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Starvation Deaths and 'Primitive Tribal Groups'

The deaths of 35 Birhors - a "Primitive Tribal Group" - in Jharkhand in October and November 2008 have been ignored by the national media. Official apathy contributes to the vulnerability of such very poor tribal communities. In comparison to Jharkhand, administrative steps taken in Rajasthan since 2002, when the Sahariyas (another tribal community) faced starvation deaths in that state, show how this vulnerability can be tackled.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW DECEMBER 27, 200811the calculation of triggers and the applica-tion of measures “shall be on the basis of MFN trade only”. In an earlier draft, the chair had agreed that the SSM mechanism can also apply to FTA-related products if the country had, with consistency, also done its calculations with the inclusion of the FTA products. The G-33 has also insisted on the inclusion of FTA products. But the chair’s proposal met with opposi-tion from exporting countries, and he has reversed his previous position, to the det-riment of theSSM’s utility. At the least, the chair could have remained silent on this point. According to a trade expert, silence on this issue would allow the country the choice of making use of SSM for FTA imports, unless the relevant FTA explicitly prohibits the use of the SSM. All these and other conditions severely limit the usefulness of the SSM, and makes even this limited use very cumbersome, such that developing countries will be dis-couraged from using it.Starvation Deaths and ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’Reetika KheraThe deaths of 35 Birhors – a “Primitive Tribal Group” – in Jharkhand in October and November 2008 have been ignored by the national media. Official apathy contributes to the vulnerability of such very poor tribal communities. In comparison to Jharkhand, administrative steps taken in Rajasthan since 2002, when the Sahariyas (another tribal community) faced starvation deaths in that state, show how this vulnerability can be tackled.Their lives are like earthen pots which may break any moment – Bela Bhatia 2001.Since October 2008, the media have reported the deaths of 35 members of the Birhor community (a so-called “Primitive Tribal Group”(PTG)) from vari-ous districts of Jharkhand.1 These deaths havebeen attributed to starvation by some and food poisoning by others. As often happens, the noisiness of the ensu-ing debate has obscured the real issue – the vulnerable situation of persons belonging to these groups.Fragile ExistenceI visited Hindiyakalan hamlet (Narayan-pur gram panchayat, Praptapur block) of Chatra district on 18 October 2008. Nine Birhors (four women, three children and two men) lost their lives in this small hamlet in early October.2 The Birhors live deep in the forest: their hamlet is 10 kms from Narayanpur (the main village of which it is a part). There is a kachha road through the forest to Narayanpur, but not even that from the village to Hindiyakalan. There is no hand-pump in the hamlet, and no primary school. In fact, Tulsi Birhor said that when their children try to go to the school in Narayanpur, the teacher shoos them away, saying bartan ganda karenge (“they will pollute the utensils”) – a stark case of caste discrimination against Birhor children. As a result, these children do not have access to education, or to the hot cooked meal served at school every day. The Birhors’ livelihood in Hindiyakalan is very fragile: they collect minor forest pro-duce (such as honey or wood) and eke out a living by making soops (used in cleaning grain) out of bamboo. They can earn up to Rs 20 a day doing this. Much of their food requirement is also met from leaves (genthi, a sort of spinach) collected from the forest.Most of the nine deaths in this hamlet have followed a similar pattern: people ate something the night before which caused diarrhoea and vomiting. Soon after – within a few hours in most cases – they were dead. Mansabad Birhor’s wife, he said, died within 10 minutes at around 3 am. Being ill himself, he could do nothing for her. He is now left with two young sons, Budhan and Sudhan (less than a year old). He says he cannot go to work because he needs to be around for them. When asked what can be done to improve the situation, he says there should be some arrange-ment for his children during the day so that he can go and earn a living. But in a hamlet where there is no road or primary school or handpump, the prospect of an anganwadi that might serve this purpose is remote. Government ApathyWhether or not the recent deaths in Hindi-yakalan are due to starvation, the govern-ment’s negligence in this particular matter is clear. In just three hours spent in the hamlet, we noticed three glaring exam-ples of this neglect.First, in May 2003, following reports of starvation deaths in Baran district (Rajas-than), the Supreme Court of India in the “right to food case”3 had ordered that all PTG households (along with other vulner-able groups such as widows and single women) be covered fully by the Antyodaya Scheme.4 In Hindiyakalan, this Supreme Court order was being violated, more than five years after it was issued: we met I was taken to Chatra district by Balram. I would like to thank him, Gurjeet and Dinesh for sharing background material on the recent deaths in Jharkhand, and Jean Drèze for comments.Reetika Khera ( is affiliated to the G B Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW DECEMBER 27, 200813 Ending the story here would perhaps be unfair to the deputy commissioner. Quite likely, he was getting this version of the situation from various hangers-on at the block headquarters.6 There are primarily two reasons why Siddique had to rely on second-hand information.The ‘Transfers Circus’First, Jharkhand seems to suffer from a chronic “transfers” disease. Local news-papers report the mass transfers of DCs, block development officers (BDOs) and other government officials with alarming regularity. Often such reports are followed by further reports, the next day, of at least some of the transfers being