TIKAMGARH DISTRICT, India — For years, Lakshman Pal, 28, planted wheat and tended to his small field here. Each season, he hoped for rain. He looked up at the sky and waited for the showers that normally came. But for the past two years, they’ve hardly come at all. His crops eventually withered and died, crumbling to dust.
In early May, Pal returned from a spell of work in the distant state of Haryana, where he earned 250 rupees, or about $3.70, a day toiling long hours as a laborer. Fifteen other members of his family also migrated to various cities, searching for work and leaving behind women, children, the elderly and a handful of younger men to tend to the land. Pal borrowed money from the bank and a local moneylender to pay for medical treatment for his mother, who has cancer, and he was now deep in debt.
Back in Khakron, his village, Pal found himself not only in debt, but also with no water for his fields, no crops to harvest, no food for his family, no money for his mother’s treatment. He awoke one morning in mid-May, before dawn, and killed himself in his field.
Life is precarious in Bundelkhand, a vast rural landscape in north-central India that I drove through on a weeklong trip for The WorldPost in late May. The region, which consists of over 27,000 square miles across the states Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, is one of India’s poorest areas, populated mostly by poverty-stricken farmers living in rudimentary villages. And now, it’s suffocating under an intense drought that’s affected a staggering 330 million people nationwide.
As the crisis deepens, the country that celebrated the 1960s agricultural revolution and a resulting boom in production of food grains is now seeing its farmers dying in debt and despair. In many cases, farmers accrue debt from loans for seeds, fertilizers and equipment. And the debt can carry down to their children and grandchildren.
Stories like Pal’s are repeated with frightening regularity all over the country. More than 2,200 farmers reportedly died by suicide in just one state — Madhya Pradesh — between April and October of last year, and more than 12,000 reportedly killed themselves across the country in 2014.
Severe dry spells have become much more common in Bundelkhand in recent years, a consequence of both climate change and the lack of a robust irrigation system, turning this historically dry area into a parched and barren land. Groundwater reservoirs have been dangerously depleted, and agriculture has stagnated. Temperatures are consistently over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes top 115. Since the early 2000s, droughts have become worse and the annual monsoon, which is critical for agriculture, has become erratic. The drought was especially bad from 2003 to 2010. In 2011, the region experienced much higher rainfall — in some districts, more than 500 percent above normal — and flooding was widespread. Disappointing monsoons in 2012 and 2013 gave way to drought again in 2014. It hasn’t abated, and the network of lakes, rivers and wells, which had always supported the people, have gone almost completely dry.
Along the dusty streets of Dhikwaha, a small village in Uttar Pradesh a few hours’ drive from Khakron, Narain Singh walked shirtless between brick houses. He is 65, down to four feet tall from six, bent over after decades of backbreaking labor. He has been a farmer here all his life; he tried to get a government job at one point in his younger years but a bribe was needed, and he didn’t have the money. As the sun beat down, Singh went to a nearby market to spend his meager remaining money on food. India’s Supreme Court recently ordered that food be distributed free to people in drought-hit areas, but nothing had arrived here yet.
As I drove across this rocky land, village after village stood mostly empty and forlorn. Dead trees and cattle carcasses dotted the rocky terrain. Lakes and rivers were empty of water. Few crops can survive the intense heat and dryness; Bundelkhand has been called “the worst place in India to be a farmer.” The monsoon rains have just begun, but the years-long drought has so severely damaged the earth that when the rain does come, it often runs off instead of being retained in the topsoil.
A couple hours away from Dhikwaha, in a village called Garroli, Avik Saha, 52, likened the drought to the recent “Mad Max” film, where bedraggled and downtrodden crowds of people fight over precious water. Saha works for a farmers’ rights movement called Jai Kisan Andolan. The drought in Bundelkhand is “a man-made disaster,” he told The WorldPost.
Over the past 50 years, Saha went on, seeds developed in labs were introduced here and took precedence over the ancient local varieties that farmers had nurtured for decades. “The lab seed might work wonders in a controlled environment but it does poorly in sustained periods of drought and inhospitable temperatures, such as in Bundelkhand,” he said.
