July 10, 2020
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At God's Mercy

Like vultures circling the skies scavenging for the dead, the first portents of famine are visible in this arid land. Death is in the air as the drought conditions in the districts of Kalahandi, Nawapada and Bolangir intensify. Hunger has already cla

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At God's Mercy

THE most vulnerable die first, when starvation sets in. Women, children, the aged and the ailing. And that has started happening. The rivers are drying up, the crop is scorched, stray cattle graze in the unharvested fields and the inadequate forest cover that exists in the districts of Kalahandi, Nawapada and Bolangir in western Orissa is vanishing rapidly as a beleaguered people fell trees to sell wood with a ferocity born out of desperation.

But the surest sign of the impending catastrophe is the migration. Undertaken by the residents of these areas in thousands. The sky too has taken on an ominous hue—stark blue—which only confirms that the prospect of any unseasonal rainfall (over the next seven months) is as remote as ever. The administration, despite strenuous claims to the contrary and the Prime Minister’s visit, is yet to get its act together. And the region is, once again, a disaster waiting to happen.

For an area that depends almost completely on rainfall for the success of its two annual crops—rice, which is harvested in November and pulses and other legumes harvested in December—the poor monsoon should have set the alarm bells ringing long before this. But while the administration seemed content to remain in its state of paralysis, those at the bottom of the heap obviously saw it coming. None more clearly than Shirbacha Bagarthi of Kidding in the Lanjigarh block of Kalahandi. On Independence Day, after four days of going hungry and being unable to feed his wife Dutika and sons Khadia, 9, and Dusman, 6, Shirbacha told his wife that he was going to chop some wood so that they could sell it and earn enough for a meal. He never came back. The villagers found his body hanging from a tree the next day. He had hung himself with his gamcha.

 "By August we knew that the rains had failed and we were laid off work by the landowners on whose fields we work to earn our living as there would be no harvest. For people like us with no land and therefore no stored grain from the harvest of the earlier year to bail us out for even a couple of weeks, that was the end. For some days we lived on the charity of the villagers and then my husband killed himself. I have survived by doing the odd jobs that come my way such as plastering dung on the houses of the other villagers since then, but I know this cannot last. My elder son is very ill and I am becoming weaker with each passing day," says Dutika.

The administration does have a scheme for labour intensive projects such as the building of canals and reservoirs near each village panchayat—with the two-pronged aim of providing some employment and helping to develop the infrastructure of this drought-prone area—but there is none near Kidding. "In July that may have saved us, but now, in November, unless a project is sanctioned immediately, I will be too weak to work," she adds.

In Gajrajpur, another village of the same block, nine young men are leaving by train "towards Mumbai" in the evening as they just cannot earn enough by felling trees illegally and selling the wood to passengers on trains passing through the Lanjigarh Road railway station a few kilometres away. "The women and children can do that and try to feed themselves provided they are not caught. But if we stay, all of us will surely starve", says Laxman Neyal. "Everybody is leaving from this area. A couple of weeks ago, over 300 men left for Mumbai from the Rupra Road railway station on a single day, after which the district officials have told the railway staff not to sell tickets to those migrating as they will be provided with work here itself. But nobody believes them," adds Manoj Kumar Raut.

Towards the other end of Kalahandi, the village of Kanduljhar is slowly turning into a ghost town. Of an estimated population of 7,500, over 2,000 people have left their homes in search of work. There are rows upon rows of houses, especially in the harijan basti, which are locked. Occasionally, the old and infirm are left behind to fend for themselves as best as they can. Such as Mula Juad, in her 60s, whose two sons left a month ago taking their families along. They have sent her Rs 40 and she hopes they will continue to send her at least that much each month. "In another couple of months, as the drought intensifies, I am going to find it very difficult to survive," she says, very matter of factly. She should be receiving her widow and old-age pension but she doesn’t. And that may kill her in the coming months. There are many others like her in Kanduljhar. Those still in the village say that no labour intensive work has been sanctioned for the area but they have heard that a Rs 50,000 project will start soon after the Prime Minister’s visit.

