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Rahul Gandhi's next foray: Bundelkhand

By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
January 15, 2008 12:23 IST
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For the first time after the Gujarat debacle, Rahul Gandhi will find himself in the thick of political action on January 17 in the much tougher terrain of Bundelkhand. The demand for a separate state of Bundelkhand, which falls in Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Madhya Pradesh, is soon going to become a new divisive issue in the nation. The Congress has decided to back the demand for a separate state of Bundelkhand.

It's believed that the current caste-combination of Uttar Pradesh is such that it is unlikely the Congress will get a favourable verdict in any election in the near future.

Second, the deep analysis of the Bharatiya Janata Party's romp in Gujarat points to the fact that mainstream parties cannot ignore issues of regional pride and provincial aspirations. Narendra Modi's victory is much more about the political leader appealing successfully to regional pride than anything else. The Congress, which is against the formation of Telangana in Andhra Pradesh, is now seen to be diluting its basic line of 'a stronger Centre for a cohesive India', for electoral gains.

Rahul Gandhi's visit to Jhansi, which is a main city of the area traditionally known as Bundelkhand, assumes significance because the Congress is now trying to appease regional forces more explicitly to enhance its dwindling political appeal.

He is likely to demand more funds from his own government at the Centre for Bundelkhand region. It may be an entirely political gesture but Bundelkhand is in acute need of support from the Central budget.

Mayawati has already put up the demand for a special package for Bundelkhand and BJP president Rajnath Singh has also announced he will visit Bundelkhand to carry on his ongoing campaign to woo farmers.

A survey by a team of distinguished social activists and experts blames the dismal situation in Bundelkhand region to four years of recurring drought, resulting in crop failure.

According to the team that visited the area, 'The distress has manifested in large scale migration, unemployment, widespread indebtedness, hunger and malnutrition, water scarcity, loss of livestock.'

Some extreme cases of farmer suicides and perceived hunger and malnutrition deaths have also been reported.

The team visited villages like Dhamna, Ladwari, Radhapur in Lalitpur district. They also visited some villages like Chandaul, Charkhari in Mahoba and Banda, Kalyanpur in Nareni, Madhopur in Mahuwa and Panduri in Badophar.

The team consisted of activist Arundhati Dhuru; professor Pradep Bhargava, director, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad; Bindu Singh, secretary, Gramya Sansthan, Varanasi; Utkarsh Kumar Sinha, director, Centre for Contemporary Studies and Research, Lucknow; and Sanjay Singh, Aapda Nivarak Manch, Bundelkhand, Urai.

The team's visit to these villages has been an eye-opener. Their report is part of an ongoing case in the Supreme Court (People's Union of Civil Liberties vs the Union of India and others, writ petition (civil) 196/2001).

Their report focused on the situation in Sahariya-dominated areas, the agrarian distress, and the functioning of the central government's flagship development project, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, and other schemes.

Rahul and Rajnath will serve the region better if they read the findings of the team. The excerpts given below shows that not many changes are really taking place in the so-called changing India:

'When the team was in village Dhamna of Lalitpur District they found that around 250 Sahariya adults out of a total of 450 had migrated to Indore, Bhopal, Delhi and Gwalior for work. Other members who could not migrate were aged, single women and children. Only a few able-bodied persons were around. Some households in the village mainly survive on Rs 15-40 per day selling minor forest produce and wood collected from the already depleting forests.

'Not being a farming community, they generally lease out their very small landholdings, if any, to farmers for up to Rs 2,000 per year or an amount of seed used in the farm in the year. When asked as to what they eat, the overall response was roti with salt and/or chillis. The better-off would have roti and gur on some days.

'In village Dhamma people below poverty line were receiving their quota of grain but even in such trying circumstances, all of them were overcharged by the kotedar to the extent of 30 percent.'

Perhaps, this is the distress period when the Sahariyas need support more than ever. The report claims, 'No Sahariya in Dhamna had worked in the United Progressive Alliance government's pet project NREGP for more than eight days this year. Half the number of persons we met had job cards but the other half said their job cards were with the pradhan. On questioning the pradhan, he told that these were with the panchayat secretary. It is to be noted that under the NREGP job cards at all times must stay with the labourers. It is an important transparency safeguard under the Act, which has been seriously compromised.'

The scheme, which is projected in New Delhi as Sonia Gandhi's single biggest achievement in favour of poor people in the last four years, is in a mess in this region.

