A fortnight after starvation deaths became public knowledge, there seemed no truth in the Orissa government's assertion that the 24 tribals who died in Raigada were victims of their tradition of consuming mango kernel and boiled grass even while grain is available. Those who died had actually been driven to eat poisonous, fungus-ridden mango kernel for want of a better choice. They were victims of starvation who were denied basic medical attention after they trudged miles to the nearest government hospital.
In this deceptively idyllic and lush green landscape of Raigada lurk hunger and death, even as a callous state government machinery turns a blind eye. The fact that of the 280 families in one of its villages only 30 have below poverty line (bpl) cards points to the shocking state of the pds here.
Based on interviews of villagers as well as officials, conducted by this correspondent in Tikiri, Bilamal, Panasgunda, Pitajodi and other villages in Kashipur block, where the 24 starvation deaths occurred, Outlook can confirm the following facts:
But nobody knows it better than Alme Majhi of Bilamal village, whose three dying family members—her brother-in-law Payala Majhi, Payala's wife Sulme and father Sado Majhi—were turned back from Raigada hospital. Alme's husband, Surata Majhi, died on August 9 in the presence of doctors. The other two died within two days with no medical help.
On August 8, Alme and her family had boiled mandya (millets) and mango kernel to prepare a gruel. Next day at 6 am, Alme and Payala felt giddy and went to the Tikiri dispensary. The doctor, on his arrival in the evening, referred them to the district hospital at Raigada. By then Sado, Payala and Sulme had also started vomiting. Sulme was taken to Sanmati Kona village by her parents and the rest were taken to Raigada. But it was too late.
The government machinery, which till then was an epitome of lethargy, swung into action. Sethi tried to punch holes in a news report that none of the families where deaths took place on August 8 had rice to eat.He called the report "highly mischievous". The district collector maintained that three days before his death Sado Majhi had purchased 32 kg of rice and that the people of Bilamal village had "adequate foodgrain". He attributed the deaths to eating of poisonous mushrooms.
Villagers of Bilamal contradict Sethi's claim. They say Sado couldn't have picked up 32 kg of rice because rice is sold only to bpl cardholders. Sado's bpl status had been terminated two years ago when the government surveyors saw some cement plaster in front of his shanty. There were no entries in his card after 1998. The most recent entry: 16 kg "free rice" provided after the deaths.
The villagers also counter the government's claim that eating mango kernel is part of their food habit. Says Sora Beni of Jhudiasai mohalla of Tikiri village: "Give us rice and we won't eat taku paje (mango kernel gruel). On days when we have work we get Rs 25 but we hardly get seven days of work in a month. As things stand, we are even running out of mango kernel."
A railway project was the main source of employment for them from 1980 to 1990. Despite that, starvation deaths had taken place, prompting then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to announce the Rs 60-crore Orissa Tribal Development Project (otdp).
A decade after the 'completion' of the project there are no visible signs of progress. But it has helped the administration find an explanation on why it has reduced the number of bpl cardholders. Says Sethi: "Between 1992 and 1997, 14,000 extra families were added to the new bpl list in the district. But only Kashipur block contributed 9,000 families to the list. There is a clamour for bpl cards in Kashipur where it should have been less because of the Rs 60-crore project." What he implies is that the fruits of the project have reached the poorest of the tribals and they have moved above the poverty line.
Probably, Panasgunda's Vishwanath Majhi (25) is the most striking example of how the Orissa administration resorted to lies to hide their apathy. In July, seven tribals working on his fields died. They included his five-year-old son Sunduru, wife Harso and mother Wanoo. Even though Vishwanath is a bpl cardholder, the administration spread lies that he was a landlord and had employed 20 labourers to work on his fields. This to prove that "a landlord's family members" couldn't have died of hunger. However, the fact remains that he owns 1.3 acres of unproductive hilly tract where, according to tribal tradition, he had requested his relatives to help him out. By no definition can Vishwanath be categorised a landlord. Sethi, however, is insistent: "He may be poor but he was still an employer.... How can they die of starvation?"
Dr Parmeshwar Sethi of the Kashipur government hospital seconds the collector's thesis. "A starvation death is when there is no food material found in the stomach. In this case it's their traditional habit to eat mango kernel.... It's edible, it's nutritious," he echoes the chief secretary's words who wants everyone to believe that rotten mango kernel is full of nutrients.
Even after 24 starvation deaths, Dr Sethi is cold enough to reel off statistics to prove there were no starvation deaths: "Fourteen people have died of food poisoning, one of haematuria, four or five of bacterial dysentery, four of hepatitis, four died of anaemia and 30 due to old age. But our target has not been fulfilled." The choice of words, though unfortunate, lends an ironic edge to the official line."In August, 70 people have died but the annual target is 1,300 people. "
The CM has surveyed the area; mediapersons have come and gone. The first round of the ritual seems to be over. But Raigada tribals still hope that they will get one kg of rice for one kg of mango kernel as promised by the government. Many of them are also waiting to be issued ration cards which at least holds out the promise of a conventional meal a few days of the week.