Dying for work in Baran

Print edition : November 05, 2004

The Sahariyas, a tribal community inhabiting Baran district of Rajasthan, are fighting to stave off hunger and death; 15 of them, mostly malnourished children, have died since July without medical care. The one-time hunter-gatherers demand work even as politicians debate whether the deaths were due to hunger or disease.

Text and Photographs: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Baran

`WELCOME to the land of Annapurna' (land of plenty) reads a signboard on the road to Baran, a district in Rajasthan. And signs of plenty are all round: on one side are paddy fields that fill the air with the fragrance of Basmati rice and on the other are plots packed with soyabean, a major crop of the area. Telephone kiosks dot the roadside as one enters Relawan town, which is inhabited mainly by the Meenas, a tribal community that is relatively affluent compared with the other tribal groups in the State. Soon the Basmati fields recede into the background and the landscape turns barren and kutcha mud-dwellings dominate. This is the world of the Sahariyas, a tribe that has known only poverty, hunger, exploitation, disease and death in the `land of Annapurna'.

"When there is hardly enough to feed the children, where is the question of consuming liquor," says Draupadi, along witb Ram Pratap (extreme left), Raghunath (third from left) and others.-

Between July and September, 15 members of the Sahariya community, most of them children and young adults, died of complications arising from high fever. The youngest victim was a two-day-old infant and the oldest a 70-year-old man. In most cases medical treatment was not sought, and even those who were treated could not be saved. The comments in the report of the medical officer of the district Health Department attributed the deaths to lack of timely treatment. Some of the reports emanating from Baran, which was in media focus in August, September and early October, put the toll at 25.

The Sahariyas are concentrated in the Kishanganj and Shahbad blocks in Baran district. A baseline survey done in 2003 by the Udaipur-based Tribal Research Institute put their population in the two blocks at around 75,000. They inhabit areas in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh as well. Primarily hunter-gatherers, the land they occupy is arid and rocky, located at the tail-end of the Chambal canal and dependent on rainfall. In contrast, land owned by the other tribal groups and a good number of non-tribals is tubewell-irrigated, tractor-ploughed and also benefits from the Chambal canal.

At Maytha, this woman hopes to get some money for the dried soyabean lying next to her. On the cot is her sick grandson. Seven persons, mostly children, have died of hunger or disease in the village since July.-

At one time most of the Sahariyas apparently owned forest land, which was then converted into arable land. A lot of this land, particularly the canal-irrigated land, was mortgaged at ridiculously low rates to settlers and the Sahariyas were largely left with infertile land. Even where they owned arable land, they could not cultivate it because they did not know how to and the high cost of production prevented them from experimenting. In the name of development the Sahariyas found themselves at the receiving end of civilisation.

The landlords exploited them as labourers, did not pay them the minimum daily wage and even discriminated against the women. "All conceivable forms of exploitation take place here," said Dhuli Chand Meena, All India Kisan Sabha leader. During drought the Sahariyas even sold their daughters to escape death from starvation, say local people in Baran and Kota. When the rains came they were forced to stay indoors and confront the diseases of the season.

It was a losing battle all along for the Sahariyas, but one that political parties were quick to exploit with an eye on the Assembly byelections that were round the corner in Merta and Behror. Ashq Ali Tak, a Youth Congress leader in charge of Kota division, under which Baran falls, first revealed the deaths to the media. He also sent a report on the deaths since July - in Brahmapura, Maytha, Jaitpura, Asnawar and Fatehpura villages in Kishaganj block and Gora, Deori, Kishanpura Colony, and Mundla in Shahbad block - to the All India Congress Committee in Delhi.

At Brahmapura village, where nine persons died, Sahariya women and children in the shade facing an uncertain future.-

While this show of one-upmanship earned him a rebuke from State Congress president Narain Singh, what followed was a `great debate' on the deaths. Did they die of hunger, as the Congress maintained, or did they die of disease, as the BJP said? Did more die in 2002 when the Congress was in power or in 2004 when the BJP was at the helm? Congress and BJP activists are said to have even attacked each other in Baran as they competed to provide relief to the Sahariyas.

Several fact-finding teams, other than those led by the main political parties, are also debating whether the deaths were because of malnutrition or disease. Most reports, however, agree that malnourishment is very high in the area.

At Brahmapura, Brijmohan with the antibiotic given at the dispensary at Ramgarh, which has further weakened him.-

AS for the Sahariyas themselves, the `debate' has not contributed in any way to improving their situation. At Maytha and Brahmapura the Sahariyas were critical of the hullabaloo whipped up by the politicians and said that while everyone made huge promises, nothing changed on the ground. At Brahmapura, where nine persons, most of them children, died, the Forest Department started work on a boundary wall in the first week of October. The workers building the wall had also to break the stones needed for it from the hills nearby. The payment for the backbreaking work was made according to the measurement specified by the contractor. The Sahariyas had been told that they would be paid after 15 days, partly in cash and partly as foodgrains.

"They need work and water for irrigation," said an Anganwaadi worker in Brahmapura. Malnourished and scared that she might lose her job if she divulged too much, the worker said she had done all that she could in the given circumstances. She said Sampat, 35, died during delivery. "We referred her to Baran. Her family could not take her to the Baran district hospital. If they had, she would have been saved. But how could they take her, they did not have any money," she said. The Collector has announced that free treatment will be given in Baran, but who will take the sick to Baran, wonders the Anganwaadi worker.

Morpali Bai, the Traditional Birth Attendant or Dai who handles all the deliveries in the village, said the government had given instructions that the medicines should be given with milk. "But there is nothing called milk here," she said. Ironically, Rajasthan is one of the major milk producing States in the country.