frozen or re-versed. For instance, since Jharkhand was formed in 2000, Chatra district has seen 16 DCs. Six DCs have been posted there for less than a month.7 The rumour is that this happens because the concerned officials pay to get plum post-ings (e g, in Ranchi) or avoid punishment postings (eg, in “Naxal affected areas”). Stories of a DC being recalled en route to his or her new posting are not uncommon. While some of these stories are to be taken with a pinch of salt, there is certainly a core of truth in these rumours. Even a senior bureaucrat in Ranchi casually remarked that “transfers are an industry in Jharkhand”.8One fallout of this “transfers circus” is that few officials are allowed a long enough tenure in any particular post to be able to arrive at an understanding of the situation and make a difference. Siddique, who had taken charge asDC, Chatra dis-trict on 4 August 2008, was transferred to Simdega district in mid-November.Second, large parts of Chatra district (and many other areas of Jharkhand) are dreaded as “Naxal-affected” areas. A com-mon refrain from government officials is that it is not safe for them to go to the villages. The residents of Hindiyakalan (and in fact, even of Narayanpur panchayat) were bewildered by the visit of so many officials. Nayaranpur’s anganwadi workers had not visited the village in the past two years. The fear bred in these areas in the name of Naxal activity provides a very convenient excuse for all levels of government officials to stay away from their duty. Given this background, it is not sur-prising that most government schemes – especially those related to food security – are in shambles.Starvation Deaths in IndiaAllegations of starvation deaths are not a new phenomenon in India. Nor are the de-nial of such allegations by the government. Six years ago, in October 2002, I had accompanied a fact-finding team of Peo-ple’s Union for Civil Liberties to investi-gate similar reports of starvation deaths in the Sahariya community (also a PTG) in Baran district, Rajasthan. On my recent visit to Chatra, I was struck by the similar-ity between what had happened then in Rajasthan and what was happening now in Jharkhand. In both cases, we found that thePTG community was completely marginalised. In Baran, the only way to reach the Saha-riya hamlets was through dry river beds; in Chatra, it took a long drive through the forest to reach the Birhor hamlet. In both places, there was a complete breakdown of food security schemes: e g, incomplete distribution of Antyodaya and other ra-tion cardstoPTG households and non-functional anganwadis. Poor access to schools implies that children are also ex-cluded from the mid-day meal scheme.Finally, the state government in both instances was very reluctant to acknow-ledge the vulnerability of these communi-ties. The Rajasthan government had pub-licly declared that the deaths were due to illness and not starvation. Similarly, the Jharkhand government maintains that the recent deaths were due to food poison-ing (conveniently overlooking the need to find out what drove the Birhors to eat poisonous leaves in the first place). However, there is one vital difference between what happened in Rajasthan in 2002 and in Jharkhand’s situation today. The Rajasthan government (led by the then chief minister Ashok Gehlot), while continuing to deny the fact of those deaths being related to starvation, began taking proactive measures to deal with the situa-tion, including an innovative relief scheme by the name ofdo bori anaaj (two sacks of grain), whereby all gram panchayats were to store 200 kg of grain to be distributed free of cost to meet any emergency situation in the village. More importantly, the govern-ment ensured that this grain stock was used and replenished as and when required. Furthermore, public employment pro-grammes were initiated on a massive scale, well before the National Rural Employ-ment Guarantee Act (NREGA) came into force, and with renewed energy after that. By contrast, in Hindiyakalan and other affected hamlets, no such measures are in sight. Some token measures had been taken: this included the distribution of seven Antyodaya ration cards, free rice to some households and the payment of pending widow and old age pensions. But the anganwadi in the Narayanpur remained non-functional. By way of relief, two small short-term NREGA works have been acti-vated for this hamlet consisting of approxi-mately 50 households, whereas providing NREGA employment is probably the best long (and even short) term means of avoid-ing such distress situations. Jharkhand is not alone in this battle against hunger and vulnerability. Reports of starvation deaths have come from other parts of the country, including the recent deaths of 62 children in Khandwa, Sheop-ur and Bhopal districts of Madhya Pradesh.9 People’s testimonies from She-opur (Madhya Pradesh) are distressingly similar to those we heard earlier in Baran. This is an excerpt from the Baran district report: In Lal Kankri, we spoke to Siyawati, who has nine children. Her husband gets work every three-four days for which he earns Rs 25 as wages. This sustains his family of eleven for three-four days. Most men continue to go out each day in search of work, while their children wait for them to return with long-ing eyes. We were told that each day these children hope that their fathers will return with some food. On most days, however, they return empty-handed. This also means that while most of the 23 families of the ham-let have BPL ration cards, they never have enough cash to purchase their quota of wheat (Right to Food Campaign Secretariat 2003).The fear expressed by Siyawati (Baran district) in 2002 is echoed in a recent statement from Shanti (Sheopur district), as she spoke about her husband: “He has gone out in search for work, so he can get something to eat – anything he can find. If he comes back with nothing we’ll go hungry another day” (Bera 2008).In 2002, starvation deaths had been re-ported in several states including Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.10 It is
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