Here is a tale of two villages – both struggling for survival due to factors beyond their control, while the authorities focus on technicalities and short-sighted projects, ignoring the larger picture of selfless efforts, long-term danger, and denial of rights. Bharat Dogra reports
Bhanwarpur is an extremely poor rural Dalit settlement in Naraini Block of Banda District in Uttar Pradesh. Most families there are either landless or have very small holdings. The village had depended on a river named Gharar, part of the Yamuna system, which once flowed nearby, but it has dried up, due to flawed policies, among other things, leaving the people, crops and cattle water-starved. In addition, with the course of the river itself being erased, when the rains come, the hamlet gets flooded.
When survival became next to impossible in Bhanwarpur and nearby villages, the people migrated to distant places like Delhi and Agra in search of jobs. But when COVID-19 erupted, the migrant workers were forced to return home in a hurry. They walked long distances and reached home with neither money nor prospects, and with no idea about what to do for a livelihood. It was a situation that practically invited depression. But then, an idea was born – why not revive the long-dried-up Gharar?
And so, encouraged by the Vidyadham Samiti (VDS), a voluntary organisation which has been working in this and nearby villages for the last several years, over 50 of the migrant workers who had returned to Bhanwarpur, including some women, pushed aside their tiredness and depression and decided to take up the voluntary work of cleaning the bed of the river which was once the lifeline of the village. They worked with commitment, often even having their meals at the work site to save time. VDS helped to keep up their spirits by helping to set up a kitchen of sorts at the site.
A great spirit of camaraderie was established. People sang songs while contributing voluntary labour (shramdaan) for nearly a month. Ignoring their personal problems, they uprooted the thick growth of weeds locally called besharm, and then kept digging on the river bed, till they finally struck water. A cry of joy went up as water started filling up in the once lost river. Cattle quickly gathered to quench their thirst.
As the news about the villagers’ achievement spread, it was covered by the media. But the publicity had a flip side. Some small-minded officials hastened to claim credit for the effort, and set up boards describing it as NREGA work. When the villagers protested saying this was their voluntary work, they were threatened and victimised. When this writer visited the village, he was told that some of the protestors had their names deleted from the list of beneficiaries of government schemes such as housing. Such was the reward of the poor Dalit villagers who had done some truly great work!
It must be acknowledged, however, that the villagers could cover only one stretch of the river, and the administration added its own efforts to extend the work beyond Bhanwarpur, so that some other villages could also benefit. As a result of this combined effort of villagers and the administration, many villages have been able to achieve higher crop yields, and even some land which was hitherto totally unproductive is now supporting good crops. However, the administration, with misplaced enthusiasm, has also created a structure which can lead to very destructive flooding of the village, the people say. At the time of this writer’s visit, all the residents of the Dalit hamlet spoke with one voice about the threat the structure posed to the safety of Bhanwarpur, and stressed the need for urgent action to avert a man-made disaster before the next big rainy season.
Baurapurva Village, also in Naraini Block of Banda District, is inhabited by people of the Kevat Community, known for their close association with rivers and inland water sources. This village was earlier located very close to the Ken River, but it was devastated in the floods of 1978 caused by sudden and excessive release of dam water. The people were relocated at the present site. But the locality is caught between the two states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. This, as well as the absence of a proper path to reach the habitation, has led to the denial of several developmental benefits which this neglected village certainly needs.
When this writer tried to reach the settlement, his vehicle was mired in slush, and couldn’t proceed. He proceeded on foot, and was greeted by the villagers who said with resignation that this was their everyday reality. At the village itself, the dwellings are cramped. Though land has been earmarked for housing, it has been encroached on by powerful people from another village, the inhabitants say.
Most children of the village are unable to go to school, or else drop out at an early stage because of logistic and safety reasons. The villagers say some big landowners even stop children on their way to school, and force them into working for them. Also, caught as they are between two states, the children from the village are denied mid-day meals, free uniforms and other benefits in Madhya Pradesh schools, citing the fact that they’re from Uttar Pradesh.
A proper approach road, housing and education facilities are obvious needs, but the villagers are also staring at a serious livelihood crisis. In the previous location, the villagers were able to earn a reasonable income by growing vegetables even on small farms, as they were closer to the Ken River. But the increased sand mining in the river has wreaked havoc on agriculture in the larger area, and yields and incomes have decreased significantly. If water from the Ken is drawn as planned under the Ken-Betwa link scheme, then their problems will escalate. The livelihood of other farmers in nearby villages is also under threat.
Unable to eke out a living, young people from the village migrated to distant places to find jobs, and their earnings helped those who stayed back to survive. However, like in Bhanwarpur, the pandemic upset the arrangement and the present situation is bad. Most households are mired in debt. As one elderly villager said, “no matter what the time of year or what the season, we always seem to be struggling for survival and going from one crisis to another.” The onus is on the government to see that benefits of its various schemes reach such villages caught in difficult circumstances due to extraneous factors.
(The writer is a senior freelance journalist and author who has been associated with several social movements and initiatives.
He lives in New Delhi.)