Hunger deaths in Baran

Print edition : December 06, 2002

The fourth straight year of drought in Rajasthan has taken its toll, particularly on the Sahariya community of hunter-gatherers. The sama seeds they survive on have turned out to be a slow killer.

Starving children of a family at Amrod village in Kishanganj block of Baran district.-SHANKAR

THE greenery and water in Kishanganj and Shahabad blocks of Baran district in southeast Rajasthan are deceptive - an ironical shroud on drought and death. Drought lurks beneath this shroud in bare patches, which are either dried up fields or deforested land, and death is the only topic of conversation for the residents in many of the villages in these blocks.

The government acknowledges severe drought and scarcity in all 32 districts of Rajasthan. It also acknowledges unnatural deaths in Baran - in all the 47 cases reported by the media and civil society organisations. Yet, the government fails to see the fatal connection between drought and death.

Murari of Gangapur Sehrana hamlet in Mundiar village of Shahabad block has survived the deaths of his father, wife, 20-day-old child and mother since September 28. "I have survived on sama," he says, showing the seeds that a kind of wild grass yields, and which the people eat in majboori or distress, as the village sarpanch testifies.

Cut to a report by the Tribal Commissioner of the Government of Rajasthan after an outcry in the media and civil society over more than 40 deaths, such as those in Murari's family, reported from Baran district. Quoting from a study on food habits, it says sama is a proper food with a high protein content. "And it is delicious with milk, like a kind of kheer," a government official says.

But the poor tribal people of Baran rarely get milk during droughts. For a further rejoinder, hear Moti, a social activist with Sankalp, an organisation that works among tribal people: "Yes, during a normal rain-fed year, sama is a proper food with enough protein content. But in the absence of rain, sama seeds dry up, turn poisonous and become a slow killer of people weakened by a lack of nutrition from any other source." Here is probably an explanation why Murari's near and dear ones died. Probably one of the ways by which famine kills.

Congress legislator Hiralal Sahariya, a native of the area, said sama could not be digested without chhachh (buttermilk), which the Sahariyas could not afford. It was not only Murari in Gangapur Sehrana but his entire hamlet of around 50 houses that had eaten nothing but sama rotis in the past couple of months. A team of activists of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and journalists, which visited the area in October, found in these homes no grain and only a katta (50-kg sack) of sama seeds. The villagers were worried that their supply of seeds would soon dry up and they would have nothing left to eat.

`Sehrana' in Gangapur Sehrana denotes that it is a hamlet of Sahariyas, one of the nine primitive tribal communities of the country, which are still mostly in the hunting-gathering stage. The Sahariyas form the single largest community in Baran district, constituting 21 per cent of the population. In Shahabad and Kishanganj blocks, they form 34 per cent of the population. And when it comes to the list of those who died unnaturally in the past couple of months, it is they who dominate. The PUCL, petitioner in a Supreme Court case on the issue of the right to food, with the help of Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) and Sankalp (NGOs working at the grassroots in Baran), prepared a list of 44 unnatural deaths from 11 villages in Kishanganj and Shahabad districts and submitted it to the State government on October 24. All but six of the victims were Sahariyas. The six non-Sahariya dead belonged to Dalit communities.

To understand such a high incidence of unnatural deaths among Sahariyas during this drought, one has only to look at how they live. Not too long ago, the hunting-gathering Sahariyas survived on minor forest produce and a kind of shifting agriculture. When forests started dwindling fast around the time India gained independence and in subsequent years, the Sahariyas started tilling lands of other people - mostly Jats, Gujjars and Sikh farmers of the area. Untuned to the exploitative cruelties of the non-forest world, they were easily made to lapse into a life of bonded labour. Though freed after the passage of the Bonded Labour Act nearly a quarter century ago, they continue to eke out a difficult and stark living, working on other people's land, in the forests and doing public works. Agriculture labour and minor forest produce provide most of their sustenance. The drought put paid to this sustenance.

Though it is the fourth year of severe drought in Rajasthan, it is the first year that Sahariyas have been hit hard by it. A nearly 30 per cent shortfall in rain this year made life even more miserable for Sahariyas than it already was. Although the shortfall in rain in 18 districts in Rajasthan was double or even more than that (-60 per cent or less) of Baran, Sahariyas suffered more than the people in those districts. The reason is simple. Not used to droughts and the complexities of a non agri-forest economy, Sahariyas do not know how to store or to migrate to cities and distant regions or to cope in other ways. So, with a crop failure this year, there was no grain wage to be had from working other people's fields and therefore no grain to eat. Hence the sole reliance on sama, always a supplementary diet, but one which perishes and becomes poisonous quickly.

