At the end of a kuchcha road that meanders off the Ranchi-Patna highway, where silver dust from stone quarries sits on practically everything, Tilra village stands like an ancient monolith – crying to tell its story.
It is the story of the Birhors, one of the eight tribes of Jharkhand categorised as particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) who were forced to leave their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and adapt to a modern way of life.
It is the story of Ratni Birhor, whose “starvation death” in September, 2011 at the age of 55 had caught the state’s attention, triggered outrage and prompted government interventions.
For a tribe with just 10,000-odd left in the world and who have no skills to use for earning a livelihood, when even social security schemes fail, death like Ratni’s become commonplace.
“Ratni Birhor’s death threw up a lot of questions that authorities didn’t want to face. It exposed the loopholes in the implementation of policies meant to benefit the vulnerable tribal groups,” said Gopi Nath Ghosh, a Ranchi-based human rights activist.
Nath, who had led a fact-finding team to Tilra, had filed a complaint with the Jharkhand Lokayukta.
Earlier in October 2008, at another Birhor settlement in Chatra district, eight persons -- four women, two men and three children -- died in a single night under mysterious circumstances which the authorities at that time had brushed off as food poisoning.
Later, however, a Supreme Court-appointed official had confirmed that the deaths had occurred due to starvation.
At Tilra, 150 km north of capital Ranchi, Ratni’s husband Bhola awaits what he calls his “final re-union” with his long-gone wife.
His 60-year-old body partially paralysed after a bout of severe ailment, Bhola’s condition is a reflection of the condition of his entire tribe – unable to live, unable to die.
In this village, around 50-odd huts stand besides brick houses built by the state —a reminder of the government’s efforts to transform the once-nomadic tribe into a settled community.
But after the houses were built, the authorities forgot the Birhors.
Gopi Nath Ghosh’s team discovered that “Ratni’s MNREGA job card was empty; she had not received even a single day’s work”.
“Food grain supply to the village under TPDS was also not functional. Moreover, Tilra villagers were not getting pension and access to health facilities,” he added.
In a recent order, the Lokayukta acknowledged shortcomings in implementation of government policies for the Birhors of Tilra and proposed setting-up of a committee to monitor the same.
Tilra villagers admitted that food grain supply and access to healthcare facilities have improved since Ratni’s death but they also pointed to the government-built houses to highlight the state of affairs.
“Many of the houses here do not have doors. We use clothes or tin sheets to cover the space provided for the door to shield ourselves from wind and rain,” said Meena, a Birhor woman who makes ropes from strands of jute or plastic plucked out of used bags.
This winter the district administration provided blankets to the families but villagers asked what would a family of ten do with one quilt.
More serious is the fact that the authorities have not renewed the house allotments, forcing the elderly to shift back to traditional houses to make space for the younger generation in the government-built houses.
The development officer of Ichak block Ram Gopal Pandey was tight-lipped in his response to questions on implementation of welfare schemes in the Birhor village. He, however, said that blankets were distributed to the families according to their sizes and pension was regularly paid to the villagers.
“Regarding the doors and other housing problems, I have not been notified by the villagers,” he added.
For the Birhor community settled in hamlets near the ‘steel city’ of Bokaro, the problem lies in the lack of employment opportunities. This, they said, is forcing the youth to migrate to other states despite many acquiring job-oriented skills at the Industrial Training Institute (ITI).
“It is a new government in the state and we hope that something would be done for us,” said Mantu Birhor, one of the youngsters from Dumri village who studied in Bokaro ITI.
(With inputs from Sanjay Sahay in Bokaro)