The situation in Kalahandi and Nawapada, especially in Khariar block, is bad. But it is an area where these problems have become chronic and the people are no longer angry. Only broken. In adjoining Bolangir, however, a crop failure on this scale has seldom been experienced before. And Sepuna Majhi and Ghanshyam Sarab will never go through it again. Both of them died of starvation in different villages of the district over the past month. Majhi was 35, ailing and blind. She begged for food and she and her son survived on the little money the local block development of ficer (BDO) at Muribahal says he sanctioned for her as a "distressed person". There is nobody left to say whether she received any money from the government; her son was transferred to an orphanage on the orders of the BDO.Villagers say as the land dried up, so did their charity. And that is why she died.

When Ghanshyam Sarab of Bhoipada, also in Muribahal, died, his family members had been expecting it. Never very strong constitutionally, he had been wasting away since the end of October when he came back to the village after having scoured the adjoining countryside for work. He died in the second week of November. His wife, Sonamukhi, has four children to feed and doesn’t know how she will manage. Ghanshyam’s brother, Sahadev, has problems of his own. His wife has been wasting away for over a fortnight and the villagers who collected Rs 200 to take her to doctor say that he told them to give her enough to eat. "From where will get more? Both me and my brother put together have about half an acre land from which it is difficult to feed two families. And now that the crop has failed and he is dead, it is impossible," he says. Ironically, an labour intensive scheme to build a water-storage tank started near their village on the day Ghanshyam died. "If the scheme had been started even two months ago he may have found work even if he had to bribe his way to getting it, and may have survived. I only hope his wife can get some work there now," says a village elder.

In the village of Barlabahali on the Kalahandi-Bolangir border, there is yet another tale of woe, which could have been prevented. Balmati Naik, a 35-year-old-widow, died of starvation a few weeks ago. She went hungry for close to three weeks before she died as the villagers could not spare much because of the drought; she had no land of her own and a five-year-old to feed. Says Tejraj Pradhani, the former sarpanch of the Kapilabhata panchayat under which this village falls: "If only she had been getting her widow pension and the Rs 2 a kg rice scheme was functional in the villages of our pan-chayat, we could have helped her survive. " 

"By mid-June next year, unless the Central and state government pump in men and material on a war-footing to combat the advancing tide of hunger, there will be a famine in this region which will surpass in intensity even that of 1965-66, the worst in living memory," warns Bhakta Charan Das, MP from Kalahandi. "The failure of the crop this year is worse than it was then. And the seven months till the next rains will bring untold misery upon this land." 

The worst part of the tragedy, however, is that the chronic drought in the area is preventable. The lack of any long-term policy and, perhaps more importantly, the lack of monitoring agencies has led to the current situation. While the allocation of funds has increased since the 1986-87 drought when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, the implementation of projects started with this money has been ad-hoc at best. "Take the afforestation schemes for example. I have examples to prove that the same patch of trees in Kalahandi is shown by the local officials, especially at a more junior level, of the various forestry departments as their work to visiting officials. There is also a mafia of timber contractors which ensures that the illegal felling of trees in the area will destroy the forest cover completely," claims Rajendra Bharti, the Samata Party candidate from Bhawanipatna in the last elections.

"There are enough rivers running through the area but not enough medium irrigation projects which are essential. And two of them—Aung and Suktel—have failed to provide enough water this year," adds Das. If H.D. Deve Gowda’s promise to the people of the area—"I will provide work"—holds true, half the problem will be solved. Provided that those implementing the policy make sure that the work goes to the villagers and not the local contractor’s men.

The other half can be solved by ensuring that the indigenous people, especially at times like this, have access to forest produce while the timber mafia is smashed. That the irrigation projects which the Prime Minister has promised are not only set up but also function to capacity so that farmers can at least store some crop for lean times and get some relief from their hand-to-mouth existence. And that the vulnerable are provided for—widow and old age pensions are distributed to all those entitled to them and on time, children are given their mid-day meal in schools regularly. Simple solutions. But then as one colonial historian after the other has reminded us, human life in India is very cheap. Unfortunately, the way the nation has treated the drought-stricken areas of Orissa, this scandalous assertion seems to have a ring of truth to it. 

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