Traveling through Bundelkhand, this question repeatedly comes up in conversation. Is drought a recent phenomenon or is this something that has always been a part of this region? In an attempt to get the perspective of local intellectuals and social activists, we seize on an opportunity to attend a conference on the drought organized by Dr Bharatendu Prakash at Chhatarpur. Dr Prakash is an unconventional scientist, having quit academic research at IIT Kanpur back in 1974 and embraced rural development activities through the medium of non governmental organizations. In the past, he has co-authored a study on the water resources of Bundelkhand sponsored by the Government of India. Today, he is a leading activist of the Organic Farming Association of India and is also working with the MP Council of Science and Technology on a detailed village by village survey of water resources in MP’s Bundelkhand region.
The conference is being attended by activists from different districts of Bundelkhand – both from UP and MP and is being held at the Gandhi Bhavan in Chhatarpur. The speakers concur on the causes of the current crisis and their view goes something like this. Historically, Bundelkhand has been periodically subjected to drought. This being the case, the people have evolved over time elaborate mechanisms to cope with the drought. What has changed in recent years is that the traditional coping mechanisms have fallen apart. The problem is not so much the shortfall in rain – officially called meteorological drought – rather it is the reduced ability of the people to cope with such a shortfall.
What were these coping mechanisms?
Dr Prakash explains that Bundelkhand even in a normal monsoon gets almost all its rain in about 40 days and even on those days in a matter of a few hours. The problem to be addressed is how to prevent the water from running off rapidly down rocky slopes into streams and rivers leading to the Yamuna – the river that drains the region. The solutions evolved over a 1000 years have been to construct innumerable rain water harvesting structures taking into account the lay of the land, designed to capture the runoff in surface ponds and recharge underground sources. Water harvesting structures – ponds in every village and town and at other strategic locations - had been crafted in the region as early as 800-900 AD by the Chandela kings and reinforced by subsequent rulers – the Bundela’s and the Peshwa’s. But in addition to conserving the rainwater, Bundeli’s evolved hardy crop varieties that required less water and cattle breeds that could withstand the rigors of drought. Food and livelihood sources were diversified to provide fallbacks in case of failure of one source.
At the conference today, speaker after speaker rues the official apathy and neglect of the age old water harvesting structures resulting in reduced water availability for cattle and irrigation and in dug wells going dry. On the one hand, recharging the underground reservoirs has been neglected while on other, the focus on bore wells with large pumping capacity has lead to increased exploitation of ground water in an unsustainable manner leading to a drop in the water table. Speakers point to the steadily reducing forest cover and large scale mining activities that have further impacted the water table.
A detailed exposition of the negative fallout of a Government program for land consolidation carried out under advice of the World Bank is made by some affected farmers. The program called ‘Chackbandi’ entails forcible consolidation of farmers’ holdings. Land is divided into 3 categories depending on the soil quality. Farmers may possess some quantity of each type of land and typically use each type of land for a specific purpose – for growing grain, for pulses and oilseeds or as pasture land for cattle. Under the Chackbandi program in UP, the individual farm boundaries are redrawn and farmers are given a single parcel of land after allowance for its type and the type and extent of lands they earlier possessed. The new boundaries are determined by Government officials and in the re-division, trees have been cut, common ponds and their watersheds encroached upon and traditional bunds that retain water in the fields destroyed. The forced redrawing of boundaries has also played havoc with the individual farmers’ livelihood security – with farmers not having pastures for their cattle or being able to grow all the food items to meet their own needs. Thus a measure, supposedly to help the farmer, turns out in fact to have a profound negative effect on agriculture as it has been done without taking into account the specific conditions of Bundelkhand.
Along with the overexploitation of groundwater, we learn that there has been a shift towards commercial agriculture in Bundelkhand – producing crops for the market based on intensive water use as prevalent in the irrigated northern states. These are the sort of changes – pushed by Government or market driven - that have made it more difficult for people to cope with drought.
In our travels around Bundelkhand, we repeatedly come across examples of the changes that Dr Bharatendu Prakash and other NGO’s have told us about.
Environmental destruction in high gear
At Charkhari, we come across a set of 11 interconnected ponds, with stone embankments and gates to let water move from one pond to another, an intricately designed water storage infrastructure. The ponds are going to seed from neglect.
This neglect of old water storage structures we witness again and again in different parts of Bundelkhand. Every village or small town we visit has one or more large ponds usually dating hundreds of years. The water bodies are now filthy with sewage allowed to flow in, garbage dumped on the banks, silt accumulation and weeds.
The river Betwa flows skirting Jalalpur village in Hamirpur district. Across the river, standing on the old ghat, we can see sand mining is in full swing. A long line of waiting trucks can be seen parked some distance from the huge sand excavators.
