NEW DELHI: Villagers in the Bundelkhan region are leaving their homes amidst soaring temperatures and acute water shortage. Panna, Damoh, Chhatarpur and Tikamgarh are bearing the brunt of the crisis with the groundwater having dried up in hundreds of villages across forcing the residents to migrate en masse.

The whole region is affected by a heat wave that has resulted in a high rate of evaporation and water demand that is drying up sources of groundwater.

Water sources have dried up in more than 50 villages in Panna district. Residents have migrated out of many areas including Rajnagar, Bakhmallara, Bijawar and Bakshwaha in Chhatarpur district.

People in Ballwara and Manpura have reportedly had to move into neighbouring forests in search of water.

Pandasir has become a ghost village. People have been fleeing to nearby Jabalpur in search of water.

According to a district official in Tikamgarh who didn’t want to be named, “More than 80 big water sources have dried up in the heat in Madhya Pradesh. More than 40,000 hand pumps have stopped working in the villages of the state.”

According to Shah Alam, a journalist and social activist based in Bundelkhand, “Dhakwaha village in Kabrai block of Mahoba district is facing a severe water crisis as the temperature crosses 45 degrees. All ponds, wells and other sources of water have dried up and there is a severe drought type of situation in the region.

“The ponds have heaps of dust filling their pits. This has caused havoc in the village, with animals dying of dehydration every day. As the groundwater recedes, 18 government sponsored hand pumps supposed to supply water to the people in this village have stopped functioning.”

Alam and other journalists documenting conditions on the ground say the situation remains similar in almost all villages in the region. In Rithari, district Hamirpur, just one hand pump remains as a source of water for almost two hundred residents. It has become a battleground for people fighting over water.

To make things worse, the flow of water from the pump is drying further and no alternative source has yet been arranged for the villagers.

“The condition of these villages is getting worse, and there is an abnormal rise in temperature every day. We have surveyed almost 162 villages in the region where we found that all ponds and wells have dried up, and hand pump have become defunct. All inlet and outlet facilities of the water sources in these villages have become redundant due to government negligence,” claims Rajan Singh, one of the founders of the Bundelkhand Jal Swabh Lambhan Abhiyan, a collective working to overcome drought in the region.

The absence of water is not just causing death and emigration, but also infighting, among villagers who line up every day in front of the very few working hand pumps, and sometimes water tankers, from morning to late evening, lined up in wait for their store of living water.

People often complain that in these long queues for water, people from the so-called upper castes prevent them from filling their containers until they have had their fill.

Women from Dalit communities told The Citizen that they are discriminated against in the process of getting water, and despite reaching early they are not allowed to procure water until people from the dominant communities are done with it.

“For us the problem is not just scarcity of water, but also the everyday humiliation we face at the hands of upper caste people. They don’t let us fill water until they have had all they want, and if we dare question them they beat and abuse us. This is the daily norm. When we retaliate, the situation turns violent and they mobilise local goons against us, “Dhanukar Devi, a resident of Dhakwaha said.

Compounding the social problem: children in most villages in this district are unable to attend school, since they are busy all day getting water for the family along with their parents.

“We haven’t been able to attend school since the temperature started soaring. There is no water in our homes early in the morning and fetching water means an entire day’s exercise. Often the situation is that half the total number of kids in our classes do not turn up at all, “13 year old Sudanshu told The Citizen over the phone from Rithari in Hamirpur.

According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report, “Over the last 15 to 20 years Bundelkhand has become known for frequent droughts, severe water shortage, malnourishment (there have been reports of hunger/starvation), social discrimination and violence against women, and deteriorating ecology leading to stress in agriculture.”

As per a report by the Central Ground Water Board of Uttar Pradesh published in 2016, “The rise in the number of overexploited residential blocks in the state of Uttar Pradesh is the biggest challenge, because these are the blocks wherein storage ground water resources are depleting. The very depletion of ground water resources is creating a stressed situation and creating a probability for adjacent districts or blocks to come in the water-stressed category in future, if proper effective intervention is not taken by stakeholders.”

Another study, undertaken by the National Institute of Disaster Management jointly with the Indian Council of Social Science Research in 2015, describes the official negligence involved.

“The usual pattern is that first the meteorological drought—rainfall much below average—happens. It leads to agricultural drought in the same year because India depends on monsoons for agricultural production. If the meteorological drought continues for the second consecutive year, then the hydrological drought—below average water availability—occurs.

“But we have collected evidence that in Bundelkhand this pattern has been broken many times, indicating that there are lapses in the efforts made by the authorities to provide relief,” said Anil K Gupta, an associate professor at the National Institute for Disaster Management, at the time of publishing the report.

According to eyewitnesses, the situation in Bundelkhand is so bad now that in many places people are bringing bullock carts in to dry ponds and digging away the mud from there, to use in constructing their houses in the village.

Officially, however, the administration continues to deny that there is any water crisis in the region. It maintains that the situation in the region right now is normal with regard to temperature and water availability.

“There is not something very severe, it keeps on repeating every year, and with time and the temperature dipping down things will be normal again. We have made arrangements for water tankers in the villages, and they are able to get required amount of water from these tankers to carry on with their daily needs,” a district official from Banda told The Citizen over the phone, requesting anonymity.

In 2017 a Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill was introduced proposing a regulatory framework. It recognises a fundamental right to water, arguing that water is a public trust, and it seeks to decentralise control over groundwater and to protect it at the aquifer level.

However, the government has yet to get the bill through Parliament. This despite the fact that the Niti Aayog acknowledged last year that groundwater, the source of 40% of India’s water needs, is being consumed and polluted at an unsustainable rate.