The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cows die, tribals feast on salt & roti

Silpuri village (Madhya Pradesh), May 18: Ganesh Jatav of Silpuri has a vulture’s eye out for dead cows to sell as his village daily loses its means of livelihood.

In tribal Silpuri and nearby Panwada, nature has not heard of chief minister Digvijay Singh’s and rival Uma Bharti’s vows to protect the cow.

Cattle are dropping dead in the hundreds as the sun scorches the land and starvation becomes routine, like last year and the year before that.

For thousands of Sahariya tribals in the backward district near Rajasthan, who till the land and sell milk for a living, summer means malnutrition, hunger and near starvation. “It is not long before our turn comes,” said elderly Kallu, sarpanch of Jagdai village.

The tribals, however, take pains to ensure that buffaloes do not die as a new one would cost Rs 5,000 against Rs 2,000 for a cow.

While some Sahariyas — which means associates of Lord Ram — wait for their turn after the cattle, others are waiting for more cows to die to earn much-needed cash at Rs 150-200 a hide.

This is peak season (May-July) for Ganesh Jatav and his elder brother Kamal for they have just bagged an auction by the Silpuri panchayat to dispose of all the dead cows.

Ganesh bid Rs 50,000 — Rs 30,000 more than last year — to bag the contract to ferry cow hide to tanneries at Urai in faraway Kanpur. The auction rate has grown fatter as more cattle wither away on the only road from the village to the district headquarters, 60 km away.

This money, however, cannot be diverted for purposes other than paying panchayat rent, power bills, salaries and for building wells as heads of expense are strictly segregated.

If summer and the tribals’ distress are peaking, then their marriage season has already peaked. In Udhwa village, 20 guests were treated to a marriage “feast” of salt and coarse rotis made from 10 kg of wheat Lal Chand had earned as five days’ wages under the food-for-work programme.

If almost all able-bodied tribals here are unemployed, then three years of drought has scorched all the green cover that was once the hallmark of Sheopur district.

As desperate tribals escape water and job scarcity to worse-off Rajasthan, the government claims the state’s fodder banks have enough for all cattle.

What they do not appear to know is that the Sahariyas are in no position to pay Rs 2 a kg for the fodder.

Food-for-work provides no cash because the government says the Sahariyas blow all cash on the local brew, mahua.

Sheopur collector Hari Singh Shekhawat said the situation is “well under control”. He even showed off fodder banks and the newly built canal from Kota to prove that “all is well”.

Non-government organisation Ekta Parishad, which works with the Sahariyas, however, does not agree. Its surveys show that of the 2,475 cattle in the villages of Silpuri, Panwada, Ameth, Banar and Sirsanwari, 1,918 have already perished. They have submitted their report to the government.

When asked about the plight of the Sahariyas, Shekhawat could only say: “Yes, I am aware of some incidents of cattle deaths.”

“But, you see, the problem is that many of them (the tribals) do not know how to look after their animals. It is hot and humid and these people are even unaware of keeping them in the shade,” the collector said.

Shekhawat, perhaps, doesn’t realise there is no shade or shelter worth the name across much of the 220-km stretch of his district, vast stretches of which used to be green.

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