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Bundelkhand – How the Wretched of the Earth Were Scammed

A Report from Bundelkhand

The Centre gave the UP and MP governments Rs. 7,500 crore in 2009 as a relief package to provide much-needed relief to drought-ravaged farmers in Bundelkhand. Thanks to the bureaucrat-contractor nexus, the intended beneficiaries ended up worse off.   

A woman and her three of her daughters stands inside their adobe house in a drought hit village of the Bundelkhand region of India on May 5, 2009. Credit: Balazs Gardi

New Delhi: In the early half of the last decade, Bundelkhand was gripped by an extended drought. In a region consistently declared by the government’s own surveys as one of India’s poorest, its effects were nothing less than catastrophic. Death stalked the countryside as farmer after farmer committed suicide, ridden as they were with heavy usurious debt.

Going just by the official data, the Uttar Pradesh side of Bundelkhand alone saw 1,275 suicides between 2001 and 2005. If the number of suicides in the Madhya Pradesh part of the region during the period is taken into account, the tally would run into many thousands. Given the gravity of the situation, the Central government sanctioned a comprehensive relief package of Rs. 7,266 crore in November 2009 upon the recommendation of an inter-ministerial team.

Five years later, an extended investigation by Cobrapost finds that the Bundelkhand relief package has delivered next to nothing on the ground. Travelling through four districts of the region – Lalitpur, Jhansi,Chhattarpur and Tikamgarh – we found that not only have the people of the region not seen any qualitative improvement in their lives, there were several instances where the implementation of the package had actually wrecked lives.

Throughout our visit to Bundelkhand, the instances of official apathy and criminality we discovered were shocking – even by the standards of the Indian bureaucracy. At the time of writing, poverty and suicides continue to haunt Bundelkhand, leaving an unanswered question: If the package has failed to deliver what it promised, where has all the money gone?

Well-laid plans

Under the Centre’s relief package, Uttar Pradesh got Rs. 3,506 crore for seven districts – Banda, Chitrakoot, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Jhansi, Lalitpur and Mahoba – on its side of Bundelkhand region, which also straddles Madhya Pradesh. The latter state on its part received funds to the tune of Rs. 3,760 crore for six districts –Chhattarpur, Damoh, Datiya, Panna, Sagar and Tikamgarh. The funds were to be utilised within three years. In May 2011, the Central government released another Rs. 200 crore, equally divided between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, thus taking the total to Rs. 7,466 crore.

A dead cow that perished due to thirst lies at the center of Shoba Mahar village in Bundelkhand on April 30, 2009. Credit: Balazs Gardi

Comprehensive in its scope, the mega relief package covered almost every aspect that could have a bearing on the economic uplift of the region and its people. For instance, the works envisaged by the package included a well-laid out irrigation system consisting of check-dams, canals, culverts, ponds and wells to rid the region of perennial scarcity of water, apart from watershed development and rainwater harvesting; promotion of agriculture and animal husbandry and dairy development; and forestation and development of biofuel resources.

So big was the canvas of the rehabilitation programme that had it been implemented the way it was intended, it would have not only provided hundreds of man-days of work to the poor but also changed the entire landscape for all time to come. To take just a few examples, about 40,000 new wells and 30,000 new ponds were to be constructed, the watershed development programme was to be undertaken in about 11 lakh hectares of land, and a massive forestation programme was to be undertaken on about 2.60 lakh hectares of land.

Scam after scam

As the Cobrapost team travelled across the villages of Lalitpur, we repeatedly came across instances where the package had turned into a nightmare for the poor, pushing them deeper into misery. We interviewed several villagers about the schemes undertaken by the state government departments in their localities: Betel plantation, dairy development, goat rearing, allotment of land for construction of houses, renovation of irrigation canals, construction of check-dams, renovation and beautification of ponds, construction of pump houses, siphon and culverts for irrigation, construction of wells and concrete roads.

