Brimful of thirst
Irrigation is a luxury that only a few can afford in Mandla, a water-rich district in Madhya Pradesh. The district receives an annual rainfall of 1,300 mm, which can easily sustain three crops a year. But Mandla residents can barely manage one.
The district is surrounded by the mighty Narmada from three sides and crisscrossed by many rivers and streams. Ironically, residents of this district are dying of starvation, primarily caused by water scarcity. In 1999, three persons, belonging to the Baiga community, died in Kudwari village of Dindori block.
Baigas are traditionally known as "friends of forests" -- forests are a part of lives, their traditions, culture and religion. For the past few decades, the government has evicted these traditional forest dwellers from the forest and rehabilitated them in the government-owned van grams (forest villages), where they were awarded certificates to practice agriculture.
But agriculture is alien to the Baigas. Though there is abundant rainfall, there is hardly any catchment area. Water available for irrigation is a meagre two per cent of the gross cropped area in the district. Without any irrigation facility, the plots of land have turned out to be a curse. They now work as farm labourers. The three persons who died in 1999, represent 63 per cent of the rural population of the district that lives below the poverty line -- 50 per cent of which earns just about Rs 300 per month, according to government estimates.
Since agriculture in Mandla largely depends on rain, a monsoon failure can be disastrous. "It's all linked," says Akali Singh who gets his name after surviving the severe famine of 1940s. "Our fields are not levelled and just a metre below the surface you will find rocks," he says. "Every year, the rain washes off the top soil even before the seeds can be sown. There is no way erosion can be checked. Our forests have lost their capacity to hold soil." Agriculture in the district hardly provides six months of employment both to the landed as well as the landless labourers. "All we get is one crop. That too if it rains," says Shankar Singh of Kudwari.
They were better off earlier when the forests of the district played a crucial role in ensuring livelihood throughout the year -- each species of tree took care of a specific survival need. Earnings from mahua collection was the main source of livelihood for the Baigas, particularly during the lean period between June to September. " Mahua was the survival strategy of the tribals," says Anand Sinh, a worker of Jabalpur Diocese Social Service Society (jdsss), a voluntary organisation based in Mandla. But gradually, the collection of mahua went into the hands of traders. And Baigas lost their prime 'survival kit'.
Now migration is in full swing. It is hard to spot young people in the villages. In the village of Sinkuhi, the youth have migrated to places like Bhusaval in Maharashtra, where they work as labourers in the railways. They manage to earn Rs 40-50 per day. "As the youth have deserted our villages, there is no one to look after our lands," says Dumar Singh of Sinkuhi.
Poverty alleviation programmes have made some inroads in Mandla. They provide employment opportunities on a daily wage basis. But this is only an interim relief for the poor. The Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Development Mission, for example, is designed for only four years -- too short to show up any changes. "Programmes of the Integrated Rural Development Agency and other tribal development schemes have also failed because of the target approach and project mindset of the officials," says Antony Roki of jdsss. It is time to restore Mandla's village economy.