The dryness and heat also wreak havoc on livestock. Less than two hours away from Garroli by car in a district called Mahoba, shepherds often free their cattle to roam during periods of drought. The cattle will forage for food and return after the driest period has ended. But the prolonged drought and scarcity of water has meant that many have perished this year in the unforgiving heat.
As India Today reported, political activist Yogendra Yadav, of the nonprofit Swaraj Abhiyan, recently said that more than 300,000 cattle had died in Bundelkhand in May alone. In some places, villagers have collected and stacked large numbers of carcasses. The smell of their decaying bodies is overwhelming.
In Mahoba, the Madan Sagar lake once stretched across 75 acres and served the local population in better days. But now, it is totally dry; large digging machines are at work 24 hours a day, clearing the lakebed. The silt deposited there must be removed before the rains come.
“It acts like polyethylene, preventing any water from seeping through,” explained Rajendra Nigam, who works for a small nonprofit in drought-hit areas near here. Hundreds of dump trucks move in and out of the lakebed, leaving behind a trail of thick, swirling dust. Fishermen squat in the lakebed. Other villagers, like 75-year-old Saraswati Raekwad and her 10-year-old granddaughter Bharti, pictured below, tend to small vegetable gardens they’ve planted in the few remaining patches of moist earth.
As the agrarian economy collapses, millions have migrated to distant cities in search of work. According to CNN-News18, some 1.8 million people migrated out of Bundelkhand between April 2015 and March 2016. Fleeing famine-like conditions and drought, they pack into train compartments and standing-room-only buses that crawl out of the dust toward the promise, however faint, of regular work somewhere else. The CNN-News18 investigation tracked only migrants going to Delhi. Others have moved to similar large cities like Mumbai and Surat.
Many of those who migrate in distress leave under the cover of darkness. There’s a sense of shame and helplessness that comes with relocation, a bit of social stigma within village circles. In some villages, only the elderly and children remain; in distant cities, migratory family members try to eke out a living and send back what they can.
Part of the reason for this mass migration has been the government’s ineffective implementation of a rural employment program known as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The law guarantees 100 days of paid, unskilled work each year to every rural household. In the photo below, a man named Dayaram is carrying out work commissioned by the rural employment program — digging out dirt from the bottom of what used to be a pond near Dhikwaha.
But farmers’ faith in the pioneering program is declining — there are allegations of corruption and nonpayment to those who have taken up work under the scheme. Most say they wouldn’t be forced to leave if the government made regular work available. Villagers across Bundelkhand feel neglected by swindling politicians and an incompetent system. Even when there is work, it can take months to get paid. Many farmers have come to rely on these payments as a vital supplement during drought; delayed or disappeared payments can be devastating.
On the outskirts of Bahru Tal, another village in Bundelkhand not far from Mahoba, I talked to 90-year-old Moti Raekwad. He was working on his tiny hut next to a field that lies empty and dry. His wife, Beti Bai, who is five years older and blind, swept dirt off of the floor inside. Their house is made of mud with a roof of dry branches; it barely stands. Their belongings — a tarpaulin, a few blankets, a few cooking utensils — sat outside on a small charpoy, a traditional Indian daybed made of rope and wood.
“In the last drought,” Raekwad recalled, “we survived on whatever fruits and leaves remained on trees. This time, even that’s gone.” He and his wife now rely on handouts from villagers. He pointed to his weak legs and said he can’t do hard labor anymore.
Back in Khakron, Pal’s wife, Sukhwati, is barely scraping by after the death of her husband. He is survived by two children ― one is two years old, the other six months. Sukhwati must now support them with handouts from the rest of the family. Meanwhile, all around her, more people continue to flee.
Thousands, if not more, are migrating, many to India’s already overcrowded cities, leaving behind ghost villages and a landscape of barren fields, dead trees, parched rivers and lonely cattle ― a looming catastrophe.
Those who remain live perilously, the old and the very young alike walking miles in searing temperatures to hunt for water. Sometimes, in the empty landscape, it can seem like their only companion is the drought.
In India, if you struggle with suicidal thoughts, please call any of these helplines: Aasra 912-227546669, Sneha 044-24640050, Jeevan 009-16576453841, Pratheeksha 048-42448830. In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In other countries, visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
See the rest of the photos from this story in the slideshow below.