Thursday, April 20, 2006

Where People Live and Die with Empty Stomachs : MANOJ KUMAR DAS

Saturday, April 15, 2006
Where People Live and Die with Empty Stomachs

Mirzapur (Uttar Pradesh), March 23, 2006 :By the time we reached Damahi Tola, it was 5.00 in the evening. And 65 year old Bichinia Musahar still hadn’t had her breakfast. She doubts whether she will have any before she goes to bed tonight. Almost 24 hours have passed since she had eaten last - she had shared one litti (a baked version of Indian bread) with her seven year old granddaughter last evening. Bichinia displayed us her stomach and she was almost doing a Ramdev with it- pulling her loose skin with both hands and fanning it from one side to the other – to show the state of her empty stomach. Bichinia’s had lost her son who had died of starvation some five years back.

Makhnaha is around 50 years old, but looks 20 years older. Last night she had eaten khuddi (broken rice) which she had bagged it from the Patel tola. She had been starving since then. She is a single woman- her son had died few years back out of starvation. And her daughter-in-law had subsequently deserted her to her fate.

Bichnia and Makhnaha were just two of the women- selected randomly- from the gathering whom we talked to. A woman activist, Pushpa, of Shikhar Prasikshan Sanstha (SPS) based in Chunar had discovered the five cases of starvation deaths in this small sleepy hamlet of 53 Musahar families. That was last November, almost a month after the deaths had occurred. Part of Jangal Mahal Panchayat in Rajghar Block of Mirzapur district, Damahi tola is around 75 kilometers away from the district Headquarters. The Musahar are known for their poverty and are placed in the lowest rungs of the highly caste based society in north India. Though traditionally known for their occupation of making leaf plates and storing the leftovers from eaten plates -gathered from community feasts- to be taken as daily food, livelihood of the Musahars is today primarily based on minor forest produce.

The discovery of the deaths, though, didn’t make much news. Except for one or two small snippets on the visit of the district police and medical chiefs to the village, the local newspapers didn’t find newsy about the incident- ostensibly because it was just another case. But for the letters written to the National and Asian Human Rights Commissions by SPS and Dr. Lenin, an activist from nearby Varanasi, the panjandrums would have hardly cared to visit the hamlet.

Mahender is 27. He had had lost his mother and in one months time lost his elder brother as well. We went to his house to see what he had for the evening. He took out a pot to show a handful of cooked rice which he had preciously saved for the dinner for him and his family (see picture). We asked little children what they ate last night and in the day today. “Last night I had rice and tomato chatni, and today I had rice with salt and chilly” said seven year old Rikku. But not all were fortunate like Rikku; some hadn’t any answer!

Rikku along with a few kids go to the nearby primary school in the influential Patel tola. Far from providing statutory free education and scholarship to the children, that comes to the school in the name of the children, the Headmaster had extorted 36 Rupees from each parent as admission fee last year. And still the community mustered up all hopes to send their kids to the school- in a hope that the kids would get kichidi (a mix of rice and pulses) to eat. But it is only at times that these children have the fortune as often nothing is left over after distribution of mid-day meals to the children of the privileged communities.

An Anganwadi Centre is there in the tola- but floats in mere paper. The Anganwadi worker,Sarika Devi, who comes from the influential Patel community, apparently runs the show from her own house- five Kms. away from the Musahar hamlet. People of the hamlet have never seen Sarika. Neither do they know that an Anganwadi centre is sanctioned in their name.

“We have to work each day for living. But there is no work these days. If we get work for 10 days, we are left unemployed 20 days in a month” tells Massali 35. “All of us are victims of huge loans that ranges from 10,000 to 15,000; we take these from the thekedar (contractor) or owners of the stone quarries where we work to repay old debts- at an exorbitant rate of 20 percent per month”, he adds. But none could tell us how much money the village Shylocks owe to them. “Would you be able to redeem your loan in this life time?”, I asked an elderly man. “Me…. no… not even my grand children”, replied he with a heavy frown in his brow.

“What about the land of your own; do you have any?”, we asked the people. Replied Dhani 45: “We had land, though little, where we used to grow crops. That was 20 years back when life was not so bad. The government had since than taken over our land for constructing the dam (on river Jargo). They snatched away our lands with no compensation in return. Since last few years, the river has been going dry. And the powerful people in the village has taken over the land and are growing crops there. We are helpless”

We inquired as to how the sarkar (government) had responded after cases of starvation deaths reached their ears. The visiting officials came with some quilts, dhotis and slate- pencils for the children. The Sub-Divisional Magistrate had averred of: building houses for 46 families from Indira Awas Scheme, providing red ration cards to all 53 families, and sanctioning four hand-pumps. Almost half a year has passed since than, and most of these seemed to be administrative gimmicks; except for the ration cards, the community has never heard of anything till date. And even in the case of the ration cards, though all have one each in hand by now, none of them have been able to use them yet. If only the government realized that ration cards without enough purchasing power means nothing but mockery with the poor.

As we were moving out of the village with a heavy heart, Pushpa insisted that we see a woman who is likely to die in a few days time. We went to Kewli’s house. We lifted her from the ground to the cot. She is less than 50 but has run out of energy -even to speak as she has not eaten for long. We took some photographs of her shoulder, back, leg and arms to capture the degree of malnourishment (see her photograph alongside). Kewli’s daughter-in-law was one of the five starvation victims who paid with her live in September last.

When we came out of the hamlet, we saw large number of villagers- man, women and children- from nearby villages lifting mud into a truck. That was part of construction work of the road, undertaken by the Panchayat. “Enough of work, isn’t it!” I exclaimed- wondering why the Musahars just besides the road were not working here. Masali explained “The payment here is made at the end of every week. We can’t afford to wait for that long. So gathering firewood from the jungle or working at the quarry is preferred to working in Panchayat works.” But why can’t the Panchayat pay them daily in that case- I thought.

Death due to malnutrition seems not to be a new phenomenon in this small hamlet, according to the community elders. And the community has learnt to accept their destiny. Since the last three-four years, drought situation has particularly worsened and starvation as a phenomenon has become the order of the day. Acute poverty, lack of employable work and provisioning of basic services to the community- all have added qualms in the community. And if sincere efforts are not urgently made to rescue the community from the impending misfortune, Kewli would leave us and so would many more Kewlis.
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