In parched Bundelkhand, chasing elusive diamonds and sustenance

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In parched Bundelkhand, chasing elusive diamonds and sustenance

It’s hard to find a single pucca house in Manki, a tribal village in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district, a part of the draught prone Bundelkhand region. Situated at a distance of barely two kilometres from Nainagiri, a Jain pilgrimage site that has visitors from across India, Manki, with over 1,100 people and 250 families, all from the Sour tribe, lacks basic amenities. The supply of electricity is irregular, there is no running water, and the village is not connected to a sanitation system. In this sleepy village of mostly marginal farmers, voters are looking for a representative who can help them with their long-pending demands of water for agricultural usage, and a corporate enterprise that can give them jobs and facilities.

With Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh scheduled for November 17, aspiring candidates of political parties travel in convoys of sedans and sports utility vehicles, asking for people’s votes. Out of the 26 Assembly seats in the drought-stricken and poverty-ridden tribal region of Bundelkhand comprising of Sagar, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Panna, Damoh, and Datia districts, 16 seats were won by BJP in 2018. One seat each went to the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The Congress, which formed the government following the election, bagged eight. After the revolt by Jyotiraditya Scindia in 2020, the then Congress MLAs from Sagar and Chhatarpur moved to the BJP with him, and later, the saffron party took over the State. The SP MLA also joined BJP, taking the seats held by the BJP in Bundelkhand to 19.

Depleting poverty

Ram Prasad, 70, lives in a mud house covered with plastic sheets for insulation from the wind. He said MLAs rarely visit Manki, except when they were campaigning for an election. His land of four acres has been divided among his three sons, and this will be further divided among seven grandchildren. He is tired of the many loans he has had to take to support his family of 12. Poverty forced two of his sons and three grandchildren to migrate to Rajkot, over 1,000 km away, where they work in a carton manufacturing company. Mr. Prasad is not sure whom to vote for this time because even if had voted for the Congress in the previous Assembly election, Pradyuman Singh Lodhi, the incumbent MLA, later moved to the BJP.

Rajrani Devi, 59, who lives a few doors away, counts the adversities with which she is living. “There are only three hand-pumps in the village and we have to fetch drinking water from an old well. Only one person has a pucca house here under the Prime Minister’s housing scheme [Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana]. The higher secondary school (above Class 8) is 12 km away and just one bus comes here, once in day, which is the only way for people to commute,” she said. She added that she was not receiving any money under Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s much touted Ladli Behna scheme which aims to provide financial assistance to women. “I don’t even want money. I will vote for a person who can get me water, and a company [corporate enterprise] such as the one that came to Sagouriya (a village 40 km away from Manki in Buxwaha tehsil),” she said.

Waiting for ‘company’

Sagouriya is deep inside a dense forest and the only way to reach it is by a two-wheeler, crossing dry river patches and the occasional leopard. It’s one of the 15 villages ‘adopted’ by the international mining giant Rio Tinto, which was granted a prospecting license in 2004 by the then BJP government in Madhya Pradesh’s Bunder region. Claiming there were diamonds worth ₹20,520 crore in the area, the company operated till 2016, and in this span of a little over a decade, it ‘adopted’ villages, including Sagouriya, enabling readily available water, modern agricultural techniques, skill training for women and youth, and health and educational facilities. Sagouriya’s population of around 300 people benefited, but hundreds of trees were cut for the project, which was later shelved over issues related to environmental clearances. The villagers here feel that trees can be grown again but the life they lived in that decade would never return.

Har Prasad Yadav, 53, who built a house with the ₹9 lakh given by Rio Tinto as settlement to workers when it ceased operations, said that his village had everything that he needed, “but now everything is gone”. Mr. Yadav has gone back to farming and depends on a single crop without a reliable supply of water. No farmer in his village is able to sow two or three crops in a year. Most depend on tendu leaf collection.

Congress’ Kamal Nath took oath as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in 2018. The State government in 2019 allotted the Bunder diamond mines project to Essel Mining, a closely held Aditya Birla Group firm, according to a statement by the company. But Essel Mining too awaits environmental clearances to begin operations.

Mr. Lodhi, the BJP candidate, has promised to bring “bring the company back” and improve the lives of the people. Ram Sia Bharti, the Congress candidate, also wants corporate enterprise to return as it provided employment, but not at the cost of ecology.

Diamonds and water

Bundelkhand’s other diamond mining region, Panna district, is a five-hour drive from Sagouriya. Dhyanchand Jain, 69, supervises a stationery shop in Brijpur, a village with a population of 3,500 people. Mr. Jain has spent more than half his life looking for diamonds. His son now has a diploma in diamond certification. Father and son wait for “the company” to come to Brijpur. They hope for jobs and opportunity.

“Company nahi to diamond park hi bana dein, jo saalo se wada kar rahe hain (if not the company, let them at least make a diamond park, which they have been promising for many years),” Mr. Jain said, pointing towards a group of tribal labourers working for minimal wages with traditional techniques and hand tools at a small, private diamond excavation site.

In Brijpur, people are not happy with Brijendra Pratap Singh, the BJP MLA, who is also the Minister of Mineral Resources and the Labour Department. Though the saffron party has been winning this seat for 10 years, people feel not much has been done.

Explaining why it’s important to vote for another party in at both the State-level and in Panna, Vinod Jain, a local, offered an analogy, “Have you ever made a chapati? You need to keep flipping it. Otherwise, it will be burnt.”

The Ken river, a tributary of the Yamuna, flows through the Panna Tiger Reserve, and became an important election issue after the Centre announced linking it with another of the Yamuna’s tributaries, the Betwa river. The government claims that if Ken-Betwa linking project came about, it would solve Bundelkhand’s water crisis as it will provide annual irrigation to 10.62 lakh hectares, drinking water supply to a population of about 62 lakh, and also generate 103 MW of hydropower and 27 MW solar power. Besides Bundelkhand, it would also benefit parts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

“I wish this project never comes up as it will only destroy Panna’s forests and adversely affect Ken. I wish the government had thought about saving the traditional ponds of this region to solve the agricultural problem rather than coming up with such non-environment friendly projects,” Amit Bhatnagar, a social activist in Chhatarpur, who is contesting the election on an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket from the Bijawar seat, said.

In Tikamgarh’s Palera town, villagers say they want water but are not sure how much the Ken-Betwa project will benefit them. Mahesh Kumar, a local, said he wished the government would bring in companies for pyrophyllite mining, a stone found in abundance here, so that people could get jobs.

In Nimani, another village formerly ‘adopted’ by Rio Tinto, Kamta Adivasi, who use to work in the company’s pantry, said she wanted it back. “I got my son do a graduation degree. Now he is jobless,” she said. “Company le aao; company paani apne aap le aagei, naukri ke saath (you bring the company; the company will bring water on its own, along with jobs).”

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