Friday, September 29, 2006

Four dead and still counting

Four dead and still counting
[ 24 Sep, 2006 0046hrs IST TIMES NEWS NETWORK ]
BELWA (VARANASI DISTRICT): It's noon by the time Laxmina gets around to cooking but food's ready in a jiffy. Four rotis and a bowl of water in which she dissolves some salt. Dip, dip, dip...and three hungry kids gulp down their first and last meal of the day.

"By evening they will be crying again but I'll just give them a slap or two and they will quieten down and go to sleep," she says. Her face is deadpan but her voice betrays her desperation. It's been only a month since her nine-month-old daughter Seema died hungry and sick.

Before that in June, Laxmina lost her father Phoolchand. It's the monsoon months that are the worst in Belwa. With the brick kilns where most of this hamlet's Musahars work closed from July to October, death is forever at the door.

Bhotu, a 55-year-old bonded labourer freed some years ago, rattles off the names of those who have succumbed in the last two months: Muneeb, Monu, Seema and Karmina all aged between nine months and eight years.

Though the district administration claims the kids died because of various ailments, the villagers hotly contest this. "We cook once in three or four days, can our children be healthy?" asks Kismati, whose three-year-old son Muneeb died on May 29.

Just three days earlier, the primary health centre at Baragaon had recorded that the child weighed only 10 kg and suffered from severe malnutrition.

In a health check of children in Belwa, People's Vigilance Council for Human Rights (PVCHR), an organisation that works in the area, found that more than 80% of kids were malnourished.

"But it took three deaths for the district authorities to issue Antodaya Ann Yojna (AAY) cards (which entitles the holder to 35 kg of rice and wheat at a subsidised price of Rs 95)," says Lenin Raghuvanshi of PVCHR.

Before that they survived on low-quality grain and chaff doled out to them by the kiln owner instead of cash or just starved. "We go to work even when someone has died and the body is at home.

But even though the money is so little (Rs 140 for 1,000 bricks), the worst is when the kilns are closed. Then the people start dying," says Bhotu. And it starts with the children.,curpg-2.cms

Heart of darkness
Neelam Raaj

[24 Sep, 2006 0050hrs IST TIMES NEWS NETWORK]

Food is precious here. Be it scouring harvested cornfields to collect the scraps that have fallen unnoticed or following field rats to their burrows to scrape out stored grain, no effort is spared.

In tougher times, even undigested grain from cow dung is washed, cooked and eaten. For the Musahars of eastern UP, the battle to stave off hunger is fought grain by precious grain.

"Our life is worse than rats. Even they get more to eat than us." Coming from a Musahar, which literally means rat-eater the statement's no exaggeration. All around the narrow strip of land on which their small hutments stand are lush corn and paddy fields but the best they can hope for is one square meal a day.

Without land, even that's hard to come by. Of the five lakh Musahars in eastern UP, only 0.5% own land. Most don't own the land their huts stand on. Work is scarce, too. With mechanization reducing the demand for agricultural labour, they toil away at brick kilns and stone quarries for meager wages or subsist on sale of minor forest produce.

In this scenario, government schemes such as PDS, ICDS and mid-day meal could be the proverbial lifelines but they aren't. Complaints pour in from village after village.

"I can afford to lift only 10 kg of grain but the quotedaar (as the ration shop owner is called here) fills the entire amount in the ration book. He makes entries for three months even when I haven't bought anything," says Mahendra, a white-card holder from a village in Bhadohi district.

Colour coding has been used to distinguish ration cards ever since the introduction of the targeted public distribution system in 1997, with white denoting BPL families and red for severely impoverished families who are eligible for Antodaya Ann Yojna (AAY) cards.

At the Musahar basti in Gohilaon, Geeta has neither food nor a ration card. "My husband and I make mahua leaf pattals but we get only Rs 10 every second day. When my children cry too much, I go and beg for some food," she says, as an emaciated three-year-old clings to her.

Ramani, a widow, is one of the 11 in the hamlet of 35 families who has a red card. But unable to afford even the Rs 95 needed for lifting her quota of ration, she sold her card for a few kilos of rice.

"Complaints of large-scale irregularities in PDS have been pouring in. But all that the administration does is temporarily suspend the licence of a ration shop owner. In no time, they're back in business," says Rolee Singh, whose NGO Paharua recently held a public hearing in Bhadohi to draw attention to the issue.

If PDS and ICDS have failed the Musahars, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) hasn't come to their aid either. A case in point is Mirzapur district's Damahi village.

Jaisingh, who has been toiling at a stone quarry for over 10 years to pay off a debt of Rs 15,000, hasn't heard of the scheme or the promised 100 days of work though his village falls under it. Every day, he walks 15 km to the quarry even as the road leading to his village is laid by migrant labourers.

Paid a measly Rs 10 for a three-foot-long stone, he knows his loan will never be repaid or his stomach ever be full. Damahi's Musahar tola, which had five starvation deaths last October, has no anganwadi. The mid-day meal is served at the local school but discrimination persists. "If we are employed as cooks, children of other castes refuse to eat.

Even our children are made to sit separately in school and fed half of what the other kids get," complains a Musahar woman. Musahars are the "outcastes within the outcastes" and lack any kind of social status, explains Samar Pandey, a research scholar at JNU who has conducted several studies in the area.

"They lack even the institutional relationship of jajmani under which a landowning family lets a Dalit live and work on their land. Musahar women don't even get the mandatory saree gift on festivals or when the landlord's son is getting married."

Shunned and starving, that's life for the Musahars.