The Anganwaadi worker said the children did not like the soyabean kurkure (a salty, dried preparation) that was given as part of the nutrition package. "If it were sweet, the children would eat it," she said. Incidentally, kurkure signifies something tasty and crispy. Similarly, the porridge called ghooghri, which is the mid-day meal served by the Anganwaadi and the now-defunct government school, looked so unappetising that most of the children preferred to eat mud instead. There was not a single Sahariya child whose stomach was not bloated by malnutrition.

The Sahariya men and women work in the fields during the harvest season and women get preference because they can be paid less. At other times they sell the wood they collect from the forest, a space that was historically theirs but is now increasingly getting out of bounds for them. They are, in fact, penalised often for entering the forest. The demand for wood is predictably more in winter than in summer but jobs are difficult to find in either season.

There are many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Baran, but collectively they seem to have made little impact on the life of the Sahariyas. The school in Brahmapura is a classic example of neglect by the state. It has one teacher for the 1,500 students in classes I to V. Many children drop out and very few go on to the middle school and high school levels.

AT Maytha there are 80 houses and seven people have died so far. "It is Red Malaria. The fever comes and goes," said Tejmal Sahariya, pointing to his son, who is sleeping on a cot. He said his son was eight years old, but the boy did not look more than four. Asked why he did not take his son for medical treatment, Tejmal said they would have to walk 5 km to Relawan town for that.

He said the Bai (nurse) in the village inoculated the children. "But the medicines have no effect. My son vomited and has fever. My wife is away in the fields cutting the soyabean crop," he said, holding his 12-month-old daughter who is malnourished.

Another Sahariya, Raghunath, said the Patwari (the government revenue official at the village level) gave each family 10 kg of wheat a fortnight ago. Asked if anything was left of it, Raghunath laughed. "Why is everyone asking if our people have died of hunger or disease? It is the bhookh ki bimaari (disease of hunger) that afflicts us," he said.

His child, six days old and all alone. While Brijmohan was at work, his wife had gone to get wheat flour.-

Most of them go hungry in the period from May to September, when they hardly get any work. "The day we get work, we buy some vegetables," said Raghunath. All of them said their survival depended on getting work. "We are not asking for charity," said Ram Pratap, 60, and dismissed the talk that the Sahariyas fritter away their money on liquor. "When there is hardly enough to feed the children, where is the question of consuming liquor," said Draupadi, a Sahariya woman. Maytha has no electricity and neither does its fair price shop stock kerosene.

In Brahmapura, the death roll seems to be rising steadily. On the day Frontline reached the village, a five-year-old girl, Mamta, had died, officially the eleventh death. She was taken to Baran for treatment of fever but died after she was brought back to the village. The previous day, a 40-year-old man, Asadyo, had succumbed to fever.

Baliram, 6, has a nasty skin infection, which has spread to his genitals. His mother, Kalibai, has also been infected because he sleeps next to her. "I took him to the dispensary in Ramgarh several times. The medicines have no effect. The doctors say the medicines come from outside and they can do nothing," said Kalibai. "What should I do?" she asked. "I want people to write about our problems so that we get some work. We will give our lives for them." When the district Health Department officials sitting in the Collector's office were told about Baliram's problem, they surmised that it was "scabies".

BARAN District Magistrate and Collector Rajendra Bhanawat sits late in his office. Any untimely death, he said, was a cause for worry, but what was happening among the Sahariyas was nothing unusual. Superstition compounded the problems of malnutrition and sickness caused by poverty, Bhanawat told Frontline. "They do not want to avail themselves of the modern facilities. Only when it gets serious they go," he said.

According to him, since mid-September the government's mobile medical teams have been going to Kishanganj and Shahbad blocks. "There are no authentic figures regarding the number of deaths. The situation is the same everywhere but it was blown up by the media," he said. He added that the mortality figures were far less when compared with those of 2002-2003. The Congress was in power in 2002-2003.

For the BJP, the deaths of the Sahariyas is an issue raked up by the Congress and the Left. State BJP president Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi denied that the deaths had anything to do with hunger. He admitted that there was poverty, but said the deaths were mainly because of disease and superstition. "We have sent a team to study the prospects of employment for the Vanvaasis," he said.

Another team, comprising Minister for Social Welfare and Co-operatives Madan Dilawar, Minister for Food, Civil Supplies and Disaster Management Kirori Lal Meena and Parliamentary Secretary Bhawani Singh Rajawat, gave a statement that not a single person had died of hunger in Baran. They challenged the State Congress to organise a Central team to investigate the deaths. While BJP parliamentarians from Kota, Raghuveer Singh Kaushal, and Jhalawar, Dushyant Singh, went to Baran and gave a similar report, Chief Minister Vasundra Raje Scindia has not yet visited the affected villages.

It is probably a matter of time before the condition of the Sahariyas fades out from public memory. R.K. Swami, Kota district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said although the Sahariyas owned land, they did not control it. A team that visited the affected villages found the women and children to be severely malnourished.

Kalibai and her son Baliram, whose skin infection has spread to her. In her hand is a wild shrub, called Puadiya locally, which even animals do not eat but is the only resort for the hungry Sahariyas.-

Swami said the government should concentrate on starting agriculture-related work such as building of anicuts and dams, which can provide irrigation for the land owned by the Sahariyas. Social forestry and agro industries should also be thought of if deaths among the Sahariyas had to be prevented.

Today the Sahariyas have become a political constituency. In Jaipur and the other major cities in the State there are huge cut-outs of Vasundara Raje Scindia exhorting mothers to give their children milk. "But there is nothing called milk here," echo the words of the Dai in the land of Annapurna, where death stalks the Sahariyas.

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