Our interviews with the supposed beneficiaries of the package revealed that in many instances, the officials in charge of the schemes, operating in tandem with district administration and local panchayat leaders, wrested money from the poor beneficiaries in the name of providing them relief. Not one of these projects was found to have been implemented with any intention of benefiting the people, as the following cases demonstrate:

  • Several check-dams were constructed on various rivers that flow in the region at a cost of Rs. 440 crore to hold water and provide for irrigation. However, so poor was the construction quality that many of these dams were washed away in the first rains, taking with them the top soil from many a peasant’s field. “Ab dekho aafat… nuksan… mit gayi kul humari… kheti chali gayi (Now, you see the disaster … the loss … we have lost our fields completely),” said Lachhi Bai of Udaypura village in Tikamgarh. In one sweep, her 1.5 acre field turned into a barren, uncultivable patch of land when the dam broke and flooded it.
  • Numerous villagers employed on these works told Cobrapost that they were denied wages by the officials or contractors. For instance, Kamla Rani and Ramwati worked for 22 days on a well in their village, so did Ramwati’s husband, but they were not paid. Another villager who has been denied wages is Ram Kirpal. Yet another, Rekwar, lost about two to three acres of land to a check-dam that washed away.
  • Betel planters were asked by government officials to fork out Rs. 5000 to Rs. 6000 as ‘contribution’ to get a relief amount of Rs. 30,000 stipulated for them. While the promised money never reached them, they were given substandard tools and other material in return. Kamlesh Chaurasia of Pipat in Bijawar tehsil of Madhya Pradesh is one among the many poor betel planters who were cheated. Recalls Chaurasia: “Saxena (the official) told us that we’d be given a receipt, but we never got it. Instead, they gave us things like pesticide, motors etc. Some farmers got nothing at all.”
  • In a similar instance, poor beneficiaries were persuaded to shell out money in return for diseased herds of goats, which died in no time. One of them, Gubandi of Janakpur village in Tikamgarh, told Cobrapost, “I deposited Rs. 9000 and got goats which were sick and small in frame and they all died within 15 days. The disease they were carrying infected the four healthy goats I had, which also died along with them. They told us there is no compensation coming our way and we should get the herd insured.”
  • Similarly there were cases where the officials asked uneducated villagers to dig their own wells (which were supposed to be built for them for free under the package), with the promise of reimbursing them. One of them, Lachchi Ram from Kumhariya village of Jhansi, who spent Rs. 77,000 to construct a well, told us, “I had to get a Kisan card issued, pawn jewellery and then borrow from all my relatives to invest in it.” Now indebted, he is also unable to get water from the well which lies incomplete as he could not afford to dig it further.
  • No standards have been followed in digging the wells, most of which now lie in disuse. According to Rakkhan Lal, former village pradhan of Jamunia, 22 wells were built in his panchayat area but none succeeded. Gopi, an elderly villager from Vijaygarh village of Jhansi, made a startling revelation to us, “A team from Delhi came last year, and were doing audits of the works carried out. The local officials caught hold of a contractor who brought in a water tanker and emptied it into this well.” According to the villagers, Junior Engineer Rajeev Choudhary, the official in charge of the area, allegedly sought a bribe from them to sanction the well but had left it incomplete.
  • An existing earth canal in Gosra that was renovated and cemented under the package was supposed to provide irrigation to many villages contiguous to its span. However, owing to faulty design and poor construction, the cemented canal has become curse for the farmers in the area. Instead of providing water to their fields, it either inundates their settlements and fields, causing the crop to rot, or it does not reach their fields at all owing to higher inclines at some points. Jaihind of Bachhai village, told us, “Since this canal was constructed, the village does not get any water. Now we have to spend anywhere between Rs. 5000 and Rs. 50,000 to water our fields by using diesel pump-driven borewells.”
  • We encountered several cases where culverts and siphons that were renovated or cut afresh were unable to serve their purpose, thanks to faulty design. One particulalrly bizzare case, involving the Soil Conservation Department of U.P., was found in Lalitpur district, and is best described by Chander Kirti Jain, a farmer from Jakhlaun village, “A culvert was being constructed from the Jakhlaun canal to Jamunia, where I have a field. The work was undertaken by Inspector Shiv Murti Yadav of the Soil Conservation Department, Unit 5. Initially, the plan was to build it 10 ft underground and install a pipeline there, and erect structures at places from where water would be lifted by pumps to irrigate fields. But instead, they built a 10-ft deep open culvert. When the public, including me, complained, the SDM paid a visit along with other officials. The result? The officials dismantled everything they had built, completely damaging our fields. They must have spent between Rs. 10 lakh and Rs. 25 lakh on the work, only to dismantle it. In the process, they cut our fields open. The whole exercise was meaningless.”
  • Yet another case, that of a project executed almost entirely on paper, was more typical of governmental development schemes. At Rigaura village in Tikamgarh district, the officials claimed to have renovated a pond at a cost of Rs. 92 lakh. However, none of the locals, including the gram pradhan, ever saw any activity worth mentioning at the site. Geeta, one of the locals, told us, “Nothing was spent on it. All they did was to dump a trolley of soil there.”