The report claims, 'This programme is an unprecedented opportunity to protect the people of Bundelkhand from hunger and agrarian distress, as well as to regenerate the rural economy through creation of productive assets and injection of purchasing power. Unfortunately, this opportunity is being missed as things stand, due to casual implementation of the Act and guidelines.'

Shockingly, at the NREGP worksite in village Dhamna where around 180 people were carrying out farm bunding works. The team was appalled to see four girls, namely, Nidhi Dashrath Barai, six-year-old Betchai Sharman Ahirvai and Bhaggo, 13, and Mamta, 14,  working on the site.

They were told that since wages were to be paid on piece rate, the details relating to labourers engaged in the work was not a concern.

Apparently, the presence of children on the worksite was justified in the name of piece rate system of payment. The muster rolls, display board and crèche facilities were not available at the worksite.

The report highlighted the desperate deprivation of Sahariyas in the Bundelkhand region.

The estimated population of this primitive tribe is 94,000 (or around 17,000 households). Most of these households have yet to adapt to agriculture as an occupation. Most of them do not have access to irrigation facilities and in most times they lease out their fields for very small sums of money.

A sustainable livelihood option would be to invest in the assets owned by the Sahariyas. As of now, their lives are precariously dependent on monsoon and wage labour -- mostly on sporadically available agriculture labour -- which means occasional seasonal work in the best of times. Access to the NREGP is as much restricted as in other parts of the state, claims the survey.

The expert team suggests in the report that the prevailing situation requires both short term steps for relief and long term measures to address the problem that has become inherent in the conditions in which Sahariyas live.

It was only in 2003 that the Uttar Pradesh government changed the status of the Sahariyas from Scheduled Castes to Scheduled Tribes. The government needs to consider the fact that in other states where Sahariyas inhabit, they are recognised as a Primitive Tribe Group.

Uttar Pradesh forms part of the contiguous belt that has been inhabited by the community and therefore there is no good reason to exclude them from the category when in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan they are accorded the PTG status.

The team also examined the cases of suicides of farmers and distress migration.

They found that residents of the area -- children in particular -- are severely malnourished.

The report of the special team reveals that the distress farmers are also harassed by corruption.

In village after village it was revealed to the team how the farmers were lured into taking a loan either on the Kisan Credit Card or otherwise. For instance, many small and medium farmers have been given loans to buy tractors. In most cases, the loanee does not receive the full amount and is not in a position to invest whatever little he receives fruitfully. Droughts, of course, accentuate the distress but the entire lending process has been full of corruption and misdeeds of the bankers and middlemen.

The team found that the bribes paid by loanees in villages Chandauli and Supa, ranging between 15 and 25 per cent of the loan amount in most cases.

It is common knowledge that the tractor companies, land mafia and bankers collude to lure the farmer into taking large sums as loan against his land. They are fully aware that subsequently the farmer would default. The ultimate aim is to auction the land. There have also been instances when the farmer has not taken any credit but through forged papers there are large amounts standing against his name.

The team inquired from the pradhan of Village Kalyanpuri about the issue of inflated entries in the job cards. The team was dismayed when in the presence of a large gathering of villagers the pradhan conceded that it is normal practice to pay up to 40 percent of sanctioned amount for the NREGP work to the BDO office.

He mentioned his share to be 20 percent. According to these standards only 40 percent of fund reaches towards the actual work which shall include material as well as labour output. The pradhan all this while kept quiet and expressed ignorance about the programme.

Professor Jean Dreze, member, Central Employment Guarantee Council was a witness to this dialogue. Grassroots organisations active in the area also apprised the team of similar PC/cut system.

'If this is true, and so much money gets siphoned off, it reflects the state of polity in Uttar Pradesh. While the chief minister has shown political will to implement the NREGA, the same willingness is not evident at the village level. It would be a shame for our state if corruption continues unabated while other states with similar problems and history of misgovernance grab the initiative,' she said.

The activists and excerpts team has recommended that NREGP should be implemented on a war footing. The transparency measures in respect to availability of muster roles on work site should be strictly ensured. As the government is diverting special funds for the Bundelkhand region it has to ensure that benefits actually reach the poorest sections.

The state government should start drought relief works and ensure work for 300 days in a year including 100 days under NREGP.

But, things are never easy in troubled areas like Bundelkhand. The day following the team's visit to the Bar Village, Brijendra of the Rashtriya Yuva Yojana was beaten up at the instigation of the Pradhan. A first information report has been lodged. In Chaundali village the ration shop dealer beat up a respondent who talked to the team.

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