The main dish in several of Palamu’s homes, if there’s one for the day, is a coarse semi-liquid mix of maize dust that in developed countries is served to pigs. If the craving is for a dish that’s more solid, there’s the foul-smelling root of the bulbus, potentially toxic because of its tough fibres.
Jharkhand’s Palamu — one of India’s poorest districts with a per-capita income of Rs12,742 a year, according to the Institute of Human Development (IHD) — is home to about 2 million people engaged mostly in farming.
About 30% of them, mostly tribals and dalits, live below the official poverty line, according to IHD. Several just die. Palamu is a hotbed of bonded labour. Feudal lords ruled the region for decades; semi-feudal conditions still exist. Low productivity in the fields and a poor labour market have over the years sent the agrarian district into a depressing socio-economic spiral.
The first hunger death in Palamu was reported in 2001. More have occurred since but the administration refuses to accept these as deaths from the lack of food.
Balram, a right to food campaigner and an adviser to the Supreme Court on food security, attributes many of the unexplained deaths in Palamu to malnutrition and possibly the diet of cattle feed (ghatta) and roots (ghaintee). The root, “if not cooked properly and (if) taken regularly, leads to fatal diseases,” says Balram, who goes by one name.
“Here the government gives you ration after you die,” says Jageshwar Majhi, 70, grazing cattle in dry farmlands. “Crops have failed. Even my family survives on ghatta and ghaintee.”
Ghatta is typically had with a pinch of salt. And ghaintee, available abundantly in the region, has to be cooked for a long time to get rid of its pungent taste and make it fit for consumption.
Foods of desperation are not uncommon to India’s poor. Floods, droughts, poor crop cycles and a host of other natural and man-made calamities that lash the country year after year force the poor to resort to eating rodents, raw plants or anything at hand to sustain themselves. Deaths from hunger mostly remain unacknowledged.
Like in Palamu, where the local authorities blame the deaths on diseases and unhygienic living conditions. Their records rarely list malnutrition.
“It’s peculiar of the state where people survive on cattle feed and modified roots for more than six months in a year and the government has no state policy to track and fight hunger,” says Balram.
A week ago, residents of Palamu’s Dhawadih village — a colony of about 100 dalit families some 130km north-west of capital Ranchi — took to the streets to protest the death of Bindeo Bhuiyan, who worked as a labourer in Bihar. They claimed he had died of hunger.
The local administration sent his family 35 kg of rice.
“He had rushed home from Bihar, where he had gone to work as a farm labourer, hearing of his daughter’s death. Back home, there was no grain to cook. He starved for two days during the journey and there was no food to eat at home either… it took a toll on him and he collapsed,” said Bindeo’s father, Sitaram Bhuiyan. The daughter had died of jaundice and malnutrition. Cattle feed and roots are a staple in the Bhuiyan home. The senior Bhuiyan had three sons. Only the youngest survives. A couple of years ago, his elder son died of tuberculosis, a common disease among the malnourished in the region.
“Bindeo died of some kidney problem” and not of hunger, says Rajesh Kumar Sahoo, the local block development officer. The region’s deputy commissioner Puja Singhal Purwar said she would not comment on the death until Sahoo submits a report. Ganesh Reddy, secretary of Citizens Foundation, a not-for-profit body, says the average expenditure on food per person in Palamu is Rs313 a month, a stark pointer to the extent of food deprivation in the district. Palamu is not alone in its woes.
Of Jharkhand’s 24 districts, 17 are classified by the state government as ‘food insecure’ and as highly affected by the Naxalite movement — considered by some to be a consequence of poor development of the hinterland. Palamu offers a glimpse as to why that may be.
At Dhawadih, for instance, nearly every national social security programme has failed.
Several dalits who are listed as poor and are eligible for subsidised food do not get rice at Re1 per kg as was promised by the state government, as they do not have the mandatory red cards. Their job cards — entitling one person from each poor rural family to 100 days of work a year under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) — lie with middlemen.
“People in Palamu get only 44 days of work under MNREGA,” chief secretary AK Singh said during a recent visit to the district.
“More than 80% people from the landless dalit colonies here migrate to Bihar for work,” says Rinki Devi, a local woman panchayat leader.
“Palamu has many firsts, all for the wrong reasons,” says Ranchi University pro-vice-chancellor VP Saran. “It was the birth place of bonded labourers and Naxalism in the region.”
Unless apathy gives way to genuine commitment, the people of Palamu will continue to eat food that isn’t fit for human consumption. But for that to happen, the social welfare programmes that the government so often showcases should work for Palamu.