A pensive stillness surrounded the sleepy village of Chhabripalli when we reached there at around 4.00 pm after covering an arduous stretch of some 50 kms from the Kantabanji town in Bolangir district. What we noticed there was unusual in such remote villages, where the sight of a four-wheeler brings dozens of children swarming.
Outside a thatched hut we saw four people lazily squatting on the mud veranda and when we descended from the vehicle their initial reaction was not so welcoming. Surely, we were one of many media groups who rush to such non-descript interiors only after any kind of news that is nerve shattering. Hunger deaths were the reason this time. The district had earned the dubious distinction of having starvation deaths a few years back, but after 63 years of Independence, it really disturbs.
The vastness of the village was haunted by an eerie tranquillity and the silence all over was indeed diaphanous in the 4 O’clock heat.
Sun was slowly on the descent in the west as we walked towards the houses silhouetted against the setting star. One of the four villagers, Jaybihari Bariah, the local ward member, walked towards us and showed us an abandoned house and said, “This is the house where Jhintu and family were living.” A solitary house abruptly cut from the rest for a reason too predominant in these areas – superstition, that still reigns on human psyche. The green fencing around the house had collapsed and the bolted door spoke of a tale the government is still trying hard to disapprove.
After Jhintu Bariah’s (42) return from Hyderabad, where he had gone as a migrant labour, nothing went well. He came back a weak man weighed down by the sub-human state of life in the brick kiln. Back home, the worry of raising three children took a heavy toll of his health. Jhintu had no BPL or APL card in his possession so that he could somehow buy rice at Rs 2/kg to feed his family.
Distress continued for over three months in 2009; the extreme crisis to eke out a living for a two-course meal a day became his bugbear. His three-year-old son took to bed, soon followed by his one-year-old baby daughter. Both died on September 6 last year, which shattered the parents, and for his nine-year-old only surviving son, Ram Prasad Bariah, the scene was tormenting and he remained speechless for days.
For Jhintu and his wife Bimla Bariah, it was a state which fast debilitated their residual energy of the malnourished health. Hunger and the loss of children rendered them so hapless that Bimla died just days later. The condition at his house was so pathetic that Jhintu took ill and breathed his last on October 8, 2009. At last, Jhintu and his family’s lives were immunized by death from the contagion of hunger.
When the tragic incidents were reported by the media the district administration swung into action and sanctioned an ex-gratia of Rs 10,000 for Jhintu’s family and stacked 25 kgs of rice in his haunted house.
But for whom all that was done still remains a question? “Nobody came here when the family was in difficulty and after the deaths, the administration arrived with the money and the rice!” rued Jaybihari Bariah.
Nothing else could better manifest the cantankerous mindset of any administration than what it did with the above-mentioned family. All said and done, in a nutshell, Jhintu’s case in fact symbolizes the plight of thousands of people from the district who look up in vain to a government which perhaps indulges in theoretical postulates and a few nice-sounding platitudes.
If one goes by the incidents of untimely and unnatural deaths in Bolangir, on an average people in the age group of 35 to 40 are the victims of malnutrition. “A majority of patients admitted in the hospitals are cases of malnutrition and anaemic,” said the chief district medical officer of Bolangir, Dr PC Sahu.
Although Dr Sahu would not subscribe directly to the allegations about starvation deaths but he somehow alludes, “Once a patient is a victim of malnutrition, he/she becomes anaemic… and so vulnerable due to loss of immunity that any disease can debilitate him/her so much that they die.” However, in contrast, state’s Revenue Minister SN Patro somehow holds the brief for the government: “I have not come across any complaint about malnutrition from that region.” He adds, “We are trying our best to see that nobody remains hungry.”
Bolangir’s Tureikula, Belpada, Bangamunda and Khaprakhol blocks having earned the dubious reputation of being a ‘hunger pocket’. Here, the PDS system is fraught with many black holes. Firstly, PDS distribution is regulated as per the BPL survey done in 1997. A new survey was conducted in 2002 but that has yet to be implemented. The question is: what about the increase in population during the last 13 years. Even Jhintu Bariah, after his marriage, never got the BPL facility which compounded his problems.
Out of a total 1,792 villages, more than 1,000 are non-revenue and in the 1977 survey, many of the villages were left out. Though the 2002 survey included most of them, yet social audits and public hearing by Adhikar, a local voluntary group, two months back revealed several startling realities. One, the months were skipped in cyclical manner (for example, the quota of January was given in the first week of February and that of February was given in the third week of March and so on.)
An ‘ada’ (one litre can) is used to measure quantity and as a result, the beneficiary receives only 850 gms of rice instead of 1 kg. Secondly, the dealers had issued BPL as well as APL cards in the name of beneficiaries who never existed. The basic problem is, 25 kg of rice per month is not enough for a tribal or a BPL family which usually has four members, since they take cooked rice three times a day as they neither have any alternative food nor the means to buy. Let’s assume, if a man gets 40 to 45 days work under the NREGA in a year, he has no other option than migrating to neighbouring states as a ‘bandhua mazdoor’ (bonded labourer).
Out of 3.56 lakh households in Bolangir, more than 2 lakhs, i.e. about 62% belong to the below poverty line category and the decennial growth of 8.63% in Bolangir is the lowest in the state. That prompts large scale, about one lakh, migration from Bolangir every year. Jhintu Bariah was one of them.
In every village one comes across 5 to 6 orphans in the age group of 12 to 14, who also migrate at that tender age to other states as labourers. These even include girls. Whether starvation-related or otherwise, the deaths witnessed in these areas point at a perpetual crisis born of human neglect in which many parents lose their young sons, or a woman is forced to suffer early widowhood, or a child’s future gets embittered by rootlessness.
After the deaths in the Bariah family the report of the state advisory attached to the Supreme Court Commission on Right to Food, following its visit to Chhabripalli, said, “Food intake for the family of five may clearly give a picture of severity of the vulnerable condition of the family. The inadequate food intake was taking a heavy toll on the health of the entire family, which in turn was reducing its work ability, and its members were therefore caught in the vicious cycle of poverty and starvation.”