Cover Story

Rural tragedy

Print edition : March 04, 2016

At Kaudiya village in Tikamgarh district, Madhya Pradesh. Women sitting around the only tube well in the village, waiting for the groundwater to accumulate before they can draw water. A jar of water requires a wait of at least three hours. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashanta

At Chandrapur in Lalitpur district, Uttar Pradesh, elders who remained in the village after their families were forced to migrate in seach of livelihood. Photo: AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA

Successive years of drought and crop failure across India’s landmass push rural society into distress and disharmony and government measures fall far short of what the scale of the disaster demands.

A DROUGHT is often called a silent killer. It unfolds slowly, gradually takes away what you have acquired over years, and pushes you into the clutches of unmanageable poverty. Unlike any other disaster, it does not resemble a hit-and-run case. “A poor farmer, unused to profit, sometimes doesn’t know that he died of drought,” says Manvendra Singh, an activist working on farmers’ issues and the problems of water scarcity in the Bundelkhand region. “He thinks he was destined to a life of penury.” That may sound a little too sweeping, but in large parts of rural India, two consecutive droughts and three back-to-back crop failures have deepened everyday deprivation.

Squeezed by significant rainfall deficits in the last two years, climatic unpredictability, negligible government support, and a worsening agrarian crisis, rural societies seem to be on the brink of disintegration. Large swathes of agricultural land remain unsown this rabi season. In Bundelkhand, Telangana, Marathwada, and eastern Uttar Pradesh, once-fertile fields lie fallow at the peak of the agricultural cycle. The farmers, clearly, have retreated in the face of not just the vagaries of climate change but also the unviability of agriculture as a livelihood. Consequently, the migration of rural populations to urban centres is assuming unprecedented proportions. This widespread and large-scale migration is essentially towards meagre, subsistence living in unknown and unfriendly destinations. The familiar world of the village no longer offers the assurance of a stable livelihood. The larger picture that emerges from this scenario, which is repeated across India, is that of the dying village.

Ten States have declared a drought following a failed monsoon that destroyed the kharif crop. Some States such as Gujarat, Haryana and Bihar are still in the process of assessing their losses. According to the India Meteorological Department, almost 40 per cent of India’s landmass is drought-affected at present. In December 2015, the Government of India informed the Rajya Sabha that it had official confirmation of drought in seven States.

The severity of the crisis demands short-term and long-term relief measures. Many farmer organisations believe that the response of both the State governments and the Union government has been apathetic. “Many State governments took a long time to declare a drought. Some States are still assessing the situation. The bureaucratic and political delay in providing immediate relief has taken a huge toll on rural livelihoods and economy. What seems to be lacking is the political will to address the issues of farmers,” says Yogendra Yadav of the Swaraj Abhiyan, a political collective that has focussed on the issues of farmers in the last one year.

In December 2015, the Swaraj Abhiyan filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court detailing various aspects of the crisis. The petition noted that the failure of the rabi crop last year, caused by a 14 per cent rainfall deficit, had aggravated the distress in rural areas, which had already been reeling under the impact of a 12 per cent rainfall deficit the year before. It said that this was the third time that India had experienced consecutive droughts and that it called for immediate relief measures.

Some senior bureaucrats in both the Union government and several State governments contend that the drought and rural distress this time around is not as debilitating as in previous years. They argue that no region has reported significant or widespread human or animal deaths from starvation or malnutrition. This argument does not measure up to scrutiny on social and economic parameters. Even a basic survey of rural areas across the drought-hit regions would show that economic distress has been making people literally run from impending death, leaving their villages to crumble and perish.

Drought manual observed in breach

A drought is assessed on five parameters—the availability of drinking water, irrigation water, fodder and foodgrains, and the energy sector requirement—according to the drought management manual brought out in 2009 by the Government of India, then controlled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). In 2015, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government released a comprehensive drought crisis management plan. Both manuals are well written, with detailed plans that require the administration’s participation, from the block level to the Union government. The manual explains that relief measures must be implemented by State governments with the Central government’s active cooperation. But farmers and landless farmhands feel that none of these policies has been properly implemented despite the severity of the crisis.

The manual sets out four important measures that a State government should take at the time of a drought, with the Union government’s help. One, it should use the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) to provide immediate employment to drought-affected people. Two, the public distribution mechanism should be strengthened to provide food and fodder as a measure to sustain the rural economy. Three, the government should initiate actions to recharge the groundwater table by building check dams and providing pipeline water and other irrigation facilities. Fourth, the government should either waive off or defer farmer loans and arrange for crop loss compensation.

The NDA has been taking credit for institutionalising a better crop insurance plan, hiking the crop loss compensation by 50 per cent and relaxing the norms for compensation eligibility. Farmers who have suffered 33 per cent crop damage are now eligible for compensation, whereas earlier the figure was 50 per cent. The government has also revised the minimum number of workdays under the MGNREGS from 100 to 150. However, none of these measures has been fully implemented in any of the drought-affected States. In States such as Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, the MGNREGS suffers from huge pay delays. This has made people unwilling to take up further work under the MGNREGS. The drought-affected regions of Madhya Pradesh face a huge drinking water crisis. States such as Uttar Pradesh, where immediate relief measures were made available only in January, have not initiated planned irrigation in drought-affected areas. In most States, the crop loss compensation announced by the Union government has not reached the farmers. Almost everywhere, farmers complain of gross underestimation of losses in the calculation of compensation amounts. They also complain that the public distribution system (PDS) does not function properly. For instance, Uttar Pradesh, a State that has issued instructions for immediate relief to be provided to the drought-hit, suffers from a malfunctioning PDS because it has not made the transition to the guarantees provided in the National Food Security Act.

