Sultanganj (Bihar), Sept. 3: Jubeda Khatoon, whose husband died of hunger last week, wearily pats her six-month-old daughter Abida to sleep as her two teenaged daughters and three sons look on.
Her bewildered, famished children try to make some sense of the recent whirl of activity at their Dilgauri village, 20 km from Bhagalpur. Ever since their father Mohammad Kasim, a silk weaver, died on August 22, politicians, journalists and social workers have been doing the rounds.
“My father was a much sought-after weaver and along with others, wove the glory of the industry. He died spitting blood as he worked as a construction worker without being able to get food,” says Rabina, one of Kasim’s daughters.
Death stalks Dilgauri, a weavers’ colony of over 1,000 families where the once prosperous silk workers led a comfortable life. Three people have allegedly died of hunger in the last fortnight.
Politicians were not perturbed when middle-aged Kuresha Khatoon died without food and treatment on August 24, for at least 12 other people are bedridden, suffering from tuberculosis and malnourishment.
“We saw this coming. She (Kuresha) was without food for seven days and had no medicines. I was the only bread-earner and there was no job. What could I have done'” sobbed her son Mohammad Islam.
Mohammad Rabbani, 22, one of the most skilled weavers in the colony, would never have thought his dream would die so young. He had been jobless for more than six months and died of hunger in front of his 60-year-old mother Kamsin Bibi on August 26. Sitting in the courtyard of her tiled mud-house, Kamsin now gets by on handouts from villagers.
Public anger mounted after Rabbani’s death and Sheikh Ayub, the local ward commissioner, wrote a long letter to the district administration about the hunger deaths.
This sparked a political blame-game. The Bihar government sent 25 kg of foodgrain to the victims’ families, but the administration tried to persuade Ayub to say the deaths had occurred “due to disease”.
Bhagalpur district magistrate K.P. Ramaiya says: “I still believe the deaths were due to disease.”
Adds Ayub: “If I am forced to give a different version, I will have to commit suicide. Why doesn’t the state government poison us to death'”
Girijanandan Sharma, superintendent of Sultanganj Referral Hospital, admits that the weavers are suffering from tuberculosis caused by prolonged starvation.
“We have no medicine for the treatment of the scourge.”
The deaths have focused attention on the sharp decline in business and the weavers’ failure to adjust to the switch from handlooms to powerlooms. Industry turnover is estimated to have dropped by half, to Rs 200 crore. After the 1989 riots, businessmen who provide yarn refused to invest in Bhagalpur because they had suffered heavy losses.