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Hunger helps Maoists spread wings

17 of Jharkhand’s 24 districts are listed as “highly affected” by Maoists, in a state where children live (and die) on wild berries and ants, reports B Vijay Murty.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2010 23:15 IST
B Vijay Murty

If you want to understand why the Maoists grow stronger, watch frail Shyam Charan Kisku (5) as he keeps hunger away by nibbling at a wild berry called Kendu on a hot April afternoon.

Kisku and 40-odd children in this village of mud-and-thatch homes, 180 km southeast of Ranchi, did not get their free lunch today, the national Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the world’s largest cooked-meal programme.

Kisku’s mother, Joba, said she would cook dinner in the evening: Boiled rice, salt, whatever vegetable is available — if none, red ants would do. Like many of the 32 families here, mostly Santhal tribal woodcutters, Joba can afford at most two meals a day.

Lunch for the youngest is available at the primary school. It is shut today, as are most state-run schools in East Singhbhum district: The Maoists, who evoke both sympathy and fear over the hilly district, have called a bandh (shutdown) in neighbouring West Bengal.

So, Kisku and his friends, inhabitants of Jharkhand’s most educated district with a literacy rate of 69 per cent, must eat berries.

Of Jharkhand’s 24 districts, the government’s own Food Security Atlas of Rural Jharkhand rates 17 (East Singhbhum one of them) as “food insecure”, a situation where there is no access to “sufficient, safe and nutritious food”.

It is no coincidence that the government classifies these 17 districts “highly Naxalite affected”.

All is well

The collapse of almost every national social-security programme — India will spend Rs 1,18,000 crore this year on five major schemes — across East Singhbhum indicates how deprivation fuels the Maoist cause.

The latest example of this misgovernance is the absence in Mirgitand of a scheme that, theoretically, gives the poorest rice and wheat at Re 1 per kg (35 kg a month), announced by Chief Minister Shibu Soren on April 7.

“The government’s claims are rubbish,” said Ravi Tuddu, 30, the village head. “There is no public distribution system (PDS) shop in our village. We trek 13 km to Kesarpur to fetch our ration, where the supply is irregular.”

Mirgitand doesn’t have a centre of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme, the world's largest such programme (Budget for 2010-11: Rs 7,806 crore) for the nutritional, health and school needs of children under six.

“To my knowledge, there is an ICDS centre in all 2,000-odd villages in the district,” said East Singhbhum District Programme Officer J.K. Choubey. Asked about Mirgitand, he said irritatedly: “Let me find out.”

The government’s Food Security Atlas reveals more than its officials hide. In two Jharkhand districts — Gumla and Garhwa — 130 and 156 children respectively die of every 1,000 born. In Sub-Saharan Africa, regarded as one of the world’s most impoverished places, the child mortality rate is 160.

A joint study of the UN World Food Programme and the Institute of Human Development, Ranchi, released last year at a function in Ranchi, noted: "Jharkhand, carved out of Bihar nine years ago, has seen no progress despite scores of welfare schemes."

Don’t speak up

Back in Mirgitand no one has ever attended high school, the nearest is 22 km away. Children out of primary school lapse back into illiteracy. For those who speak up, the line between protestor and Maoist begins to blur.

“Malnutrition and chronic hunger deaths are common in the area, but the government has never accepted them,” said Manoranjan Mahato (45), accused of being a Naxalite after he fought for government compensation to a widow whose husband died, reportedly of hunger, two years ago.

“I know how problematic it is to report hunger in Jharkhand,” said Dr V. Murli Krishna, a government doctor.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a common disease in Mirgitand. Since 2008, at least 13 people, including four children, have died of TB and malnutrition, villagers said. There is no record of these deaths.

Children are delivered at home. “Till last year, we used to cut the umbilical chord with sterilised arrows,” said Bishu Hembrom (20). “Now we use blades.”

When HT visited, at least five children had enlarged spleens and three adults had TB, said village head Tuddu. There was no medical help. “Where’s the money to pay the doctor?” said the village head. The primary health centre is 30 km south, the nearest road 13 km away.

Over the last two years, Mirgitand villagers have got 60 days of work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the world’s biggest cash-for-work programme, which guarantees at least 100 days of work every year to one member of each family. They are better off than Jharkhand’s average of 48 days. The NREGS national budget for 2010-11; Rs 40,100 crore.

So, the poor live mostly as they always have: Chopping firewood two to three times a week. Each trip to the market fetches them Rs 30-40. The average monthly income of very few families is Rs 500 (for the rest it is Rs 200-300), marginally above Jharkhand’s official rural poverty line of Rs 404.

Now, as security forces have fanned out in the Maoist backyard, the Santhals have been stopped from cutting wood.

Every family in Mirgitand has below-the-poverty-line cards, which theoretically allows them access to the subsidised food they never get.

Food Supply and Cooperatives Minister Badkumwar Gagrai said: “Our government is committed towards reaching all anti-poverty schemes to the beneficiaries.” “Negligent officers will be taken to task.”

(Tracking Hunger is an HT initiative to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger. You can read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/trackinghunger)