Baran's call

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

THE hamlets in Uni village in Kishanganj block of Baran district could be said to personify hunger. The men, women and children, even the cattle, look famished here. These people are the Sahariyas, members of the only tribe in Rajasthan that is known to depend solely on farming for a living. They seldom take up construction-related work. They work on the land, do harvesting and other farming tasks and earn wages. Some of them used to own land, but following deforestation and encroachment by non-tribal persons over the last 40 years, the Sahariyas were pushed back in life. Baran district reported more than 40 malnourishment-related deaths last year, most of them in Shahbad block. People there were surviving on sama, a variety of wild grass. The grass had, it seemed, turned poisonous in the hot weather. They knew about the risks posed by dried sama, which they would make into balls and eat with chilli powder. But what was the option, asks Sahbo, in her fifties.

Outspoken but desperate, Sabho said that the entire district was reeling under drought and that she had nothing to feed the children and the goats. The cows that had strayed into their hamlet were not theirs, she said; they had been abandoned by others as there was no fodder. Sabho's thatched hut was virtually empty. Kasturi, another Sahariya woman, said that the government had not been providing enough drought relief work in the area. Displaying her gnarled hands, she said she would like to work to feed her family but the authorities would not enrol her. She was too old for it, they said.

The Sahariyas were traditionally dependent on forest produce, but at least in Kishanganj there seemed hardly any forest left anymore. Huge tracts of land on either side of the national highway were thick with the stumps of tendu and other trees. Where the land had been levelled people had fenced in huge plots, installed tube wells and raised green fodder. But Uni had no electricity: the only light came from the cooking fires and the moon.

Kishanganj is in the command area of the Chambal. Tube wells irrigate some of the land, though only the rich farmers can afford them. For the first time in 40 years, the command area faces a drought. The other rivers, the Parvati and the Kalisind, are also dry. Last year the rabi crop in the canal-irrigated area failed. So did the following kharif crop.

The Sahariyas have been malnourished for long, says Dhulichand Meena, State secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha. Meena belongs to Baran and is familiar with the topography of the region. He said that in 2001-2002, the canal-irrigated area had not been declared drought-affected.

When the maize and jowar did not grow, the Sahariyas had no work. Their being a submissive lot, organising them politically was difficult. On their own they did not demand any drought relief work. For many years they worked as bonded labourers on the lands of the non-tribal people. The agricultural crisis hit them hard. Their cattle suffered as fodder became scarce. The Sahariyas comprise nearly 40 per cent of the population of Baran but they do not have any control over land resources. After Ganganagar district, Baran has some of the most fertile lands in the State. Even those Sahariya people who had little plots of land could not cultivate them. Crops of even the sturdy mustard and the labour-intensive soyabean failed as there was no rain last September. They used to collect tendu leaves and mahua, but most of the trees had been cut down. Those that still stood, succumbed to the prolonged dry spell.

After the deaths last year, the government initiated drought relief work. The government has claimed that in Kishanganj and Shahbad blocks of Baran, and Kotada in Udaipur district, it is providing supplementary nutrition for all children in the age group zero to six years as against the normal scheme that covers 100 beneficiaries per anganwadi. But the distended bellies of the Sahariya children today seemed to say it all. Shanti Devi Bhatnagar, an anganwadi worker in Uni, insists that all children are being provided food.

In material terms things have hardly changed for this community over a long period of time. They are grateful to the government for starting some drought relief work (which is, however, grossly inadequate) under which they get work for at least eight days a month. Lakhan Lal, who got some relief work, said that his turn would come next only after six months. Ajuddi Bai and Kasturi said that several members of a family had to chip in to complete the strenuous task-based work, for which the wages for one person would be paid. They said they had ration cards meant for Antyodaya scheme families, but there was no money to buy rations. Their diet usually consisted of rotis and chilli with water. There was no question of pulses, vegetables or milk.

Ward member Surajmal from Jaitpura village now lives under the open sky along with some 18 families. There are no dwellings, and everything is out in the open. A little distance away, on the other side of the national highway, there are some Gujjar families, travelling with their livestock. But the Sahariyas of Jaitpura have no animals. They have come far to look for some harvesting work and it is unlikely that they will get any. After that, they are completely dependent on the government's drought relief work. At the moment, they want themselves to be heard - and it is a desperate call.

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