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From poison to mobile ‘non-phones’

Asha Majhi of Panashguda village who lost her parents in the 2001 mango kernel tragedy. Picture by Basant Kumar Mohanty

Kashipur (Odisha), April 8: Nila Majhi’s hands tremble as he chops firewood in his courtyard; wife Pushei guides him lest a drunken Nila hurt himself.

Pushei will be cooking rice for dinner. She rarely prepares kheer from mango kernel any more — it took away her only daughter, Lachhi, 13 summers ago.

Food poisoning from kheer had killed Lachhi and 19 others in Panashguda, a village of 50-odd tribal families 1km from the Kashipur block headquarters, and two neighbouring villages in September 2001. The tragedy had made headlines and set off a debate whether the deaths counted as starvation deaths.

Mango kernel is a traditional food among poor tribals in these parts, not because they like its taste but because of food scarcity. The kernels are stored for many months, often leading to contamination and food poisoning.

India’s economy has surged since Lachhi died and several laws have been enacted to protect Dalit and tribal rights. But not much has changed in this village in backward Rayagada district, except that children like Lachhi get regular midday meals at the local primary school.

Kheer is still a part of Panashguda’s diet though, said Kashi Majhi, whose 18-year-old son Kunti was one of the food poisoning victims that black September.

He explained how kheer is prepared: the kernel is broken and planted in the local stream’s bed for 12 hours, then ground and boiled.

“But we eat less of it nowadays — only once a week during the mango season,” Kashi said, implying the kernel is no longer stored for long periods.

The villagers say they eat it because the monthly ration of 25kg rice each family gets from the government, at Re 1 a kilo (along with 3 litres of kerosene at Rs 16.50 a litre), isn’t enough. The administration, however, blames it on “habit”, not necessity.

“Tribals across Odisha have this habit of eating mango kernel. It’s part of their diet,” said Yamani Sarangi, collector of Koraput district that borders Rayagada.

No tribal owns any farmland in Panashguda: the nearby crop fields belong to the Brahmins of Kashipur. The tribals labour on the farms and sell firewood. Some of the older villagers get a monthly social security pension of Rs 300.

Whatever they earn, the men blow most of it on alcohol. “I have no savings,” Pushei said.

Mobile twist

Nila’s brother Prakash pointed out the only two visible signs of development the family has seen in the past decade: the asbestos roof over their heads and the free electricity connection — fruits of two government schemes.

Pushei’s one-room mud house has no ventilation — it receives no sunlight or air — yet it has just one bulb and no fan.

Electricity is available five to six hours a day but each home has been allowed just two plug points. Some have opted to have one of them as a wall socket — to recharge mobile phones, that ubiquitous symbol of modernity in every corner of the country.

Panashguda, however, offers a twist to the tale. Its mobile-owning young men do not make calls or text messages — they can’t afford service providers’ charges. They use their handsets just to listen to music.

Not one house has a toilet or cooking-gas connection. The nearest place where the villagers can get treatment is a dispensary 20km away where a doctor examines patients six hours a day and prescribes free medicines.

“We don’t go to hospital too often. In case of serious illness, we go to the government hospital in Rayagada town (65km away) and get free medicines,” said Jugu Majhi, 45, who lost his daughter Gahadi in the 2001 tragedy.

The nearest health centre — an upgraded community health centre — is 50km away at Laxmipur town and has 30 beds. Of the 50-odd outdoor patients the hospital receives on an average day, most come with stomach ailments and bruises caused by drunken falls.

Asked whether the villagers know about the dangers of water-borne infections from the water of their stream and lone tube-well, Kashi Majhi said: “No doctor comes here. No one tells us anything.”

No one had come to Panashguda, which falls within Koraput parliamentary constituency, to campaign till Saturday — five days before the vote.

Even Khirod Majhi, the village’s lone graduate who did his BCom in 2005 from a Rayagada college, didn’t know the election date or who the candidates were. None in Panashguda knew who their MP was (the ruling Biju Janata Dal holds the seat).

“Nobody bothers about us; we don’t remember them, either,” said Khirod, who hasn’t found a job despite having completed an Industrial Training Institute course last year and plans to start working as a day labourer.

But the villagers know that someone or the other from the political parties will turn up before polling day with a few bundles of cash. And all the adult villagers will turn up at the booths, come Thursday.

Hurdles

“On any human development index, these tribals would be at the bottom,” social activist and former state information commissioner Jagadananda told The Telegraph. One reason, he said, was the lack of land reforms.

“A committee headed by the Prime Minister is supposed to suggest land reforms but doesn’t meet regularly. The state government should take steps for land reforms but is not bothered. Access to land is not a poll issue,” he said.

Sarangi, the Koraput collector, said the government was providing homestead land to the landless and awarding pattas to those occupying land for generations without record of rights.

One other problem is the lack of access to institutional credit, Jagadananda said.

“Despite claims about financial inclusion, the tribals are scared to go to banks, and banking correspondents do not come to their villages. So, the tribals fall prey to local moneylenders.”

A third is the poor prices the tribals get for the forest produce they sell. “They can’t bargain with the traders coming to the local markets from Koraput and Raipur,” Jagadananda said.

“There is a government agency, Trifed, to procure minor forest produce but it does not reach the villagers regularly.”

Poverty and deprivation has made the region a fertile headhunting ground for the Maoists, who had kidnapped the MLA from neighbouring Laxmipur, Jinha Hikaka, two years ago.

Vivekananda Mishra, former principal of Vikram Deb Autonomous College, Jeypore, said some of the tribals’ earnings had risen in the past decade, partly because of the rural job guarantee scheme.

“In the towns, I have seen many tribal youths eating fast food or drinking coconut water, which was not seen a decade ago,” he said. “Residential schools have been built for tribal girls in recent years.”

At the Laxmipur weekly market, which sits every Saturday, shopkeeper Sushant Dakua said he sells about 10 pouches of sunflower oil every week. “Rich source of vitamin A,” the label on a pouch proclaims.

“One litre costs Rs 80; the local people are buying it,” Dakua said.

Koraput votes on April 10