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Hunger then and now, CM new
- Time passes by, but life stands still for Bengal’s starved zone

Ten years have changed little, except the chief minister, in a part of West Midnapore. Five people recently died at Amlashol village because of starvation or because they were in “conditions of starvation”, as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee says. On April 17, 1994, The Telegraph published a report on a village that is only 6 km from Amlashol. The story, reproduced below, is the same as what is happening now. Jyoti Basu’s Joram is Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s Amlashol.

 

When Kartick Sabar’s 10-month-old son cries in hunger, all that his mother can give him are the eggs of a wild ant called kurkut. Or, if the times are better, the roots of sukanda, a bulbous vegetable.

No, this is not remote Kalahandi in Orissa. This is Joram, a tribal village in Midnapore district, in the heart of Jyoti Basu’s Bengal.

Both nature and the state have been cruel to the villagers of Joram, a hamlet of 40 houses in Jhargram sub-division. The soil is hard and rocky and the administration has provided no irrigation to pump some life into this wretched earth.

The result is that, unlike in the other parts of the district, there is only one crop annually, paddy. For the tribals this means work for only two months in the entire year: in July when the seeds are sown and in December when the crop is harvested.

For the rest of the year, they have to roam the forests in search of food. Some spend days collecting a basketful of sukanda, others stalk the forests with long poles in the hope of finding kurkut eggs.

“In the months when there is no work, we seldom get to eat rice. All we have are kurkut eggs and sukanda and sometimes just boiled leaves,” says Ravan Sabar, a meek and bent youth. “The only time when we get to eat rice is when we manage to sell the potatoes or the kurkut eggs.”

The ants’ eggs, a wizened tribal explains, are often collected by traders from “far off Calcutta and Sealdah” since they are used as feed in pisciculture projects. Then, proudly, he declares that a kg of kurkut eggs fetches Rs 25. But it takes days to collect it, and almost invariably the experience is very painful. The ants are aggressive and it takes hours for the swelling from their stings to subside.

“Look at my hands,” says Gurucharan Sabar, pointing to his swollen palms. “But if we don’t get the eggs, how will we survive' Where will we get our food from'”

Even in the two months that the tribals find work, they are cheated by unscrupulous landlords. Unlike in the more prosperous parts of the district where a farm labourer gets Rs 25-30 every day or its equivalent in rice or grain, a Joram tribal gets only Rs 15 a day for working from dawn to dusk.

Biswanath Mahato, who owns only 12 bighas of land in the area (the villagers do not own any land here) and on whose fields the tribals of Joram work, justifies this by saying: “How can I afford to pay them any more with only one crop a year' I myself have to eat kurkut eggs when the times are difficult.”

Abandoned by the government and the politicians they voted for, they plead with us to help them, to draw the attention of the authorities to their sorry plight. “Please tell the sarkar that if it helps us, we will support it,” says Ravan with desperation in his voice. “Absolutely no one is concerned about us.”

The local MLA, Naren Hansda of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, has never visited this village, says Srimati Sabar, and the gram panchayat member, Kalisaran Murmu, is “too busy with his own work” to pay them any notice.

“Hansda is a faltu person,” scoffs Srimati angrily. “All that he is bothered about is winning the elections and getting our votes. After that he completely forgets.”

The villagers can only recall Mamata Banerjee visiting them “some time a few months back” at the start of her Janasanyog Yatra.

“She distributed some saris to the elderly women and promised that she would come back with more,” says Srimati.

But today the villagers are disillusioned with her as well. “All these people tell us lies,” adds Srimati bitterly.

“Mamata had promised she would help us and do something for our village. But even she has forgotten us.”

In fact, so hopeless have the villagers here become that, during the last panchayat polls, many did not take the trouble to vote. “What is the use'” asks Bimala Sabar in disgust. “We have to walk all the distance to vote and then we are left to suffer by ourselves.”

Not only has electricity not reached the village, there is not a single pucca structure in this hamlet: the mud huts are all that the villagers have to protect them from the fury of nature. And for water they have to travel some distance to a well where they can get only pakua (unfiltered) water.

“The water is so dirty that we fall ill often. Look at my child,” complains Kanika Sabar, pointing at the baby in her lap who has obviously been afflicted with chicken pox. In fact, in the last few days, pox has spread to a number of households, infecting child and adult indiscriminately. “This illness is not leaving me,” laments a youth lying under the shade of his thatched hut.

“I have been unable to get up for many days now and there is no one to give me any medicine.”

The nearest medical help, a primary health centre, is 15 km away in Belpahari, a distance that the tribals have to cover on foot. But what if someone is too old to walk'

“We just put him on a sheet, sling him across our shoulders and carry him to the hospital,” says Ravan. Doctors willing to come to this village and treat the tribals are almost impossible to come by.

In another cruel twist of fate, a jungle fire recently destroyed much of the sukanda plants around this village. This means that the tribals will now have to wander farther and farther away from their village to bring home some food.

Has anyone thought of sending a petition to the government'

“No one here knows how to read and write. We only know how to eat kurkut eggs,” says Bimala caustically, and then bursts out laughing.

As we leave, we ask Ravan if he knows who the chief minister of this state is. “Sheta abar ki (Whatever is that)'” he asks perplexed. “No, no, I don’t know anything like that.”

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