A hand-pump with a crowd of women and children waiting patiently around it… That’s the first sight that greets us at the entrance of the Sahariya basti (settlement) at Kadesara Bansi village in Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh.

“It seems like our entire day is spent at this pump. There is only one pump for around 600 people of our community,” says Shanti, 55, who belongs to one of the most marginalised groups in the region. The ‘upper’ castes have their own hand-pumps.

But this village is luckier than most: the pumps deliver water, even if it’s a trickle. According to NGO Swaraj Abhiyan, which carried out extensive surveys in Bundelkhand between May 6 and 8, in 40 per cent of the villages surveyed, there are barely one or two functional hand pumps that supply drinking water.

“The rate at which the water table is plunging is alarming,” says Sanjay Singh, secretary of Parmarth, a non-profit organisation that works on watershed management projects in 500 villages in Bundelkhand. “In the past 10 years, ground water level has plunged from 60 feet to 120 feet due to drought and overexploitation,” he says.

Long queues at hand-pumps, dried-up wells and ponds, barren fields standing mute testimony to failed crops, and emaciated cattle: these are the recurring images that one sees on a tour of Lalitpur and Hamirpur districts of Bundelkhand. Thirteen droughts in 15 years have ravaged the region.

“We have seen many droughts but we are the unhappiest this year,” says Munalal, a Sahariya. His field has yielded him barely two quintals of wheat. There is no work available as there are no industries in the area. The villagers look scornful when asked about the rural employment scheme MNREGA. “What use is it? We need work that puts money in our hands daily,” says Chandan, complaining that fund transfers under the scheme take almost four months. The “rate revisions” in the scheme in view of the drought are laughable: from ₹167 to ₹171.

Bundelkhand, the heart of India, is starved of life-sustaining water and food for humans and for livestock. According to the 2011 Census, there are 18.3 million people living in the 13 districts that make up this region spread across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

Drought migration

But given the alarming rate at which people have been fleeing the region, the population here has likely dwindled by a few million. Migration has increased to about 60-65 per cent, against 30-40 per cent in previous years. Locked homes are a common sight in most villages. “In the last four months, about 200 people have left the village,” says Sahodari in Kadesara Khurd village.

Over 79 per cent of the people in this region reside in rural areas and a third live Below the Poverty (BPL) line. A special relief package was announced for the region, under which BPL card-holders are to get rice, wheat, sacks of potato, oil, and pulses. But most had failed to register their names and appeared unaware of the scheme. “ Lekhpal ke darshan hi nahin hote (we never see the Lekhpal),” one villager complained. The few savvy villagers who had got provisions complained that it was nowhere near the promised quantities and not enough to feed an entire household.

A few NGOs and corporate funders have compensated for the government’s failings and have ensured food and water for the poor. Community kitchens and grain banks, managed by local women, are preventing the poor from sleeping hungry. Several corporates have sent water tankers: it’s only a tiny drop, but it makes a huge difference in some villages.

Nature’s fury, man’s greed

If poor monsoons and the water crisis have dealt a blow to Bundelkhand’s people, human greed has compounded their misery.

All over this region, Swachh Bharat Abiyan posters are prominently displayed, and at Kadesar Bansi, the villagers described how some months ago, a few officials arrived and asked each villager to contribute ₹30 each to build toilets under the scheme. That was the last they saw of their money. “Anyway, what use are toilets without water,” queries Meera, describing how the only two toilets in the village – in the government school – are so filthy that nobody wants to use them.

In village after village, there are similar stories of exploitation: be it the water tanker mafia, the insensitivity and petty corruption of local officials or the fights over water between castes. A consequence of the water poverty is that water thefts are on the rise. At Tikamgarh, the local municipality officials have employed armed guards to prevent theft of water from the Baarighat stop dam.

Even as politicians fight over short-term solutions like water trains, it’s the NGOs that have intervened with more practical and long-term solutions: reviving local tanks, planting trees, and putting in place rainwater harvesting measures. Evidence of this can be seen in Himmatpura village, where every house has laid pipes that harvest water from sloping tiled roofs and direct them to a tubewell.

Women bear the brunt

Women are the biggest victims of the water crisis, says Indira Khurana, Policy Lead, resource scarcity at IPE global, as they are the ones who travel miles to fetch drinking water. Khurana, who has extensively travelled through Bundelkhand’s villages, points out that typically women will forego water and food, but will make sure their family members get water. The pregnant and post-partum mothers of Bundelkhand are manifestly malnourished. And maternal nutritional status has a direct effect on a child’s cognitive development as a major portion of brain development happens during the last trimester of a child’s life. The lack of water and food today could impact tomorrow’s generation unless a solution is found speedily.