Seated on the verandah of his new house, built on a part of his two-and-a-quarter acres of land, Oodhal Prasad Khushwaha says: "The spelling is O-o-d-h-a-l." The 55-year-old, who is not half as certain about his age, has studied till the eighth standard and could surprise a visitor with his use of English.
Along with his three sons, he grows wheat and cereals, bakes bricks, and also does manual labour to eke out a living. Life has been tough for him, but a good harvest this year has made things better. "We grew 18 quintals of wheat," says the resident of the Madola block in Uttar Pradesh's Lalitpur district.
A good monsoon last year has helped Khushwaha, but irrigation facilities such as those provided by canals - the Rajghat canal in Datia and the Jamni canal in Lalitpur, for instance - have transformed the lives of farmers in the area. "The Rajghat canal has changed our lives." says Atmaram Dange, 54, a resident of Kamad village in the same district. The feeder canal to his village has been supplying water for the last five years. "Our wheat harvest has gone up eight times in the last eight years. This year it has increased by 20 per cent," he says. Lifestyles in the region are changing too. Nirbal Ahirwar, 50, of Shehadpur village in Lalitpur had a direct-to-home dish installed a few months back. "We hope to buy a tractor next year," says his son Harinarayan (25).
At a time when the nation's economic scenario looks grim, these instances of success from one of the country's most backward regions, Bundelkhand, come as a surprise. The area, which is referred even in the Ramayana - Chitrakoot, where Ram and Sita spent many years of their exile, is in Bundelkhand - has existed as a political entity since the 10th Century. At present, it is spread across seven districts of Uttar Pradesh and six districts of Madhya Pradesh. Business Today travelled across Jhansi and Tikamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and Lalitpur and Datia in Madhya Pradesh to get a first-hand feel of the region's economy.
Experts, however, sound caution on extrapolating the trends of prosperity seen in Lalitpur and Datia across the entire region. "There may be some instances of prosperity, but poverty is rampant," says Yogesh Kumar, executive director of the NGO, Samarthan, which carried out a study of the region for the Planning Commission.
Indeed, Jhansi (in UP) and Tikamgarh (in MP) are both very different from Lalitpur. One only needs to travel out of Jhansi town along National Highway 39 to see the region's devoid of development and glaring poverty. "The state governments over the years have failed Bundelkhand," says N.C. Saxena, National Advisory Council member. Saxena headed a Rural Development Ministry panel which concluded at least 50 per cent of the country's populace were poor. In certain places we visited, that would be a gross underestimate.
There are many villages where the bare necessities of life are not yet available. In Khisnibujurg village in Jhansi, for instance, there is hardly any drinking water or healthcare. "We have not had drinking water for three days," says Gangubhai Dulat, who is in her sixties. One bore well, outside the village, is running dry, though sometimes it belches forth a little water; the well inside the village is completely dry. All the residents draw their water from another public well half a kilometre away. "If that well also dries up, the entire village will have to migrate," says local resident Jagadish Prasad. There is a dispensary, but it has been locked for more than a year.
Still Khisnibujurg is a better off than a number of other places in the region. Around 150 km away, about eight km from Oodal's place, starts a muddy, rough terrain in the Madola forest area for nearly 10 km before one reaches Lakhanjar village. Development seems to have lost its way there. There are electric poles with cables connected; but there is no electricity passing through them. The residents depend on the forest for fuel, agriculture provides just enough to survive and markets are many miles away.
Extending the reach of the irrigation canals could well change the landscape of many of these areas. The Bundelkhand region has had irrigation projects since the end of the 19th century. The recent dams and canals such as the Rajghat dam -which was completed in 2006 - have been changing agricultural dynamics. Jhansi has the Betawa canal, for instance. However, the rocky terrain in most parts of Bundelkhand make expanding the canal network difficult, says a government official.
People's dependence on agriculture as the only source of livelihood seems to be one of the main reasons for the continued prevalence of poverty. In Jhansi and Tikamgarh, except for some stone crusher units in Paratpura and Lakshmanpura, there are neither any industries around nor any major signs of development activity such as construction. Saxena says the backwardness has historical roots too. The prevailing feudal structure in the region has the higher castes still owning much of the arable land. "The people from the backward castes continue to work as manual labourers. They have little opportunities to break the shackles of poverty," he adds.
However, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is making some difference. Contrary to the assertions of its critics, the poor find it a solace. "The Rs 10,000 earned through the scheme can make a huge differences to poor households," says Yogesh Kumar. To plug leakages in the scheme, wages are directly transferred to bank accounts, but flaws have not yet been fully eliminated.
A drawback is that there isn't enough awareness of the scheme, such as the fact that 100 mandatory days of work have to be provided on demand. "I got only about 20 days of work last year," says Jagat Gond, 50, a resident of Lakhanjar village. Similarly, Lakhan Lal from Adjaar village says, "There has been no work available for the last three months due to the assembly elections." Also, wages don't usually come on time. Lal's bank passbook shows the last payment he got was in December last year. With no livelihood opportunities, Lal says many from his village migrate to the cities for work, where they earn about Rs 150-200 a day. "If we can get assured work under the MGNREGA, we would prefer to stay back in our village," he adds.
Of course, there are instances of MGNREGA working well too. Nirbal Ahirwar's new well being dug in his field is under this scheme with more than 20 workers employed since November last year. With more water available, Ahirwar is hopeful that he can now go in for multiple crops from the forthcoming season.
Clearly, without a lasting solution to its agriculture woes, all other achievements on the macro-economic front in Bundelkhand may fall flat. The few instances of prosperity are proof that government welfare schemes and projects, if implemented well, can bring prosperity to even the most backward areas. Experts, however, feel that much needs to be done including bring about a change in mindset. "The UP and MP governments' attitudes towards the region should change," says NC Saxena. In November 2009, the Centre approved a special package of Rs 7,266 crore for drought relief and integrated development of Bundelkhand. This was aimed at developing 11 lakh hectares of land through watershed development measures. Yogesh Kumar says that the "real issues of poverty" need to be addressed. "Any economic package for Bundelkhand should provide lasting solutions such as on the agriculture productivity front," says Kumar.
To ease the load off agriculture, job generation has to come from other sectors as well. "Much employment can be created by developing the tourism potential of this area," says Arun Singh, a Jhansi-based hotelier. Except for some places like Khajuraho temples and the Orcha Fort, most other spots are off the tourist's map. Jhansi is also the converging point for the North-South and East-West National Highway Corridors. "There is so much scope for the warehousing industry here," says Singh. It is not that there aren't enough solutions or packages for developing Bundelkhand. All that is needed now is a strong political will to implement them, properly.
*This story has been updated to include the name and age of Jagat Gond.