LALITPUR, UTTAR PRADESH: In the scorching heat of drought-ravaged Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav shared stage with a group of local tribals under a large pandal or tent, as he announced a food package for about 2.5 lakh of the region’s poorest.
Under the Samajwadi drought relief package, each family is being given 10 kg wheat flour, 5 kg rice, 5 kg chana dal, 25 kg potatoes, 5 kg sugar, 5 litre mustard oil and a kilo of ghee every month till the rains come in and they can start tilling their land or get jobs in the fields.
“I saw all of you on a channel. And decided to frame this policy and bring it personally to you.” said Mr Yadav, 42. He was referring to an NDTV report last year about the family of a tribal farm worker called Parma from Heerapur village in Ladwari having to survive on “phikar” or coarse grain and grass.
There has been no rain in the entire Bundelkhand region – 13 districts in UP and Madhya Pradesh – since September 2014. Mr Yadav fears that if the rains get delayed this year, the poor will again be pushed to eat food not fit for human consumption.
“We don’t want a repeat of what happened last year or earlier. So we are also giving Rs 500 as month’s allowance for each person with the food package. I have asked district collectors to be on ground and ensure that there is no starvation or death,” the Chief Minister said.
The Bundelkhand region has recorded a number of suicides and starvation deaths in three years of continuous drought. With elections due in UP by early 2017, Mr Yadav, who will seek a second term, can ill-afford adverse publicity.
The need for the food package underscores the failure of the state and central government to implement employment and food assurance schemes. Mr Yadav blames the Centre. “There are regular delays in the arrival of funds from the centre for the job guarantee scheme. That’s why we had to pump in Rs 300 crore recently from the state budget to ensure that people get wages to sustain themselves,” he said.
Many hours after the Chief Minister had left, we went back to Ladwari. A kuchchha road led us to Heerapur and Parma’s home, where dinner was being cooked under a moonlit sky, no electricity, not even a kerosene lamp. Parma’s wife was making “rotis” on a wood-fired chullah or stove. A potato and vegetable curry had already been cooked. With crop failing, compensation yet to arrive, wages under rural employment schemes delayed, hundreds of families here have been struggling for months to survive. “If we hadn’t received grain today, we would have returned to the meal of “phikar and bathua” in a few days,” she said.
“Today we eat a proper meal. We hope what the CM gave us will last for the rest of the month,” said Parma’s father Aamu, 85.
The children ate first and the elders watched, their relief palpable. But worries about the drought remain. Most young men in the village, said the Pradhan or headman, Jitendra Singh, have sought work as manual labourers in Indore, Mumbai or Delhi. The relay droughts have left them with just one option, says the Pradhan, – “migration.”
That brings problems of its own. Parents who take their children to the towns don’t enrol them in schools. If parents leave behind their children in the village, they don’t go to school.
The Chief Minister has promised a long term solution to the problem, even as his party finalises candidates for next year’s elections. Soon Bundelkhand’s tragedies will become a poll cry.