The dilapidated houses, scattered utensils, hanging torn clothes, children, barely clad, and the hopeless faces on the men and women are more than enough to reveal the painful realities of Birhors, the tribals residing in Hindiyakala village of Pratapur block in Chatra district of Jharkhand, where nine of them, one after another starved to death just this October.
Malnutrition, poverty and diseases are in the air. Besides, it has no road, electricity, drinking water, school and health facilities. The Birhor families do not get ration and kerosene oil from the ration shops. Their ration cards lie in the possession of PDS dealers. They have not been provided food grain under any scheme since 1998. According to Kailash Birhor, the officials visited the village only after the news of starvation deaths reached them. The Birhors could just about secure one meal thanks to some forest produce.
Political rhetoric followed the news of the deaths. Without conducting an autopsy on the bodies, the district administration cited food poisoning as the reason. The Deputy Commissioner of Chatra, Abu Bakr Siddiqui said, "The Birhors died of food poisoning after consuming wild roots." One would ask, why autopsy was not carried considering it is a legal requirement. The wild roots form a regular diet of the tribals; they are aware which ones are edible and which are not. The Adviser to the Food Security Commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court, Balram, to look into the starvation death of Birhors, has found that the deaths occurred due to starvation and not food poisoning as claimed by officials of the district administration.
After civil society organisations, media and political parties protested, the state government constituted an investigation committee under the chairmanship of the secretary of welfare department, U K. Sangama and asked the committee to furnish its report within seven days. Soon after the incident, U.K. Sangama said, "The primitive tribes are in great need of government support." But the sad part is that the investigation team went as far as the block headquarters, eventually returning, citing security concerns. The government officials have always used the prevalence of Naxalites as a major excuse for not going to the remote villages. This time, it was no different.
Ironically, over 20 government sponsored welfare schemes at an annual budget of 50 crores, are being implemented for the primitive tribes in the state but the outcome is nowhere visible. According to the government report, there are 29,06,380 people living below poverty line, 70 percent of them come from the primitive tribes. In 2002, the central government had launched 'Antyodaya Scheme', which envisaged providing ration to the poor section of the society, in which the poor are provided 35 kg grain (rice and wheat) at the rate of Rs 3 and Rs 2 per kg every month. After observing the seriousness of the situation, as per the 2004 Supreme Court directive, 55 quintals of grains were allocated for each gram panchayat. The Central Government sanctioned Rs 19.28 crore for Jharkhand in the financial year 2008-2009 under the Antyodaya Scheme but the state government still fails to take the food to the needy.
Consequently, starvation deaths have spread across the state. 35 tribals have already lost their lives within a month due to poverty and starvation. Out of them, 19 died in Chatra district, 4 in Gumla, 3 in Ranchi, 5 in Kodarma, 2 in Godda, 1 in Dumka and 1 in Giridih district. They are mostly from Birhor, Paharia and Savar (also known as Savar Kharia) tribes. Shibu Soren, Chief Minister, Jharkhand, said, "These people have died because of a severe disease not starvation. All the stories have been exaggerated in the media."
Another alarming factor is the fast-depleting tribal population. The Birhors who were 8083 in 1991 had declined to 7514 in 2001. The Savaria Paharias, 48,761 in 1991 were 31050 in 2001 and the Paharias who were 30421 in 1991 have declined to 20786 in 2001. A Jharkhand Tribal Welfare Research Institute 2002 study shows 9 tribes in the state now constitute merely 0.72 percent from 0.90 percent in 2001. The report reveals that the Hill Khariyas are merely 1625, Birjiyas are 5393 and Birhors are 6579.
The judiciary is serious on the issue of starvation deaths. The Jharkhand High Court said that the state government has not been sensitive enough on the issue of starvation death. The Court issued a show cause notice to the state government on 22 October asking it to furnish a report about the steps taken for containing the starvation deaths and a status report on implementation of Antyodaya scheme in the state. After facing criticism from all the corners, the government has announced to provide free grain to all the BPL families including 45000 tribals at the rate of Rs 2 per kilogramme of wheat and Rs 3 per kilogramme of rice. But one has to wait for the result as the government has not taken any steps to break the nexus of contractors, middlemen and dealers, which is notorious for siphoning off grains meant for the poor.
The fact is the right to live with dignity is a fundamental right of everyone guaranteed under the Article 21 of the Constitution of India and the State is duty-bound to protect it. Anyone dying of starvation is a serious violation of human rights and the State is responsible for it. No wonder the politicians and the bureaucrats make serious effort to brush it off casually.
The lack of awareness, rampant corruption, lack of transparency and accountability are the obvious reasons for the failure of the welfare schemes. The starvation death can not be contained as long as the welfare schemes continue to be milch cows for government officials, dealers and middle men. The need of the hour is for the Gram Sabha to play a proactive role in the distribution of grains and other food items maintaining direct links with the district administration, thereby bypassing the corrupt Block Development Office.
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