Bhilkera Dang (Rajasthan), Oct. 29: Swirls of dust choke the air as a Tata Sumo splutters over large chunks of rock sticking menacingly out of the land. The next minute, the vehicle lands in a huge crater with a deafening crash and churns up more dust as it struggles to climb out.
Welcome to Bhilkera Dang, home to the Sahariyas, where the earth is parched, black, hostile and unyielding and where drought-stricken tribals have been left to fend for themselves or die.
The Sahariya children have been dying like fleas of late: primarily of hunger and also of infections in the stomach, lungs and chest. Eleven children have died in Bhilkera Mal, barely 12 km away. The fear has travelled to this settlement about 200 km from Kota and the tribals here are certain they are sitting on the jaws of death.
The worst is still to come. In the next few months, the situation will be worse, says Ram Lal, pointing to the dry-as- dust, unfriendly expanse of land that has been wasted by the drought.
When you see the Sahariyas a clutch of unwashed, unfed men, women and children you wonder if any situation could be worse. A stink assails you as you approach the settlement, a putrid smell of unclean bodies and crude tobacco.
The children look the most damaged. They cough a dry cough that never seems to stop. Their skins are infected with open sores. The infants keep wailing as if to protest the dirty degrading conditions.
Government officials blame the tribals for not practising birth control. But the parents have no choice. They dont know how many of their children will survive and add to the number of working hands.
The drought this time has jolted even well heeled peasants who have helplessly watched the fields dry up before their eyes. For the Sahariyas, at the bottom of the economic ladder, the sun has literally been a killer.
Even in the most perfect of times, these tribals struggle to put together two square meals. This year, the drought is on a rampage.
There has been no work for the last few months. Usually, the Sahariyas travel outside their village to work for a couple of months and then return home with that money. This time, even the work has dried up. Their meals have dwindled to gruel of leaves or flour made into a paste.
There have been no deaths in Bhilkhera Dang so far. But the air of anxiety hits you as you enter the village. It is one in the afternoon. All the men, women and children are crowding around a chaupal. Some children are hanging around, eating murmura (puffed rice) distributed by anganwadi workers.
If we do not get any work now, we have only God to take care of us, says Marandi Lal. The government has announced an akal rath programme to provide work to starving villagers, but Bhilkhera Dang has been left out.
The story of starvation deaths among the Sahariyas is a story of marginalisation of tribals. When Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot denied the deaths were due to starvation, he had a point. The Sahariyas starve bit by bit 365 days a year. They are afflicted by the deadliest of all diseases: continuing and severe malnourishment that takes its toll every time there is a natural calamity.
Regardless of the grand Sahariya project initiated in the seventies, the tribals are living in misery their condition is as wretched as it could get. They inhabit a twilight world between life and death where dawn brings no purpose and darkness is equally meaningless.