India’s Water Crisis: Bundelkhand Residents Take To The Road As Water Shortage Forces Migration 
An area dug up for the revival of a lake in the Bundelkhand region. (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)

India’s Water Crisis: Bundelkhand Residents Take To The Road As Water Shortage Forces Migration 

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Phooldevi Aharwal chuckles spontaneously when asked if she has a bit of time for an interview. “That is the only thing I have, son,” she says with a grin that deepens the wrinkles on her face.

Sitting quietly in the shade under a tree in her tranquil village in central India, Phooldevi, in her mid-70s, says most of the village has migrated to different cities and towns in search of work. Lack of water has rendered the farmlands useless. “We have run out of drinking water, let alone using water for agriculture,” she says, adjusting her red saree, ensuring her head is covered. “I have four sons who spend most of the year in Delhi, working as daily wage labourers with their wives. It leaves me with my husband and grand children. Once the kids go to school, all we have to do is kill time.”

Phooldevi is a resident of Madhya Pradesh’s Gaurgay village in the district of Chhatarpur. It is part of the parched region of Bundelkhand, divided by the borders of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, but united by its water crisis. Spread across an area of 7,53,700 square kilometers, with a population of over 18 million, Bundelkhand is one of the most backward regions of India.

India’s Water Crisis: Bundelkhand Residents Take To The Road As Water Shortage Forces Migration 

The average rainfall in Bundelkhand is supposed to be about 850 mm a year, but over the past five-seven years or so, it has dwindled to half of that, causing recurring crop failure. This year too, the situation is similar, not just in Bundelkhand but across the country.

The Drought Early Warning System, a real-time drought monitoring platform, has observed that 44 percent of India was reeling under drought as of June 23.

Even though the drought has attracted more attention in peak summers months, when water scarcity is stark and evident, statistics suggest it has been prevailing in India since October 2018.

The India Meteorological Department shows a consistent post-monsoon rainfall deficit, which looks at data for the months of October-December. In the first week of October, the post-monsoon rainfall deficit was 75 percent in India, which steadily came down to 43 percent by the end of December. For central India, of which Bundelkhand is a part, the figures are more alarming. Data shows the deficit at 86 percent at the beginning of October 2018, which reduced to 51 percent at the end December. For perspective, the IMD declares a drought when rainfall deficiency is at 10 percent.

Pre-monsoon rainfall has not been promising either. The month of March began with a surplus rainfall of 5 percent. However, at of the end of May, pre-monsoon rainfall was the lowest in 65 years. For central India, the deficit was 23 percent in March, which came down to 17 percent by the end of May.

The numbers spell disaster for a region with agriculture at the core of its economy. Bundelkhand of Madhya Pradesh, which consists of six districts (Chhatarpur, Panna, Tikamgarh, Damoh, Sagar and Datia), is almost 80 percent rural.

Phooldevi Aharwal, a resident of Bundelkhand, has seen most of her family migrate due to the water crisis. (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)
Phooldevi Aharwal, a resident of Bundelkhand, has seen most of her family migrate due to the water crisis. (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)

Venturing Out In Search Of Work

Traveling through the region, parched farmlands spread out like a trackless desert on both sides of the road. Borewells and wells are bone dry, leaving farmers no option but to abandon their lands and flee to states like Delhi, Punjab, Haryana or Gujarat in search of employment.

Phooldevi says most of those who migrate out of their villages are tribals or Dalits like her, for they do not own farmlands or have small plots of land. “Our entire family collectively holds 2 acres, where we normally cultivate urad, moong or wheat if there is water,” she says. “But our source of income is labour work. We toil in other people’s farms to make ends meet. With reduction in agriculture activity, and many of the farmers themselves abandoning their land, where will we find work?”

Phooldevi’s observation hits home as you drive through the narrow alleys of Gaurgay. The whirring noise of the jeep gets louder as one moves from the area inhabited by the dominant caste towards what is considered the Dalit basti. While the former shows some signs of life, the latter is eerily forlorn.

The administration has no record or statistics regarding the number of people migrating from Bundelkhand, but local NGOs working in the region for years say the numbers are high.

Yusuf Beg, director of Prithvi Trust based in Panna, says about 55-60 percent of Bundelkhand residents migrate to different parts of the country every year.

“The trend began in the late 90s or so and it has only intensified since then,” he says. “People no longer rely on agriculture as their main source of income. It is not unique to Bundelkhand. You will notice this trend across India, where rural areas are getting increasingly deserted with people moving towards the urban centres for work.”

In 2012, the United Nations Development Programme released a Human Development Report on the Bundelkhand region in collaboration with NITI Aayog. It highlighted “low and non-assured irrigation facilities, reduced demand for agriculture labour during drought, and very few alternate employment opportunities” as the main causes of migration, among others.

Dharmpal Aharwal, 40, one of the four sons of Phooldevi, who has returned to the village for a wedding function, says almost 80 percent of the Dalit basti is empty. “I have been migrating with my wife Sita for the past 15 years or so,” he says. “The fact is that a meal is almost guaranteed in the city. I cannot say the same with farming. I work as a carpenter in Delhi, and Sita helps me out. I earn Rs. 300 or so for a day’s job. We could not study in our life, but I want to ensure my kids are educated.”

