran dry. The Buddh Sagar pond, which is the main source of irrigation for Bangaon village in Tikamgarh, is now brimming with water. Villagers bathe and wash clothes there, and children hold diving competitions.

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“No one farmed this year as the pond was completely empty. Last three years, rainfall was next to nothing. But now the pond’s filled. People in this village have now sown makka (corn), dhan (paddy) and urad (black gram). This time monsoon was on time and handpumps are repaired," said Raja Ram Agarwal, a 24-year-old farmer.

The villagers of Bangaon have also been building ridges along the edges of the pond to prevent water from flowing out once the rainy season ends. Kodiya village in Tikamgarh has been emptied of its youth for close to four years. They have moved out looking for work, leaving only the old behind. But after timely monsoon rains this year, some of the youth have returned to the villages for the sowing period.

“Every person has 1-2 acres land for agriculture. This year, we started sowing around 25-26 June. There is some water as owing to the gods. So, hopefully this time, we will be able to sustain ourselves," said Om Prakash, who has sown til (sesame seed) and urad.

These farmers get 15-20 per kg for makka, and for urad, they get 100-125 per kg. “This year after four years, we will be growing makka. Wells had dried up and we had to walk 2km to get drinking water, which was hard to come by," added Om Prakash.

D.K. Joshi, chief economist at rating company Crisil Ltd, says that the pickup in sowing is good news. “Pulses are predominantly rain-fed and it is important that there is adequate rain and not too much rain. Our research shows that there is a three-year cycle and every three years there is a spike in pulse production," said Joshi. “Pulses play a major factor in food inflation, so an end to the pulse crisis is good news not only in terms of inflation but the spillover will be that farmers will have a good income and there will be an impact to the human misery."

In Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh, water conservationist Rajendra Singh, known as the ‘Water Man of India’, addressed an audience of women on the importance of conserving water.

“The question of drought is not only about rains, it is about water conservation. After five years of drought, water needs to be replenished. It is important to identify sources of water and demarcate them. And most importantly, it is important to preserve traditional chandelas," said Singh, who was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize in 2015.

Chandela tanks are reservoirs that were built during the rule of the Chandela kings (10th-16th century AD) and were built to prevent rainwater from running off as streams. The main structure used to be earthen embankments supported by partitions made of rough stones.

Bundelkhand’s drought is not just caused by deficient rainfall but also reduced availability of water. Lack of adequate water in reservoirs and drying up of wells is one of the leading causes of crop failure in the region, according to experts.

“Drinking water crisis still continues today and people are still struggling with hunger. It is important for Bundelkhand that it not only rains here, but it should not rain too much and it should be consistent for five to seven days," said Sanjay Singh of Jalaun-based non-profit Parmarth, which works on water conservation and livelihoods. “Heavy rainfall within a day can break soil structures as well as pucca structures; rivers will be flooded. So, there are two problems because of the climate—rainy days have reduced, but the density has increased, which results in flood-like situations."

Traditional reservoirs and traditional knowledge of water conservation have been lost in the region over years. The Betwa river contributes around 50% of the water available in the Bundelkhand upland and Bundelkhand plain sub-regions; the Ken contributes another 25%. The rivers flow through Uttar Pradesh as well as Madhya Pradesh. The Betwa, Ken, Pahuj and Dhasan are crucial for irrigation in the region. Their seasonal variations however, are very large.

Anil Gupta, author of the NIDM report on Bundelkhand, says that community-oriented water management practices hold the key to the region’s water and agrarian crisis.

“The biggest issue in Bundelkhand is that there is no holistic water management. It is important to implement water conservation and management in rainfall years like these and not drought years. The government has not promoted this and the people have lost their traditional knowledge," he said. “We used remote sensing and geographical information system to carry out a survey and the problem is not just deficit rainfall but that the adaptive capacity of farmers has not been developed at all."

According to the NIDM study conducted in 131 villages of UP Bundelkhand, only 7% of the villages had enough water to meet domestic needs throughout the year. In more than 60% of the villages, drinking water was available for only one month. Throughout Bundelkhand, women spent an average four to five hours a day to collect drinking water, the study revealed.

“Not many people benefit from government schemes and most farmers are economically so broken that standing up again will take time. To get Bundelkhand to stand again, there is a need for intensive planning and continuous support for a minimum of three years for uplifting the societies," said Sanjay Singh.

“The governments here think that now that it has rained, the problems of Bundelkhand have vanished, but that is not the case," he added.

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