May 18 was a day of taking a tough decision for the Sahariya tribals living in Laalon village (Talbehat block of Lalitpur district, Uttar Pradesh). Finally they made up their mind leaving aside just a very few persons they decided to migrate in search of uncertain livelihoods. Men, women and children were among those.
At the same time a different but no less painful scene was being enacted a few kilometres away in the Sahariya basti of Gulenda village. Here Ravi, a migrant worker who went to Delhi few days back returned to his village limping. His feet were badly swollen. It appeared that he had hardly eaten or slept. The tragic story he told was that he could not get any proper work after reaching there and was cheated. Having lost whatever little did he had, he walked for five days probably taking short-distance lifts to reach his village in a completely worn-out condition. He had been sleeping since then. I was of course very keen to hear his complete story from him but decided against waking him up when I realized how tired he must be.
However other villagers briefed me that may be his long walk back be exceptional but the cases of migrant workers losing out in places like Delhi are returning to village empty-handed and this is something which is getting more frequent. This ties up with the wider analysis of several scholars that there has been a decline in rural as well as urban livelihoods as well.
Further inquiries in these and other nearby villages revealed a few other disturbing trends as well. There were heavy losses in the last two crops but despite this none of them received any benefits under Crop Insurance Scheme. There has not been any progress in irrigation in recent times even as traditional wells have been drying up. Recent months have seen cutbacks in development and welfare schemes. Many of the elderly and other vulnerable persons who earlier got pensions are not receiving them now. There is lesser availability of nutrition supplements in anganwadi and sometimes none at all.
The water crisis is acute but hardly anything is being done to provide relief to thirsty villagers, dairy farmers etc.
Villagers Losing Hope
In view of providing livelihood support and checking exploitative migration of labour, what is perhaps most important is the implementation of the national rural employment guarantee legislation. Hence it is in this context that the failure of the government is more pronounced. In the four villages of this block, I engaged people in group discussions where residents said that they have not received any employment under NREGA during past years or else very small and short duration employment was available which amounted to negligible work.
It is possible that more work may be shown in official records as some people also complained that powerful persons get work done by their heavy machines and then this work gets shown as NREGA work. However in terms of livelihood support for villagers, the contribution of NREGA during the last year has been nil or negligible in these villages. Some workers complained that they have not yet been paid for their previous work. If NREGA continues to be implemented in this manner then all faith in this as livelihood support near to village will be lost and vulnerable people of these villages will be thrown even more firmly into the exploitative grip of labour contractors.
Looking ahead if the rains come in time there is still one month of waiting as the water crisis is already acute. Manish Kumar, state level co-ordinator (Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan) says, “ The next month is going to be very difficult for Bundelkhand. Already farm and dairy animals are dying from thirst and so one shudders to think of the next few weeks. There have been several suicides of farmers. It is time for the administration to take all necessary steps to speed up relief for people and to step up the implementation of NREGA in a big way.”
Madhya Pradesh story is no such different from Bundelkhand. Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan made huge promises of taking up water conservation work at a very big scale with the involvement of voluntary organisations but these promises were not implemented. The promises were done at a big convention in Khajuraho earlier this year.
Meanwhile huge resources to highly uncertain and ecologically disruptive projects like the Ken-Betwa link project are committed by the government. Several eminent experts have expressed their reservations which is the first and the most publicized project of the national river-links project. Apart from the ecological disruption, deforestation and displacement likely to be caused by this project, many huge projects eat away the bulk of funds for water related work. This somehow affects the small projects which can be implemented quickly but are starved of funds.
Conversations with villagers revealed that they have very specific and clear suggestions about what can be done to sort out their water woes but despite several pleas to officials this keeps getting delayed. The other option is to get small-scale water conservation and water harvesting work get done under NREGA but this has been neglected so badly in these villages. Proper repair and rehabilitation of traditional water sources also has huge potential but has not received the due attention except in a few places.
Clearly there are wider questions also about the priorities of the government but just now there is a desperate need for stepping up relief and help to the villagers of Bundelkhand on the basis of urgency.