Parched land, broken hope

February 24, 2016
By Rang De Team

This is a post by Tanvi who is a part of the Impact team and identifies potential partners for Rang De. Here’s an account of her trip to Bundelkhand in February 2016. We are raising donations for the community kitchens that will provide relief to the families in distress. If you would like to help, we request you to donate generously.

At Rang De, our focus is on reaching out to communities that have been left out of the fold of financial inclusion. My role at Rang De takes me to remote and economically backward regions of the country, as we continue our search for credible organisations that Rang De could work with to bring affordable microcredit to low income borrowers. Last week I traveled to Bundelkhand where I was visiting an organisation that has been working on water management issues in the region for a number of years now.

Bundelkhand, for those unfamiliar with the term, is used to describe the region that lies between the Indo-Gangetic plain and the Vindhya range. It covers approximately 7 districts of UP and 6 districts of MP. Agriculture is the main stay of the economy and rivers like the Betwa, Chambal, Sindh and Pahuj run through it. Even then mostly the farming practiced in the region is rain fed.

The region has been receiving sub normal rains for a few years now but 2015 had been particularly bad. Sowing during the rabi season has been only been 30% this year and crops such as ’til’, corn, wheat are suffering due to sub-par rainfall. There have been multiple reports of the near starvation levels that many families in Bundelkhand have been reduced to. One such report had drawn our attention to the region in the first place.

Bundelkhand, like most of rural India, is sharply divided along caste lines. There are the Kshatriyas who may not be rulers anymore but still hold political and economic sway. Then there are the Dalits and the OBCs who because of their considerable number are now a political force to reckon with. And then there are the tribals- socially and economically the most vulnerable. During my two days of visit, I heard multiple tales of official apathy, red tape and systematic corruption that deprived the communities of their basic rights and left them with no option but to migrate in search of a better life elsewhere. Unable to provide fodder for their cattle, some farmers have also abandoned cows and bullocks who then often destroy standing crops. Those farmers who did manage to plant crops have now taken to keeping an overnight vigil to protect their fields from these marauding cattle.

Last Saturday, we went to a small ‘basti’ of Sahariya tribe located on the edge of the Chambal valley. A rug had been laid on the floor for us to sit on and the men folk were sitting in one corner, while the women with their ‘ghoonghats’ were sitting a little further away. It took much coaxing to get the women to sit on the edge of the rug.

The tribals are often in conflict with the forest department — their way of life is still deeply entwined with the forests and most of them own very small tract of infertile land. Out of the 50 families, 20 had reportedly turned to foraging seeds and roots from the forest to fill their stomachs. The women quickly returned with a handful of seeds to show us what they have been cooking each night for dinner. Moved by their plight, my host organisation offered to set up a grain bank for those who were the most vulnerable. This included two old ladies clad in torn sarees whose families had migrated for work leaving them behind to fend for themselves. The grain bank would provide rations for families so that they get at least two wholesome meals.

Later in the evening, I was taken to another village in Lalitpur where a group of women had decided to start a voluntary community kitchen to feed the aged, the disabled and the orphans who had been badly hit by the drought situation in their village. These bunch of semi literate women have been providing two square meals each day to 35 people for over twenty days now. The host organisation that i was visiting has been giving them support by providing money for the purchase of pulses and vegetables. When we visited them the women were kneading dough, chopping vegetables and cooking ‘dal’ on a chulha. On the menu that day was rice, chapati, baigan ki sabji and daal. Dinner was to be served at 8 so that they had three hours to prepare everything from scratch on a traditional chula

These are women who are probably just a little better off than their neighbours, they live difficult lives and spend nearly 2 hours each day gathering firewood and water, they have all been hit by the drought — their husbands have migrated for work so they are bringing up their children by themselves. The hours they spend cooking each day could be utilised to rest (they also make a meagre living as daily wage labourers) or tending to their children, but as one of them, Lalita – who originally floated the idea of the community kitchen, put it “These are our people. Now that they have fallen on hard times, it is our duty to look after them.”