And what next when the sama stocks dry up? "We boil the leaves of phang, a wild green plant, and eat," say Navali and Binja, Sahariya women from Mamooni of Khanda Sehrol panchayat in Shahabad block. They, at times, also fall back on pumal, another plant. But this time even pumal is not there in many areas. In some places people were even forced to eat dead sheep, and in a few instances they fell ill after eating putrefied meat.

What are the other means of survival for Sahariyas? They are as harsh and trying. The able-bodied Sahariyas of Lal Kankri village in Shahabad block and Swaans village (where 11 children have died in two months) and Hatiyadeh village, both in Kishanganj block, go to the forests to dig roots of a herb called shalavari. These roots are brought home, peeled, dried and sold at the rate of Rs.5 to Rs.6 a kg every two or three days. People in these villages and also Amrod in Shahabad block boil and dry `Amla' and barter it for small amounts of wheat.

In this backdrop the PUCL fact-finding team of Kavita Srivastava, Reetika Khera and Rajesh Sinha did a quick checklist of government relief works in the area in mid-October and found:

* There were little government relief works on the ground. The State government data itself speak of only 500 labourers employed on the drought relief works in the whole district in September.

* The gratuitous relief scheme for the disbursal of free grain to people who are not able-bodied was hardly implemented on the ground.

* The people in the above-mentioned villages received supplies against their ration cards only twice this year - in March and October. The fate of the Antyodaya Yojna - distribution of grain to the poorest of the poor at the rate of Rs.2 a kg - was also the same, as the public distribution system (PDS) shops were rarely opened.

* A viable public health system was non-existent on the ground, with the auxiliary nurse and midwife always absent from the scene, health sub-centres and referral hospitals without medicines, and referral hospitals without ambulances.

* The anganwadis were usually located in the main village, far away from the Sahariya hamlets, and rarely opened. Children below the age of six rarely got supplementary nutrition from the anganwadi centres.

ALL this was in violation of the Supreme Court's orders in the PUCL's right to food case. The only silver lining was the regular distribution of mid-day meals in village schools, but Sahariya children did not always benefit from this because their enrolment average is less than that of children from other communities.

With the unnatural deaths in the Sahariya area becoming an issue of grave concern in the media, civil society, and the apex court in the ongoing right to food case, the State government went public with the stand that these were related not to hunger but to illness. This response came in for public ridicule, with the rejoinder by the PUCL, the BGVS and Sankalp contextualising the causes of the various deaths as malnourishment, hunger-related illnesses, and the consumption of poisonous food in distress. All these categorisations are related ultimately to the undeniable fact of hunger. In the face of this, the Chief Minister himself contended that the deaths were owing to malnutrition and not starvation. This, too, skirted the fact of widespread hunger in Baran district, particularly among Sahariyas, and the inadequacy of the government response.

In a bizarre sideshow, the drought-related deaths in Baran also led to political duels between the State and the Centre and the Congress and the BJP. The State government contended that the BJP-ruled Centre was discriminating against Opposition-ruled Rajasthan by giving it only two lakh tonnes of grain against the requirement of 56 lakh tonnes for drought relief, in sharp contrast to the 16 lakh tonnes of grain it had dispatched to Andhra Pradesh, ruled by National Democratic Alliance ally Telugu Desam.

The Centre responded by saying that the Rajasthan government had not lifted the full grain quota allotted to it. There was a sleight of hand involved in this though; the Centre had included in this the grain under the above-poverty-line quota, which is not lifted as it is priced above the market rate. The State answered back, pointing out that the Rajasthan government's performance was best in the utilisation of the Antyodaya and below-poverty-line quota grains, the statistics showing 94 and 73 per cent respectively in these categories. The BJP, on the other hand, pointed out the lapses by the State government's service delivery machinery in Baran even though it came under critical public scrutiny as its State chief, Vasundhara Raje, is the Member of Parliament representing the affected blocks of Kishanganj and Shahabad, and she too was caught napping when the drought-related deaths came to light. The sideshow continued right up to the meeting of the Congress Chief Ministers in Mount Abu on November 8 and 9.

As far as people of the State are concerned, they were shocked by the inhuman intensity of hunger in Baran and the smug apathy and blame game of the Central government and the State administration. In fact, the role of international donor agencies such as the World Bank and UNICEF, which have a strong presence in Baran district through their respective programmes, also came under critical public scrutiny.

This shock also galvanised civil society into action, both agitational and relief-oriented, and also forced the State administration to pass a series of extraordinary orders for drought relief, including a drastic increase in labour employment in public works and gratuitous relief and declaring the worst-affected blocks as vulnerable. It remains to be seen how this translates into effective implementation on the ground.

Neelabh Mishra is a freelance journalist based in Jaipur.

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