COVID-19 Accentuates the Existing Agri-Ecological Crisis In Bundelkhand

Bharat Dogra

While in recent times problems of various regions of the country are being discussed almost entirely in the context of COVID-19, there is a clear need to expand the horizons and look at the wider reality. Ultimately COVID-19 will not impact people in isolation but in combination with their other serious problems. This is particularly important to remember in the context of those regions of country where the burden of poverty and disasters has been already very heavy in recent years.

Bundelkhand provides one of the widest stretches of districts which are generally included among the most backward districts of India. Bundelkhand is spread over about 69,000 sq. km. of land in seven districts of Uttar Pradesh (Chitrakut, Banda, Jhansi, Jalaun, Hamirpur, Mahoba and Lalitpur) and six districts of Madhya Pradesh (Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh, Damoh, Sagar, Datia and Panna). Out of the total population of about 14.5 million, about 7.8 million live in the roughly 29,000 sq. km. area of Uttar Pradesh, while about 6.7 million people live in the roughly 40,000 sq. km. area of Madhya Pradesh. Clearly the Uttar Pradesh side is more densely populated. Leaving aside Jhansi, in all districts over 70 per cent of the people live in rural areas, the percentage going over 80 per cent in a few districts.

During the last decade Bundelkhand has been almost constantly in news due to the prolonged drought conditions, erratic weather behaviour, acute distress of farmers and widespread hunger/malnutrition. As all this has been reported at a time of widespread concern over climate change, predictably Bundelkhand became a much discussed example of ‘climate change at work’. While there is a significant element of truth in this, there is also a serious problem as oversimplified, exaggerated emphasis on wider climate change is sometimes used to distract attention from local causes of agri-ecological distress.

These local factors include

*    reckless destruction of forests,
*    indiscriminate mining practices,
*    encroachment and neglect of traditional water sources,
*    onslaughts on bio-diversity and traditional crop varieties as well as cropping patterns under the impact of green revolution type technologies and agri-business interests,
*    serious distortions in development planning,
*    massive corruption and poor governance.

All these factors have caused tremendous harm and continue to create havoc.

While climate change related factors are extremely important, these should not become a cover for those vested interests who have been responsible for destroying forests or for destructive mining or for onslaughts on traditional agricultural and irrigation practices.

As a journalist visiting this region’s villages for several years I was a disturbed/distressed witness to the unfolding of the agri-ecological crisis. I think it is very important that the various local and wider factors should be understood in the right perspective as such an understanding is crucial for evolving a suitable response which can being genuine relief to distressed people and provide the basis for sustainable and justice/equality based development.

So while I’m fully aware that in practice people face the combined impact of various adverse factors, nevertheless for the sake of understanding I‘ve tried to classify these adverse factors into two categories of local factors and climate change related factors. This classification is only for the sake of a better understanding of various factors at work. To this we should now add COVID-related causes of distress.

The agri-ecological distress aggravated recently in many villages due to the excessive damage from hailstorms and untimely, excessive rain. Then in areas where the crop had not been affected by such weather-related factors, COVID-led factors led to delay and other problems in harvesting. A large number of poorer households depend on remittances of migrant workers but due to COVID related factors most migrant workers were themselves pushed into a very precarious condition.

The summer season here is almost always accompanied by a serious water crisis when in many villages people and farm animals become dependent on water tankers for sheer survival. In fact this dependence on water tankers becomes acute in significant parts of some urban areas as well.

On the health front the COVID 19 threat should be seen as an addition to the already heavy burden of health problems in a region where the health infra-structure is very weak and inadequate, all the more so in rural and remote areas. Some sections like mining, quarry and crusher workers suffer from special health problems like the very serious silicosis disease. Although under Supreme Court directives special relief funds are now available for Silicosis my inquiries in several worker bastis have revealed that this relief has not reached affected workers. Special efforts need to be made for this but the government has recently announced that funds kept just for mining related welfare activities can now be diverted to general COVID needs.          

Hence it is in the context of a wider combination of pressing problems that the new threat should be seen so that many-sided problems and causes of distress can receive the due attention.

Fortunately, several local organizations and leaders have come forward to reduce the distress of people. A Congress leader of Mahoba  Manoj Tiwari had been taking initiatives like setting up grain banks in some villages affected  by hunger in recent years  and more recently in lockdown conditions he together with a local voluntary organization Arunodya took up the distribution of food bags including foodgrains, pulses, cooking oil etc. for several days in Mahoba. In Chitrakut district another voluntary organization the ABSSS arranged such food packets for over 400 rural households who had been identified on the basis of a careful survey . In Banda and Chitrakut districts a leading voluntary organization Vidyadham samiti worked in very difficult lockout conditions to take much needed food packets to some of the most vulnerable sections.  Such efforts need to be enhanced with those of the government to meet the many-sided problems of the people of this vulnerable region.
The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.  

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May 1, 2020

Bharat Dogra

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