Summers are normally tough for the more than 700 residents of remote Majhora village in Chhatarpur district, in Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region. But few remember a summer like this.
All the four handpumps in Majhora and its solitary well dried up more than a month ago. A rectangular water structure, ‘ziriya’, located in a small depression, is now Majhora’s only source of drinking water. The 200-odd families spend their days, and nights, waiting next to it, for water to percolate down and accumulate.
In Tikamgarh district, bordering Uttar Pradesh, photographs went viral earlier this year of armed guards patrolling a stop-dam on the Jamni river to prevent farmers from “stealing water” for their Rabi crops using illegal pumps. The administration later seized the pumps briefly, for the river is the main source of potable water for Tikamgarh town, that is now getting water every fourth day.
“The elders say they have not seen such a situation in decades,” says 24-year-old Shailendra Chadhar, a resident of Charpuva village near Madia ghat, another stop-dam on the Jamni river.
In Panna, from school-going children to pensioners, many have willingly deposited money in a special SBI account opened by the local municipal body. The Rs 23 lakh collected so far is being used for the deepening of the Dharam Sagar lake. Another Rs 85 lakh has come from elected representatives. The 261-year-old lake is spread over 75 acres, and as many as 75 dumpers, five excavators and 50 tractors, most of them given by locals, are engaged in deepening the lake and carrying away the excavated earth.
Farsu, 50, of Khajuri village in Panna district, talks about the continuous migration of people out of the arid region. For the past few years, locals say, operators have started direct services to Delhi and other towns, and the buses are usually full.
“There are no businesses and even stone mining has stopped. I have been unemployed for six months. More than 40 people from my village have left,” says Farsu.
A few kilometres outside of Rajapur village in the district, there is a heap of animal bones. Animals are suffering not just due to lack of water but also unavailability of fodder due to crop failures and forest fires. “More than 150 animals have died in the past few weeks,” says Rajendra Singh Yadav of the village.
BJP MLA from Bada Malhara Rekha Yadav talks of owners leaving cattle to fend for themselves in several parts of Bundelkhand.
Asharani Yadav of Majhora has spent nearly an hour by the village ziriya today to scoop out enough water for her family. “Not all can fill water at the same time so many try their luck at night, using torches,” says the 45-year-old as she adjusts two pots on her head and one on either side of her slim frame to carry home.
At 70, Rambai dreads the steep climb back up from the ziriya, and so nearly begs others to let her fill as much as she can, so that she doesn’t have to make multiple trips.
She and the others talk about small snakes slithering up the ropes from the water structure at night when pails are lowered at that time.
What if this source too dries up? “It will be Jai Ram Ji Ki (It will all be over),” Rambai says.
While Meghraj Singh, 40, is among those who come to fill water only at night, when he is free from his farm, his yield has been falling. His three-acre plot produced only 4.5 quintal wheat this time, nearly one-fourth of the normal harvest, due to lack of rains.
For their other water needs, Majhora villagers go to another source, located in an even deeper depression.
In Tikamgarh, the sight of armed guards around the stop-dam on the Jamni river was common till the beginning of April, when farmers harvested their crop. The presence of the guards, not all of them with arms licences, had become a point of contention between the administration of Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district.
“We had no option but to deploy the guards because farmers were followed by unscrupulous elements using electric shocks to kill fish and other marine animals, and trying to open the sluice gates illegally to get water,” says former chairman of Tikamgarh Municipal Parishad Rakesh Giri, whose wife Laxmi occupies the post now.
Bharose, 75, of Banpur village, claims MP officials cracked down on those like him living in the UP side of Bundelkhand. “They took away my motor and when I got it back, it was no longer working,” he says. Denying the charge of water theft, he says UP farmers have as much right to draw from Jamni river as the ones from MP.
The Tikamgarh municipal body is now deepening the Usha Kund in the Jamni river and pumping the water through a pipeline to Bari Ghat, where the armed guards were first deployed.
Assistant engineer of Panna municipal body Lakhan Lal Tiwari acknowledges the public effort to deepen the Dharam Sagar lake. Accounting for nearly 30 per cent of the town’s supply, the lake is the cleanest source because neither effluents nor sewage are emptied into it, unlike other sources.
“It’s not easy to monitor such massive work (of deepening the lake). People have taken it upon themselves to supervise and start clapping when they see laxity (for public shaming),” Tiwari says. If the rental value of the equipment supplied by the locals is added, the public contribution would easily cross Rs 1 crore, he adds.
So far, deepening has been carried out in 20 acres, while another 25 acres have been cleaned. The portion of the lake which still has water will be deepened once it’s emptied.
“Such a spirit has never been seen in the town,” says Rajesh Dixit, a wildlife activist.
Majhora villagers say they have been complaining to their elected representatives and district authorities for years, but despite several official visits and promises, nothing has changed.
Chief Executive Officer of Chhatarpur district panchayat Chandra Mohan Thakur admits shortage of drinking water. Seventy villages had been identified where drinking water could become a concern in the coming days, while six out of 15 towns in the district are already being supplied water by tankers, Thakur says.
At the same time, Thakur claims, compared to the part of Bundelkhand in UP, the region falling in MP is better off. Care was taken to repair handpumps before the summer set in, he says. Only 494 of the 8,925 hand pumps in Chhatarpur district were out of order, adds Additional District Collector S K Seble.
Since 2009, hundreds of crores have been spent building and restoring water bodies under a package, but activists say more than 50 per cent of these structures have not survived.
Public Health Engineering Minister Kusum Mehedle, one of the members of the ministerial committee formed to implement the package, recently said a probe was on against some officials.
Congress MLA from Jatara constituency in Tikamgarh district Dinesh Ahirwar warns that in a month’s time, the situation will worsen. Pointing out that people are still waiting for their payments under the MNREGA, he says, “Migration is not uncommon but more people have left this time than before.”