The nomenclature of “cow belt” appears appropriate when travelling past Jhansi into the villages of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh. Herds of cattle can be seen at regular intervals when passing through the highway that connects the town with the rural parts of Bundelkhand. The cows stoically bear the heat and walk single file on either side of the highway. They sniff at the vegetables sold by the local vendors seated on the ground at makeshift marketplaces. They gaze at the cooks at roadside eatehoping they would offer something.
The cooks carry on with their work and pay no attention even as the cows almost thrust their heads into the space where the grim men — profusely sweating in the heat — make rotis. The cows eat plastic and other kinds of refuse from garbage dumps across the district. Most of the animals appear weak. These emaciated cows are a symbol of the relentless misery suffered by the farmers of the region, which is hit by drought for successive years.
The cow is revered here just as it is in most of north India. Yet the farmers have little choice but to let them loose on the streets as they cannot afford them any longer. Most of them say that while they have become habituated to drought, having faced it repeatedly over the last decade, this year can be counted as the toughest. The reason is that, while in earlier times, the drought meant indebtedness, this year they are struggling for food and water.
Instances of farmers committing suicide continue to be reported from several parts of Bundelkhand. But if the never-ending spate of selfdestruction was not tragic enough, many among those who have decided to live and fight it out now have to beg for food and water. A recent survey—led by the Yogendra Yadavheaded Swaraj Abhiyan—of households in seven districts of Bundelkhand confirmed that the situation has indeed hit rock-bottom.
To begin with, a majority of respondents said “yes” to separate questions on whether they quarrelled over water, whether they had to spend more than an hour collecting water, and whether the quality of water had deteriorated. Almost 20% of the poorest respondents said they had gone hungry at least once in the last 30 days, while 14% of those classified as general respondents said they had gone hungry at least once during the said period. At least 17 per cent of respondents said they had consumed rotis made of grass called fikara . The survey also confirmed multiple instances of death of cattle due to consumption of poisonous fodder or starvation.
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