When I travelled to Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, a region that saw nearly 700 farmer suicides in the last drought that lasted 4 years, almost every village we travelled to had its own story, every village had its own problems vis a vis the Drought.
Drought is not a new phenomenon....I mean, let's face it, rain is a Nature's giving - who can really predict when it will come and how much of it will come.........but in that, perhaps lies its irony that, drought after drought, we see the same problems thrown up - lack of the state's ability to handle the crisis (whatever party may be in power), no sense of any long-term measures in place to make it easier for the farmers next time around, no alternative source of employment blah blah blah...the list goes on!
What I want to tell you is a story that is perhaps singular to Uttar Pradesh with its potboiler of gender, caste, politics and poverty!
So, Rajesh (my cameraperson) and I went to this Dalit village, near Jhansi called Patharwaha gaon....a lovely little village - houses with pretty looking arches which a local artisan from that village had carved and painted himself - villagers said, these houses partially explained why their village was always left out. They say, when administrative officials come to inspect and assess the village - they remark about how pretty the houses are and assume the village must be 'developed' and 'doing well' - and with that rationale, they go away without allocating any funds for them. Now, I can't vouch for that story but what I can tell you is that the beauty starts and ends at the arch - most houses are just 2 room sets - one stark, bare room for the entire family and the other is their kitchen which has little else but a few utensils.
I want to know how these Dalits are dealing with the drought - most of them are farmers with barely any landholdings to speak of - a few bighas here and there - but mostly they work on fields of bigger farmers. But with the failed monsoon, there is no crop and hence no work, no matter whose land it is! The village women work mostly on their own fields, or, sometimes like their husbands, work on the fields of big farmers, so no real contribution from them either. So how do they survive... how do they put food on the table?
They go out in search of work - mazdoori as its called in our country. But the region of Bundelkhand has been neglected for so long that there are no real factories, no industries......no alternative sources of employment! So most of these men just sit around in the afternoons looking at the sky to see if the monsoon will arrive - just like you see in those pictures on TV.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme - which guarantees 100 days of work to the rural poor - was designed to be a fallback option and this is exactly what these villagers needed - a fallback option - because many of the families have reduced themselves to just 2 bare meals a day....in fact, in some of the larger families - one meal is just about chapattis and chillies/salt/sugar.
But not one single Dalit in this village was working under the NREGA - which completely took me aback! But more than that, what really shocked me was the reason WHY! Nearly 60 of them had filled out forms for getting job cards made one year ago!! But they are still waiting for the pradhan to get them made. Without these job cards - they will not get any work!!
So, I'm sitting on a charpai surrounded by angry villagers vociferously claiming they were being more and more marginalised in a state where for decades they have supported the Bahujan Samaj Party (a party built on their support - support of the Dalits) - they voted en masse for Mayawati in the Assembly elections of 2007 and she became Chief Minister - but that has still meant nothing for them - they are still the POOREST of the lot!
I tell them that getting work under the NREGA is their right - a right which they are not even aware of - and their voices get even louder and angrier.......the frustration is hard to contain. They have been poor for as long as they can remember....the village has been completely sidelined....in the 50 years they have lived there, only some stone has been laid on the ground to form somewhat of a road and that too was 15 years ago!! The pradhan they have been voting for has done nothing for them and so this time they decided to defy caste equations and vote for a pradhan from their own community - a Dalit pradhan. But in the extremely feudal region of Bundelkhand, this is not an easy equation to overturn. And so the man who eventually did win is from an upper caste (and also in charge of the NREGA in the area) and in retaliation to their defiance, he has completely outcaste them.....and not making their job cards is his way of showing his muscle power.
So, we decided to confront the pradhan who lived in an adjoining village. It was an interesting exercise because I realised that by the time we got there, from the many Dalits who were willing to fight for their right - we were down to a mere handful. I gave the pradhan a fair chance to explain himself before we rolled our camera.
Naturally, he said they were lying and continued that for the next 20 minutes - but that's not what grabbed my attention. Imagine this, the Dalit men were standing in front of the pradhan with their heads lowered, their voices meek and their hands in front - check out the Bundelkhand photo gallery for a picture (sort of like when you did something naughty or broke a priceless item and had to tell your parents) and the pradhan and his 'men' were sitting opposite them - and they were asking for their right (getting work under NREGA) in starts and stops....in voices that you could barely hear....and that's when I realised what a big step this was for them!!
The desperation of drought and a subsequent future of starvation had forced (even if just a handful) these men to defy a caste system entrenched for the last 5000 years.......eventually the pradhan after much squirming agreed to get their job cards made within a week's time and we left.....but as we headed back to the village of Patharwaha, we saw a small cavalcade of some administrative officials coming in - they had obviously been informed about 'our visit' and had come to hush up the matters - they know that Behenji watches news channels all day long!
We were also told that the pradhan was going to beat them up later that day - the ones that dared to stand up to him and get him into trouble - but for now, they seemed fired up and ready to take on whatever came their way. As we sat around once again in the small village, many of them in small voices admitted that after 2 years of no change since Mayawati became CM, they voted for the 'panja' (the Congress election symbol) in this Lok Sabha election.....a pattern that I saw in several other villages that I visited as well.
The thing with covering something like drought is that it brings out not only systemic failures but also the gaps within our society - as one farmer put it, the drought brings out a harsh reality - the ones who actually provide the food on our tables are the ones struggling to put food on their own!