In the Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh, at the western edge of Bundelkhand region in central India, you do not have to knock on doors to learn of people’s grievances. They pour out. An outsider walking around the streets with a notebook and a pen is a person of interest to everyone. Whenever I began speaking to a person sitting on his haunches by the road or his arid field, villagers would gather around. “Note my name too,” I was told repeatedly.
In November 2015, 50 districts in the state were declared drought-hit; the seven in Bundelkhand are among the worst affected. Crops of soybean and urad dal were laid waste by the rainless monsoon, and now the unnaturally hot winter is stunting the growth of wheat. Several newspapers have reported on rural distress and farmer suicides in the region. Despite government schemes that guarantee work, opportunities for employment are scarce. It was a matter of earnest consensus among the villagers I spoke to that the government should do something about it.
On paper at least, the government has done something. In the first week of January this year, Home Minister Rajnath Singh chaired a committee that approved an amount of Rs 1304 crore as assistance for the state. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was present at these meetings. That was more than a month before I visited Lalitpur. So far, the money does not seem to have trickled down to its intended beneficiaries and when it will, remains an open question. No one I spoke to had even heard of the relief package.
A day before my visit to the region, on 2 February, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or the NREGA, had completed a decade of its existence. The previous government’s flagship programme, the NREGA guarantees 100 days of paid work to every rural household in a financial year. Last February, the prime minister had repudiated the scheme. Speaking in the parliament, he said that he was only letting it stand as a monument to the previous government’s failures. This year, his government hailed the act’s achievements as a “cause of national pride.” The perceptual flip-flop over the NREGA, especially in the times of rural crisis, is not new for the ruling party. When hailstorms destroyed crops in 26 districts across the state in March 2015, the BJP government in Rajasthan had a similar revelation. Currently, 285 districts across ten states have been declared drought-hit.
The most successful year for the NREGA was 2010-11, when it cost the then prevailing United Progressive Alliance government Rs 39,377 crore. The wages given under the scheme are revised every year. Last year, they were increased by five percent. In the 2015 budget, the ministry of rural development was allotted Rs 34699 crore for the scheme. Even if the present government wished to generate the same amount of employment as it did in 2010-11, taking into account the rate of inflation, it should have allocated Rs 61445 crore instead. In September, the ministry of rural development allowed an additional 50 days of employment in drought-hit areas; but it did not have enough money fund this extension.
The prime minister’s condemnation of the Act was clearly reflected in the budget; but his volte-face on its merits has not gone beyond encomiums. In a letter addressed to Jaitley, dated 30 December 2015, the rural development minister Chaudhary Birender Singh had set off alarm bells about the lack of funds to run the programme. Nearly 95 percent of the amount, the letter said, available for the scheme had been consumed by then. “You had assured,” Singh wrote to the finance minister, “that additional funds of Rs 5000 crore would be provided based on the actual utilisation of fund.” The finance ministry recently allotted Rs 2000 crore on top of the budget allocation—less than half of the amount that had been “assured”.
The NREGA is, as Singh underlined in his letter, a “demand driven wage employment programme.” Its funds cannot be capped at Rs 5000 crore, let alone Rs 2000 crore. The government is required, as is stipulated by the act, to allot funds on the basis of demand for work. Through the last year especially, there was an exigent demand for work. “Given the farmer distress,” Singh had told Jaitley, “the demand has been high.” He added that, to keep the NREGA afloat, the ministry of rural development was likely to re-appropriate Rs 400 crore from its own budget.
In Bundelkhand, I observed the ramifications of the financial gutting of the act as if through a magnifying glass. When I asked about the drought, people in Lalitpur—and in the neighbouring Jhansi and Tikamgarh districts—did not talk only about the past year. “Water level in the ground has been gradually receding for the past five years, and weather has been equally uncooperative,” Mansukh Lal, a 38-year-old farmer from Jijyawan village, told me. (Like most of the people I met, Lal turned out to be ten years younger than I would have guessed.) A dozen others, who had by now flocked around us, agreed. Brijesh Aherwal, who was a part of this group, said that he had stopped farming, and had become a manual labourer around 2010. Lal’s wife told me that their neighbours had left Jijyawan a few years ago and migrated to Gujarat in the hope of finding work there. In the Neemkhera village nearby, I met a group of men who said many people they know had gone to Delhi in search of work and that they intend to do the same. In Baisai, people told me they had little left to eat, and that the hand-pumps had gone dry. These were the kind of issues that the NREGA had hoped to tackle by providing rural employment and livelihood security.
None of the people I spoke to could recall a single instance of having found 100 days of work in a year. A few had managed to find work for some days—20 or 30 at the most—but, two years ago. “This road that you came by,” a 40-year-old farmer, Hardayal Nayak, said, pointing to a strip of tarmac that cuts from National Highway 26 deep into Bundelkhand, “was maintained by the NREGA workers two years ago.” Nayak had worked as a labourer under the act for “a few weeks.” But suddenly, there was no work, and no explanation. Now he sat by the road, thinking, he said, about what to do. Manoj Parihar in Birdha village, too, had been unable to work. He had not sowed anything in his field. “I have no money,” he said.
As with past crises, leading political figures have recently started making appearances in these villages. Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, visited the Bundelkhand region and listed out the projects he has sanctioned. Electricity supply in the villages of the region has risen to over 10 hours a day following the visit, but since even the now-functional tube wells are failing to dig water from the ground, it has been of little help. Some of the villagers feared the electricity bills that are to come. On 23 January, the Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi held a padyatra—a journey on foot—through Bundelkhand’s Mahoba district, and slammed the prime minister for ignoring the poor; the BJP leader Suresh Khanna paid a visit too. The prime minister took note of the farmers’ suffering on Twitter, and laid the blame on Yadav-led state government.
Meanwhile, little has changed on the scorched ground of Bundelkhand. Its predicament can be easily explained: the seven districts of the region comprise 19 of the 403 assembly seats in the state. The implementation of welfare schemes in the region is, it would seem, in proportion to the electoral output it has to offer. This approach, when applied at the village level, has led to disastrous consequences for the district.
In Baisai, I met Mithula Bai, who lives in a hut by the national highway with her brother. Of all the people I met in the region, she was the only one who did not complain about crop failures. She has no land, and no stake in the yield. “Had it rained, this hut would have fallen,” she said. Her husband died in an accident years ago. Her brother has tuberculosis. “He has no more than a few months left,” she told me. Their parents are no longer alive. Around two years ago, Mithula Bai had tried to work under the NREGA, but was refused a job card, which is issued by the gram panchayat to every registered household. “The sarpanch did not give job cards to anyone from this village,” she told me. “We only have 300–400 voters in the area, so he gave work to people in Jijyawan, where many more people will vote.”
Mithula Bai’s is not an isolated story. Prem Narayan, a 40-year-old resident of Baisai—which falls under the administrative region of Jijyawan—confirmed: “The sarpanch gave job cards to people from the area which has a larger vote base.” I heard numerous such complaints about the unfair allotment of work under the NREGA. The reasons for this treatment varied from Baisai to Birdha to Neemkhera: sometimes caste bias played a role; sometimes it was nepotism. The local officials, confronted by a paucity of the funds and the work that they can offer through the scheme, tend to prioritise. And when they do, it is the lowest strata of the social system that suffers.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.