While most State governments have announced a slew of immediate relief measures, there has been no planning on long-term measures. Experts attribute the poor implementation of drought-relief measures to the way the system is planned. Crop losses, they say, are determined on the basis of casual estimations by patwaris and lekhpals, the lowest-level revenue officials in villages. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report notes that the system is riddled with corruption. The patwari often charges a commission to estimate the losses correctly. Although a State-level officer is supposed to accompany the patwari when the losses are estimated, this does not always happen. As a result, crop loss estimates hinge on the whims of a single official.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which work in rural areas to get the MGNREGS properly implemented believe that most intended beneficiaries do not have access to the scheme. “At present, the people are not getting MGNREGS work for more than 15-20 days. The majority of people in villages do not have job cards. Increasing the number to 150 days will hardly reflect on the ground when the scheme’s implementation is so poor,” says Vinita from Parmarth, an NGO working on water issues in Bundelkhand.

The 50 per cent hike in crop loss compensation, calculated on the basis of rates fixed decades ago, does not take into account current inflationary pressures. The amount that a farmer is eligible for remains negligible. For instance, a farmer in Rajasthan would now get Rs.7,425 per acre instead of the earlier Rs.4,950 per acre. But the upgraded amount does not even cover the current costs of manure or fertilizers. The new crop loss scheme, though better than the earlier one, does not take into account the subjectivity and arbitrariness with which crop loss is calculated. Moreover, the scheme is not universal.

Sudhir Panwar of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a farmers’ organisation in western Uttar Pradesh, said: “The relief measures that the NDA government or the UPA government announced address only the symptoms of the larger problem that afflicts agriculture. The problem is systemic. The government has opened up agriculture to the pressures of the market. Farmers are subject to market volatility. Farmers do not have the guarantee of an assured price. At one level, the input costs have become substantially high; at another level, the government is making no effort to protect farmers. As a result, farmers have become increasingly vulnerable to factors such as natural calamities, climate change, the technological fatigue of the Green Revolution, global food price recessions, and so on. Unless the government increases its investment in agriculture, farmers will continue to suffer.”

Panwar added that governments thought in terms of foodstock availability—whether or not they had a surplus. “Farmers are buffeted by prices that are market-driven. In this stream of thinking, the problems of farmers, a large chunk of the Indian population, get very little priority. The lack of political will to address farmer vulnerabilities even at the time of a drought is reflective of this economic thinking,” he said.

Toll on rural communities

As governments struggle to address the drought crisis, the impact of this dry period in agriculture has taken a toll on rural communities. The Swaraj Abhiyan’s petition notes: “[T]he harsh effects of the second consecutive drought year is snowballing and resulting into a severe livelihood crisis, mass migrations, severe malnutrition, starvation deaths, fodder crisis for cattle, increasing debt burden on farmers, leading to intensification in farmers’ suicides.”

Frontline correspondents noted an increase in distress migration in many areas. Small and marginal farmers who had never migrated for work before have in recent months moved to urban areas in hordes. Most of them secure work at construction sites or brick kilns at petty wages. But that is the only option left to farmers as debts spiral out of control with interests charged at astronomical rates. As a result, the nexus of labour agents who hire villagers to work in urban areas has become stronger and more exploitative. The rural distress allows them to depress wage rates that were low to start with. For example, whereas labourers migrating out of Bundelkhand earlier got Rs.200 to Rs.250 a day, this season they are being offered only Rs.150, and that too with poorer work conditions.

Nutrition levels have gone down drastically in many places. The Swaraj Abhiyan did a survey in Bundelkhand. Many people told the Swaraj Abhiyan team that they had not eaten dal or rice for many months. The survey noted that 60 per cent of rural families could not afford milk for their children; 39 per cent had no dal; 40 per cent reported distress sale of cattle; and 27 per cent had sold or pawned their ornaments in the last eight months.

The team also noted that the drought had forced village residents to withdraw daughters from schools. Frontline correspondents noticed that women bore the brunt of drinking water shortages as they had to fetch water for their families. The dry spell for the past two years has also intensified social evils such as the practice of taking dowry. For instance, in Haryana, many women complained that families with sons had extracted dowries from the families of brides to clear their debts.

In many places in Bundelkhand, the number of child marriages has gone up. In Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district in the Bundelkhand region, the Frontline correspondent found that political leaders from various parties had been competing with each other to organise community marriages as a “drought-relief measure”.

The scarcity of drinking water has resulted in water-related caste conflicts. At Bhadauna village in Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh, Dalits can access the only tube well in the village only after the dominant Yadavs have collected water. Similarly, in Hamirpur, the villages dominated by Thakurs have constructed temporary check dams in the water canal to prevent the water from flowing into the village at the tail end of the canal. However, in a few villages where the land is evenly distributed between all caste groups, the Frontline correspondent noticed greater harmony. For instance, in Bangaya village of Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district, all caste groups, including Brahmins, Thakurs, Other Backward Classes and Dalits, participated in community efforts to dig ponds and wells.

Evidently, the rural distress of 2016 is producing social manifestations on a scale never matched before. The farmer dying a slow death in the form of permanent penury inflicted by droughts seems to have become a metaphor for the Indian village. The economic distress has dangerous implications for social life in the countryside.

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