The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- There is a law against everything, none against starving to death

It is somewhat like a game of snakes and ladders. Ladders you eat, snakes you die. If you are poor and landless, perhaps of a tribal community struggling to make a living out of forest produce, in one of the remoter villages of ' according to the human development report of West Bengal's department of development and planning ' Purulia, Bankura, Midnapore, or certain blocks in Burdwan and Birbhum ' then you must learn to play the game. But the die is heavily loaded against you. And the game is far more sinister than ordinary snakes-and-ladders: it is littered with hidden traps.

The first trick is that you don't realize it's a game. As Patu Mura did not. The 65-year-old woman from Pathurdih village in Purulia wrote a letter to the block development officer and the panchayat head in September 2004, asking for 10 kilograms of foodgrain under the Annapurna Yojana, which, she had heard, provided for old people 'who had no one to look after them'. She needed it to live, she said, otherwise she would die. She and her advisors must have thought she had reached the ladder. One month later, she was dead ' with no food. Some hidden traps in the game were exposed in the subsequent excitement of passing the parcel. The panchayat samiti said her name was not on the yojana list, so she could not be given her food. One panchayat member insisted that he had seen it there, and even on the subsequent shortlist. He could not explain why there had been no response to her appeal. Another gentleman had a simpler explanation. Of course the BDO would have responded if she had not mentioned Annapurna Yojana and just asked for food.

The next stage in the game is called 'investigations'. Patu Mura was ill and was begging her equally poor neighbours for food. They gave what they could from time to time, so she could not have starved. And, anyway, if she was starving, how could she have handed in the letter' She died of illness, not starvation, concluded the administration. In the game she did not know she was playing, she had simply slipped through the invisible traps.

The NGO that had been active on Patu Mura's behalf submitted to the administration a list of 22 more names of the exceedingly vulnerable residents of the area, many of whom had appealed for food. Normally, people who are capable of actually dying of starvation have the decency to do so quietly. They do not think, as most of Patu Mura's neighbours did not, of registering for below-the-poverty-line benefits, because no one ever tells them about it. Patu Mura's brief hour of posthumous glory was possible only because the quiet had been broken in June that year by five deaths in the tribal village of Amlashole in Midnapur (west).

Lack of food is a slow, unglamorous killer; malnutrition, attrition of powers, disease, and gradual attenuation of life steadily reduce the capacity for work, which in turn means even less food. And then there is none at all. People have been fading away, vanishing, slipping for years through the traps beneath the notice of the administration. But someone is bound to notice five deaths in three months in the same village. The All India Legal Aid Forum's investigative team pointed out that Amlashole does not have the six basic requirements of life: food, drinking water, light, roads, a school and a medical centre. The villagers have no ration cards, although the leaders of the district ration dealers' association deny this, and no one is listed under Annapurna Yojana. In any case, the shop from which they are supposed to collect their rations is 35 kilometres away from the food storage. The report said that at least 23 people had died in Amlashole and Kankrajhor from starvation and malnutrition. Most were children between one and four years old.

This is apart from suicides from hunger, such as that by 16-year-old Rumpa Sharma, of Jalangi in Murshidabad this month. Her father had received nine-and-a-half kilos of rice after a rare day's labour under the food-for-work programme ' another half-a-kilo and the two rupees due to him were withheld. His other children had finished scraping the bottom of the vessel by the time Rumpa came in after her bath. Her mother rushed off to beg for more rice. The ravenously hungry 16-year-old took a shortcut out.

So the promises of overwhelming relief to Amlashole, drawn out of an administration vehemently dismissing starvation as a cause of death, does not mean relief from the game. Not for many villages, such as Baksha or Kapgari. Parts of Murshidabad and Malda are as vulnerable as the areas mentioned in the state government report. Between February and March this year, five people died in the Dayarampur-Ghoshpara village in Jalangi; since last October, when Patu Mura was dying elsewhere, 11 people died in the area, either from the backward or the minority community. According to latest NGO estimates, in five villages in the Jalangi block alone, including Dayarampur-Ghoshpara, 447 families are facing starvation. Of these, 43 are receiving some aid under one government scheme or another, and 35 persons have starved to death within the past one year according to local community and medical records. Even quieter perhaps are the deaths in the closed-down tea gardens in north Bengal, mentioned in the state's report. One woman, now suffering from tuberculosis, has lost a mother-in-law, a sister-in-law and a toddler to unappeased hunger, a husband to untreated TB and an infant to blood dysentery caused by a desperate diet of wild fruit.

That is not starvation after all. The wise gentlemen irritated with this bandying about of the precious word 'starvation', from ministers to local officials, would claim that wild fruit is food, and the baby died of a disease. There is food: wild oats, ants' eggs, snails, roots, and best of all, green jackfruit, boiled day and night. The elderly, whose children have migrated, have a choice of soil and bushes, reports one eyewitness from Dayarampur-Ghoshpara. Such food might be tried out as part of an experimental health binge.

The local features in the construction of poverty may vary, but the basic structure of exploitation and indifference remains the same, whether in western Orissa or in West Bengal. While the tribal populations in western districts are prevented from selling kendu leaves at the highest prices, and from collecting forest produce by government policies and police vigils for extremists, other populations, in Murshidabad for example, their lands washed away by the Padma, cower under the threat of eviction, while they are forbidden by the Border Security Force to fish and are not allowed to till land even with the plough on their own backs. There is a law or a policy against everything, none against dying of hunger.

The government, having first ridiculed ignorant charges of starvation, has shown great condescension in suddenly talking funds and relief schemes like food-for-work. It has been 27 years, time to glance at minor inconveniences at last. Granaries, roads, medical help, and even, amazingly, thoughts on alternative livelihoods for people torn from their traditional ways of life and traditional resources, land, forest and water. From Amlashole, for example, it is 8 kms to and from the market, and a load of firewood will fetch twenty rupees. Without three days of rest after each such foray, it is impossible for the starving, exhausted villager to work again. So the reflections come a little late for those who have died slowly of hunger and related diseases, and for those who have suddenly decided to drop off the game at an escalated rate ' maybe just to draw attention. Offering food-for-work to people who can barely get up is the very acme of consideration. Payments might sometimes be a little late. In Murshidabad, a man died before he was paid his quota of rice after working in the scheme for 15 days in October 2004.

The appreciation due to official concern cannot fully drown certain na've questions. What, for example, is the point of relief measures, especially when they are belated, and often short-lived' What happens when hurriedly planned livelihood changes, such as digging ponds for cultivation and building roads for transport, are stopped by the forest department because that would hurt the environment' Whose environment is it' To go in a different direction, why think ad hoc' Why could gradual changes in livelihood not have been introduced as new policies began to close the usual options for the villagers' They could have found sustainable means of living by now, and would have been neither starving nor dependent.

There are different grades of obscenity on offer here. Some would say that death by starvation in a country with grains rotting in storage is the greatest conceivable obscenity. Others might choose the spectacle of the state committee secretary, first oozing sympathy in voice and gesture while shooting questions at a bereaved young man racked with guilt for having let his father die of hunger, then turning to announce complacently that the old man died of some disease. This kind visit just preceded the decorous stint of money collecting to fund his appeal against a contempt charge in the Supreme Court.

That's the new game after snakes-and-ladders. Selecting the greatest obscenity.

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