Similar outcome in both states

Bhanu Sahai, Chairman of the Bundelkhand Relief Package Monitoring Committee, UPCC, has been relentlessly pursuing action against erring officials for the mess they have created in the name of relief. Laying bare the facts for the Cobrapost team, he said, “To mention just one aspect, almost 90% of the ponds dug under the relief scheme have turned out to be useless. When the package was announced, we hoped that it would change the future of Bundelkhand, but it was not to be. To put it simply, this package has gone up in smoke.”

Dry pond in the center of a drought hit village of the Bundelkhand region of India on May 5, 2009. Credit: Balazs Gardi

The situation was no different in the Madhya Pradesh side of Bundelkhand. Digvijay Singh Gaur, Member Zilla Panchayat, Tikamgarh, told us, “In our area, the bulk of the funds were spent on building check-dams, but the quality of construction was so poor that dams completed in June 2013 were swept away in the first rains of July. We also used RTI and found that many check-dams existed only on paper. We complained to everyone from the DM to the CM, but have not got any answer yet. Nor do we expect any; after all, the contracts were all given to those known to the officials.”

Chanda Singh Gaur, MLA of Khargapur, Tikamgarh, told Cobrapost, “Not only were no works undertaken in my constituency, I have toured the surrounding areas to inquire about implementation of the relief package and found that hardly any work has been implemented anywhere, except on paper.” Her view is echoed by Dinesh Ahirwar, MLA of Jatara, Tikamgarh, who said “The nexus of officials and contractors have pocketed money meant for the poor and the development of Bundelkhand.”

The Centre‘s futile intervention

Given the massive scale of the scam, and the growing number of complaints, apart from its own audit reports, the scam eventually drew the attention of the Centre. In December 2011, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, visited the part of the region that falls in Jhansi district, inspecting check dams, dams, dug wells, food processing units and construction of rural roads in several villages.

A malnourished man stands in front of his house in a drought hit village of the Bundelkhand region on May 5, 2009. Credit: Balazs Gardi

In a telling example, Bhanu Sahai, who had accompanied Ahluwalia during part of the visit, described what transpired at one of the project sites, “When Ahluwalia arrived at the project, he was surprise that he had got a complaint about such a well made check-dam. But when he went closer and examined, it turned out that that there was no real structure – only bags of sand covered over with mortar. He ordered an inquiry against it, but we have no clue what happened to it.” ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­He adds further that such cases were the rule rather than exception, the reason state officials never made the details of the projects public.

On his return to Delhi, Ahluwalia sent a letter to the then U.P. Chief Minister Mayawati, expressing dissatisfaction on the works implemented under the Bundelkhand package. Cobrapost has obtained a copy of the letter, dated December 19, 2011, where apart from pointing out the delay in the implementation of the works, Ahluwalia lists several concerns: about the lack of transparency in the selection of contractors, the Irrigation Department’s choice of pipes and other material for the works, the poor rehabilitation arrangements for people who were displaced by the works, the distribution of diseased goats, and so on. He also suggests that the details of the tenders granted and works undertaken be published on the district authorities’ websites so as to ensure transparency.

When Cobrapost confronted B.B. Singh, Commissioner of Jhansi Division, Uttar Pradesh who is also the Nodal Officer of the Bundelkhand Package for the state with Ahluwalia’s assertions, as well as the allegations by villagers in the region, he had nothing concrete to offer by way of explanation. Instead he launched into an elaborate description of the procedure that was in place for addressing complaints, and the details of which officials were entitled to take what action depending on the nature of the complaint. As for the nature of the actual complaints he received and the action that was taken, Singh seemed to be at a loss to explain.

It is imperative that the government of the day steps in and initiates a thorough investigation into the massive malpractices carried out in the name of the relief package that has turned into a cruel farce for poor Bundelis.

This story is  published in collaboration with

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