Piyariya Devi, 60, was staring at the prospect of starvation when she suddenly collapsed last week. Her crop had been destroyed in the hailstorm; she owed Rs 10,000 to a private moneylender and was nursing her bed-ridden son. Her husband and other son have found no work in the past year.
She could not cope with the pressure and ostensibly died of a cardiac attack.
This took place in Narani block of Bundelkhand's Banda district, where such deaths and farmer suicides have become common. Statistics suggest a little over 2,000 farmers lost their lives in the past eight years in this region of Uttar Pradesh that has seven districts - Banda, Jhansi, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Chitrakoot, Lalitpur and Mahoba. The first four districts are organised into parliamentary constituencies, which encompass the other three. The region recorded 1,351 deaths during 2007-2010.
"Farmers were still recouping from the impact of severe drought of 2005-2009. They were hopeful of a bumper crop when heavy rains and hailstorm ruined everything this February," says Prem Singh, a prominent farmer face and activist in Banda. "Most are now under debt from either banks or moneylenders."
After Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi's visit to the region in 2008, the central government had announced a special financial package of Rs 7,266 crore, of which Rs 3,506 crore were meant for UP and the rest for the six Bundelkhand districts in Madhya Pradesh. "Madhya Pradesh used the money efficiently. But Uttar Pradesh lost it to greedy politicians and corrupt bureaucrats. It was like vultures picking the remaining bones," says Abdul Rasheed Siddiqui, bureau chief of the Amar Ujala newspaper in Banda.
Siddiqui's newspaper reported on March 11 that despite the financial package, a little more than 31,000 farmers owed Rs 280 crore to rural banks and another 18,000 had borrowed Rs 150 crore under the Kisan Credit Card scheme. Around 8,000 are supposed to repay combined loans of Rs 30 crore for farm equipment and 13,000 had taken a debt of Rs 20 crore for cattle farming.
Laxmi Pal Movai, a farmer on the outskirts of Chitrakoot, says more than private moneylenders, people fear loan repayment pressure from banks. "The interest rate is fixed at five per cent with moneylenders. But banks charge compound interest if we fail to pay on time; it is then followed by a notice to sell our land and property," he says. He had to arrange money from relatives and other avenues to pay the bank.
The banks are preparing to send fresh notices to some 400 farmers to recover dues following the conclusion of elections on May 16. The collective fallout has resulted in people postponing marriages of their daughters and new purchases.
"Samajwadi Party (ruling dispensation in the state) workers are threatening us that if we don't vote, they would cut other social schemes benefiting the villagers," says Rajesh Singh, a farmer in a village with 700 voters. Locals have hung banners on trees, requesting the candidates to take up their demands of compensation for ruined crops, farm loan waivers and irrigation facilities.
A little over 90 per cent of farming is dependent on rain. Canals cannot be drawn from the rivers because of the rocky nature of the land.
"We don't have food, clothes, and money. We are in a dire need, if they don't listen to us, we will go for Nota," says Punna Girdhari of Badokhar Khurd village. They complain after winning an election, political leaders forgot their existence.
Currently, the Banda and Jalaun parliamentary seats are represented by the Samajwadi Party, the Congress in Jhansi and the Bahujan Samaj Party at Hamirpur. With the Bharatiya Janata Party giving a close fight in this election, all these three parties are making efforts to woo the farmers with many new promises.
Another problem is the resurfacing of dacoits in remoter parts. Reports of dacoits threatening voters to vote for a particular party and abductions for ransom are finding space in local newspapers. "Mohar lagegi haathi par, goli lagegi chaati pe, naak milegi ghaati mein" - a notorious slogan from the previous general election is back in circulation.
Offshoots of the gang of Shiv Kumar Patel alias Dadua (gunned down in 2007) had shifted base to the MP region when BSP chief Mayawati took over the state government in 2007. Though the district administration denies any such activity, villagers are full of stories of the fear unleashed by these gangs.
In Jhansi and Banda towns, people have made law and order an election issue. "Since the change of regime two years ago in Uttar Pradesh, incidents of land grabbing have become routine. Police don't act because, the accused have some or the other connection with the ruling dispensation," says Manoj Dwivedi of Jhansi. "Yahan toh police khud pitthi hai (here, the police itself takes a beating)."