The mining is being done close to the water channel and social activist fear will cause a fall in the water table in riparian areas and other damage to the river ecosystem.
Sipping tea early one morning near Harpalpur station, we are surprised by the traffic of fully loaded trucks that pass by every few minutes. Chaturvedi ji, an activist from the NGO Sumitra Samajik Kalyan Sansthan informs us that these are trucks laden with unpolished granite from Bundelkhand’s quarries headed for Delhi.
We travel to Kabrai in Mahoba District of UP, a mining center. The stone crushing operations have turned vast areas into barren wasteland; the air is heavy with dust particles and the midday sun is dulled by the smog. Mines are leased out by the Government and nominally there is a local lease holder. But there are larger ‘maliks’ behind the local leaseholder - the operations require capital - investment in cranes, crushers and other heavy equipment. There are reported to be about a 100 stone crushers just in and around Kabrai.
We stop at an open cast mine where what was formerly a hill has already been reduced into a deep pit. The rock is broken up using explosives. The mine has already reached the water table at its deepest point. An old tractor driver tells us that the mining will only stop only if it becomes so dangerous that workers refuse to work the mine. He has been working here for 18 years and earns Rs 2000/ per month. Worker gangs breaking the stone into smaller pieces or loading it into trucks are paid by the truck load. Women are also working along with men. The workers come from different areas of Bundelkhand and live in a settlement right next to the mines breathing the air heavy with dust at all times. There are no doctors or hospitals in the area. The miners have no safely equipment – not even helmets. The workers tell us that only very major injuries and death are compensated for. Accidents happen often. There are no announcements when blasting is done and flying debris is a common danger. A short while after we have taken the
A primitive open cast mine at Kabrai. The water seen at the deeper level is ground water. The roc walls are broken up using explosives, broken into smaller pieces by hand and brought up in tractor trailers.
photograph of this mine rocks land at the spot where we had stood a few moments earlier. Mining may be providing employment in these parts, but it is certainly employment under the most exploitative conditions.
Across Bundelkhand, we have seen the unbridled destruction of the environment. The effects of this have not been quantified by anyone, but the social activists we meet are convinced that these have contributed to the misery of the region.
The official thinking
An inter-ministerial central team lead by a Joint Secretary in the Agriculture Ministry went last year to study Bundelkhands problems and presented its ‘Report on drought mitigation strategy for Bundelkhand region of UP and MP’. The report agrees with many of the observations of the NGO’s in this terse language:
“Hybrids of Jowar, Bajra, Bt cotton, input intensive new varieties of pulses, oil seeds, public distribution system, neglect of tanks, dug-wells and installing of tube-wells have altered traditional coping systems and increased risks, distress and vulnerability to droughts.”
The preferred intervention of the government towards water resources has always been dams and canals. The report finds that these interventions have been performing poorly. “Out of 31 lift Irrigation schemes of Madhya Pradesh only eight functioned occasionally and overall utilization varied from 5 to 10% only. Only 50% utilization of canal irrigation in Madhya Pradesh is a major concern of improving management.”
The report recommends medium term measures such as “participatory integrated watershed management for in-situ conservation of the rainwater, recharging of about 2.8 lakh dug wells, renovation and repairs of Bundela, Chandela and Peshwa tanks, digging of farm ponds and open wells” and a substantial budget. But the ‘special package’ for Bundelkhand to carry out these measures remains on paper after more than a year.
In line with the dominant official thinking on water resources, the central report emphasizes that “development of unutilized water resources in MP, improving efficiency of the already developed canal irrigation system and Ken Betwa links are the long term investment portfolio for mitigating droughts”. “Development of unutilized water resources” essentially refers to dams and canals. And the Ken-Betwa link is the first in a series of planned projects for interlinking India’s rivers, purportedly to better harness their waters. According to the South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People, an organization that carefully monitors river projects, the proposed Ken – Betwa link entails a 73m high dam on the Ken submerging dense forest and a link canal about 230 km long, transferring a portion of the Ken waters to the Betwa river, on the way passing through protected and reserve forests and crossing the Dhasan river, many minor streams, state highways and a railway line. The 2005 cost estimate for the project was Rs 4500 crores.
Local NGO’s such as Dr Bharatendu Prakash’s are bitterly opposed to this river linking project saying that this will be an unmitigated environmental disaster for Bundelkhand. A drought mitigation strategy or an environmental disaster – the question certainly needs to be debated thoroughly in public before anyone decides to spend Rs 10,000 crores public money on this ‘investment portfolio’.
27th Oct. 2009