Dharmpal and Sita have three children aged 18, 16 and 12. Not having spent enough time with them is Sita’s biggest regret. “We leave for Delhi around October, come back in March for a week or so, and then leave again, only to return in July,” she says. “That is almost two thirds of the year away from home. Initially the kids would be upset with me, but they have grown up now. They understand why we spend so much time away from home.”

Most farmers and labourers follow the same pattern of migration. They return to the village at the time of sowing in July with the hope of getting work in farmlands and check in again when the winter crops are harvested. But even that stay is dependent on rainfall.

Whether we stay on in the village and for how long depends on the availability of water, says Sita. If the monsoon ditches us, we return to the cities. When there is water, there are farmers, she adds.
Driving through Bundelkhand, you will find many abandoned houses as residents migrate to cities due to acute shortage of water and farm employment. (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)
Driving through Bundelkhand, you will find many abandoned houses as residents migrate to cities due to acute shortage of water and farm employment. (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)

Depleting Ground Water

Rahul Nigam, head of the Bundelkhand wing of Samarthan, an NGO that has worked for decades in the village, says what the region is witnessing is a part of the larger water crisis compounded by poor policies and lethargic administration. “Bundelkhand has five main rivers, including Ken and Betwa,” he says. “The rivers are not functional in summers. The dams built on those rivers have a bit of water. But there is no channel to connect our villages with the available water.”

Nigam says that every district, every village had at least one pond or a lake, which have now dried up. “It helped recharge groundwater, and farmers could strike water with their wells or borewells within 30 feet. With lakes getting extinct, borewells and wells in the villages are drying up because the groundwater is not being replenished. Farmers are now drilling as deep as 600 feet before they strike water.”

Bundelkhand is by no means an outlier.

Roughly 600 million people, or half the country, faces high to extreme water stress every year, according to a report of NITI Ayog. 21 cities including Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai will run out of groundwater by 2020, which fulfills 40 percent of India’s water requirements, this report forecast.
Picture of a parched well in Gaurgay, Bundelkhand where groundwater levels have fallen sharply. (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)
Picture of a parched well in Gaurgay, Bundelkhand where groundwater levels have fallen sharply. (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)

Bundelkhand has taken sporadic initiatives to tackle the problem. Residents of Kalyanpur, a village in the district of Panna, have been toiling in order to revive a lake in the village.

Suniya Gon, aged over 60, belonging to the Gon tribe, says every member of the near-200 household village contributes to the digging in the hope of restoring the local lake. “I wake up early, and go to the spot at 6 in the morning,” she says, on a baking hot afternoon in the second week of June. Kids play and chirp in the background at the parched water pump that languishes right outside the fragile wooden fence around her home. “I work for three hours, and get back home to do my chores. We keep rotating the work between us. We have covered more than enough area. A decent monsoon now would revive the lake.”

Sitting in the veranda of her single-storeyed, brick-walled home that has not been plastered, Suniya says if the experiment works, it would help control the migration from Kalyanpur.

She does not own any farmland. Even the roof of her home is inadequately covered with hay and seems vulnerable to heavy rainfall. But the revival of the lake would allow farmers to resume farming, says Suniya. “For the past two years, farmlands have been dormant,” she says. “The availability of water would ensure farmers resume farming, and they would need labourers to work on their farms. If people like us can earn daily wage in our village, why would we migrate?”

 Suniya Gon sits outside her hut in Kalyanpur, a village in the district of Panna (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)
Suniya Gon sits outside her hut in Kalyanpur, a village in the district of Panna (Photo: Parth MN/BloombergQuint)

The Collateral Damage

Due to lack of water, the collector has temporarily stalled all the construction work in the nearby town of Panna as well. The other option for the residents is to work at stone mines in the region. But they expose workers to dust and silica, which is detrimental to their health.

Ramlal, aged approximately 40, and son of Suniya, has been working at stone mines since he was 19. Today, he coughs incessantly, and cannot work in the farmlands either without taking regular breaks. “I have become useless,” he regretfully says. “I cannot earn for my family, and my medicines cost over Rs. 1500 a month.”

Beg says every village in Panna has a silicosis patient. The life of silicosis patients is not more than 55 and the family loses an earning member much before that because of their deteriorating health. People would naturally prefer to migrate to other states instead of working at the stone mines, says Beg.

Given the lack of farm jobs and other employment opportunities in the area, a scheme like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act could have been a crucial intervention to curb migration. However, the scheme is having limited impact.

In financial year 2018-19, nearly 4.5 lakh households were employed under MGNREGA across the six districts of the Madhya Pradesh side of Bundelkhand, but only 6,589 got the promised 100-day work, according to the data available on the scheme’s website. Trend for the financial year before that is not too different.

Sanjay Singh Parihar, an official at the Zila Panchayat in Panna, attributes the numbers to “aspirations” and not lack of employment. “Under MGNREGA, people get Rs 176 per day,” he says. “In cities, they get more than Rs 300. We can only employ people who are willing to work at Rs 176.”

Beg says nobody aspires to abandon their farms and families to live in appalling conditions in cities. The displacement, he says, is the outcome of collapse of livelihoods, triggered by the water crisis.

Migration driven by water shortages is not unique to Bundelkhand or even to India. According to the World Health Organisation, 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030.

“Migration is a beautiful thing, if it is driven by aspirations,” says Beg. “That kind of migration is laden with security and vivacity. What we are witnessing currently is the migration driven out of survival and desperation. And it can only be catastrophic.”

This is the first part in a five-part series on the water crisis facing India, its farmers, the industry and its citizens.

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