Death by starvation is not an uncommon calamity among the people of the Sahariya tribe of Baran district in eastern Rajasthan. Ten years have passed since I first visited Baran to inquire into complaints of hunger fatalities. In their rough stone, mud and thatch homes clustered outside the main village, I found people battling extreme poverty and endemic starvation.
Exactly a decade later, when I was again in Sunvas, the village in which I had first found children who had succumbed to starvation, I thought it was time to take stock of what had changed, and what had not, for one of India's most dispossessed rural communities.
I found a report card which remains blotted, but is not entirely hopeless. Sahariya children told me stoically that they still sleep hungry three or four times every month. A decade ago, it was closer to 10 days.
What has made crucial difference is the remarkable revitalisation of the Public Distribution System (PDS). A decade ago, this arrangement of distributing subsidised cereals was entirely dysfunctional. Most Sahariyas, despite extreme poverty, had no below poverty line (BPL) cards and, therefore, were barred from buying grain at cheaper prices. Today they confirmed getting regular supplies of 35 kg wheat every month. The government has waived even the token price of Rs. 2 per kg for the Sahariyas, Rajasthan's poorest tribal community. This monthly infusion of free wheat in every household, more than anything else, has helped stave off hunger from the humble Sahariya hovels, for at least 10 days every month.
With this it is evident that if the government wishes to reform the PDS, it can. The success of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is less encouraging. Part of the chief minister's Special Package for the Sahariyas was 200 days per year of work, which is double what is guaranteed by the law. But in practice, they report getting not more than 10 to 25 days of work a year and wages are paid months too late. This is too weak a defence against hunger and bondage.
Apart from endemic starvation, the Sahariyas are trapped in widespread debt bondage. Health emergency, wedding, birth or funeral, steer them to the doors of landlords, for a loan of Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 30,000. The terms of the loan are harsh and unforgiving. Eighteen hours of work daily, without even a weekly day off. One-day leave, for ill-health or rest, entails a hefty fine of Rs. 200. And the family has to eat, so small monthly transfers of grain and cash are added to the loan. At the end of the year, far from abating, their loan invariably mounts further. Another year of bondage results, and then another. Once in bondage, it is virtually impossible to break free.
The third back-breaking burden which the Sahariyas still carry is of disease. People routinely succumb to tuberculosis, gastroenteritis, malaria and kala azar. Poorly nourished, they find little care and cure in the primary public health system, which is in a shambles. The sub-health centre at Sunvas is in ruins and health workers had not shown up for months. Only people with BPL cards are entitled to free treatment in the public hospitals. Although the Sahariyas have cards now for free food rations, they are mysteriously rejected as BPL for free healthcare.
Ten years ago, the Sahariya settlement had no Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centre. Today it has one, but the ICDS worker is barely lettered and trained. At best, she desultorily serves a few children porridge, but because she is from the upper caste, the Sahariyas feel unwelcome. Three health centres have very few beds for treating malnourished children. But these children are rarely identified and referred by untrained and unsupervised ICDS workers, and the doctors are not equipped or trained to treat children with severe malnutrition.
In every Sahariya village which I visited, I asked how many adults were literate. Barely a single hand went up anywhere, either of men and women. I then asked how many sent their children to school. Every single hand went up. This was for me the best news in Baran. Ten years ago, the children said the teacher came only twice a month, and when he did, he gave them dry porridge. Today teachers are more regular, and they serve hot meals to the children. However, the quality of teaching remains abysmal.
In a household in which a child had died of hunger 10 years ago, I found the father still in bondage, and the children frail. But Ashok, his son, 15, told me that he was studying in Class 10. I assumed he studied in a government school, but he startled me. He had rejected the government school because its teachers rarely taught. Instead he had joined a private school, which some educated young men had started in their village. I asked how he paid the fees - Rs. 2,500 a year: by no means a fortune, but unattainable for a boy whose father was a bonded labourer. Ashok replied that he had himself chosen to enter into partial bondage to pay his fees, with a landlord who was free to call him five days a month. On other days, Ashok went to school.
I asked him what work he wished to do when he grew up. He confidently looked me in the eye and said, "The same work that you do!" He estimated that my work in some way concerned helping people who live with hunger and bondage. This was what he wanted to do.
I realised that India has changed for its poorest people most in the new dreams its young people see today. And because of these dreams, we too can hope.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal