There might be no food, but there is stone.
In the heart of eastern Uttar Pradesh, a black granite plaque stands as memorial to 18 ‘martyrs’ aged four to seven — children who died of starvation in the remote Ghasia Basti village in Sonbhadra district in 2002.
Their parents, tribal folk dancers, once performed before prime ministers and presidents in the nation’s capital.
But in 2000, the 75 families were forced to leave their famine-struck village in an adjoining district.
They tried to settle near the forests of Sonbhadra, 400 kilometres south-east of the state capital of Lucknow, but were threatened by local tribals — and the police, who suspected they might have links with Naxalites. With no work, no land and no grain, the children started dying.
Nearly a decade on, they have still received no relief from the government. The only acknowledgment of their existence is the plaque put up by the National Human Rights Commission.
“It’s the memorial that gives us the strength to keep going,” says Phulmatia, who was among three folk artists invited by Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi to perform in Delhi in 1986.
For many, the fear that they will lose their art after losing their children haunts them.
“It’s killing us to watch our art die,” says Phulmatia. “We have no work now, no pensions, no land. All we have are certificates from All India Radio and Doordarshan. Should we eat them to survive?”
Some remember the day they sipped tea with a visiting Sonia Gandhi, then the wife of the prime minister, as Rajiv Gandhi, dressed in their traditional attire, danced with them.
They have preserved the invitation cards like treasures — the only remaining evidence of their rare folk talent.
Rukmania still has the card sent by the Prime Minister’s Office. “Look!” she says, extending both hands before her, “I shook these very hands with Rajiv, Sonia and Manmohan Singh. You want me to beg with the same hands now?”
And don’t even talk to Putli about politicians.
“The only time we see the politicians is when they come asking for our vote,” she says. “Then they leave, and never look back.”
Behind her is the plaque with the names of the 18 children and the words: ‘We will not remain silent as long as there is starvation’.
In the tribal settlement just metres away, most of the children have never seen milk. And when there is no grain, they are forced to eat leaves.