The Irish Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2011
'Animals here are better off than human beings in this cursed, holy region'
RAHUL BEDI in Gaya, eastern India
POVERTY IN INDIA: Part One: Despite its economic successes, India is a
place where some are still oppressed by the caste system, poverty,
hunger and exploitative moneylending
HUNGER is an everyday reality for Nanku Bhuyian, a Maha Dalit or
lowest-caste widow from the remote and arid Jalhe Bhongia village in
India's eastern Bihar state, seemingly forgotten by the local
On a good day, the 50-year-old and her family of six survive on boiled
roots and leaves from the native chakura tree – provided she can
manage to scrounge some water and firewood and wild fruits foraged
from the swiftly depleting forest 21km away – a 12-hour return
It has been months since Bhuyian or her family ate either an onion or
a potato. They simply cannot afford either.
On other days, they often go to sleep hungry and thirsty as the only
pump in the village frequently runs dry and the trip to the nearest,
fetid water pond over hard, sun-baked earth takes more than three
hours to negotiate during the summer months.
Five years ago, Bhuyian's only son, Heera Lal (30), and 13 famished
villagers died after consuming the remains of a goat which they
exhumed a week after it was buried on the outskirts of Jalhe, barely
150km south of the provincial capital, Patna.
"Animals here are better off than human beings in this cursed, holy
region," the illiterate Bhuyian said last week of her predominantly
lowest-caste village, which is close to Bodh Gaya, the place where
Lord Buddha attained enlightenment 2,555 years ago under a giant tree
before going on to propagate Buddhism.
"At least they die with dignity; we don't even have that luxury," she
added matter-of-factly, recounting in unsettling detail her son's
death as several of her grandchildren milled listlessly around her in
searing temperatures of over 45 degrees.
Employment for this lowest-caste workforce, which comprises mostly
women as the majority of their menfolk have migrated to other parts of
India in search of work, too, remains unlikely.
The choice is between collecting firewood in the distant forest the
entire day and selling it for Rs25 (55 US cents) or undertaking
arduous, back-breaking labour in nearby brick kilns or infrequent
government construction projects where the daily wage of Rs50-70
($1.1-$1.5) is invariably deferred.
This, in turn, has forced most locals to borrow small sums of money
just to survive from local mahajans (moneylenders), who charge
interest rates of over 10 per cent per month, perpetuating a vicious
cycle of lifelong indebtedness as debtors are rarely ever able to pay
off their principal sum.
Many end up as bonded labourers for most of their lives, merely paying
off their burdensome monthly instalments.
Kari Devi, of nearby Mananbigha village, was one such victim who last
year borrowed Rs900 ($20) at exploitative interest rates for medicine
and food for her 40-year-old husband, who contracted tuberculosis
brought upon by malnutrition.
He eventually died in June 2010. Twelve months later, she still
struggles to pay off the crippling interest.
Grandiose social security schemes such as prime minister Manmohan
Singh's much-touted National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which
annually assures one family member from each of India's 60 million
rural households 100 days of work for a daily wage of Rs60 ($1.35) –
or alternately an unemployment allowance if there are no jobs – are an
illusion for these Maha Dalits caught up in byzantine bureaucratic
procedures manipulated by corrupt officials.
Attendant state-sponsored altruistic measures targeting children, the
aged and sick alongside impoverished and hungry families operate
similarly in a lopsided, corrupt and largely unaccountable manner
"In rural Bihar, home to 85 per cent of the state's population of over
100 million, little has changed for decades.
"For the majority remain at the mercy of nature, officialdom and
avaricious moneylenders," said Fr Jose K of the People's Union for
Their only instinct was that of survival, he declared, adding that
there had been many more starvation deaths than were reported by the
local media for fear of displeasing succeeding administrations.
Some 150 starvation deaths had officially been reported in Gaya and
adjoining districts including Patna over the past five years and,
according to senior state officials, about one-fifth of Bihar's rural
population is severely malnourished.
At a time when India has been preening itself as an economic
powerhouse with a consistently impressive annual economic growth rate
of about 9 per cent, nearly 40 per cent of Bihar's population,
according to the World Bank, lives below the poverty line, earning
some $1-$1.50 per day.
This makes it the country's poorest and most backward province.
According to the 2010 Global Hunger Index, India is ranked 67th out of
84 countries, placing it below even some sub-Saharan states.
And though its economy has doubled since the mid-1990s due to free
market policies, a buoyant stock market, entrepreneurial businessmen,
increased manufacturing capacity and a real estate boom, India
accounts for over 42 per cent of the world's underweight children.
Behind these disturbing figures, Bihar's poverty gap is far above the
national average, with 58 per cent malnutrition reported among
children – significantly higher than the national average – due
largely to non-availability of health services, absence of community
workers, bad institutional delivery systems and lack of access to
The hospital closest to Jalhe, for instance, is 30km away on a phantom
road, forcing locals to turn to quacks and self-styled hakims, who
liberally exploit their dependence and ignorance, often with fatal
"These Maha Dalits are the poorest among Bihar's socially marginalised
people and have learnt to live with starvation," said Rupesh, who uses
only one name and heads Koshish Trust, a non-governmental organisation
Along with Oxfam, it recently launched an innovative food security
programme in 18 villages around Jalhe for thousands of predominantly
Many, he declared were deprived of numerous government schemes to aid
the poor due to endemic corruption, abiding misgovernment and callous
Besides, government food distribution plans are so meagre that they
leave huge holes in the social security net through which large
numbers of destitute people slip into starvation and hunger, he added.
And while food security had improved nominally following last
November's re-election for another five years of provincial chief
minister Nitish Kumar's Socialist Party-led coalition, the change has
been at best incremental. But Rupesh admitted that there had been
visible improvements in the state's previously horrendous law and
order situation, especially with regard to institutionalised
upper-caste violence unleashed on the Dalits.
Many Dalits were earlier prohibited from even drinking water at public
wells or praying in temples in upper-caste rural areas for fear of
beatings, ostracism and other barbaric forms of public humiliation.
Under Kumar, Dalit women were no longer raped publicly as they had
been earlier in villages and small towns by upper-caste men to keep
them "in their place" while the provinces' appalling, pot-holed road
network also underwent transformation.
Kidnappings for ransom, a booming industry in Bihar until six years
ago (especially the abduction of eligible upper-caste bachelors and
the forcible marrying them off after beating them into submission for
a price determined by the brides' parents) ceased.
Kumar's reputation as an honest and progressive administrator was also
attracting much-needed foreign investment into Bihar, but progress was
slow as regular power supply and socially backward conditions remained
a major obstacle.
Meanwhile, with assistance from the Oxfam-Koshish combine, the status
of a large number of indigent and impoverished villagers in Gaya and
adjoining regions too, after years of flailing, was finally classified
as being below the poverty line.
This status rendered them eligible to receive their monthly
entitlement of 35kg of rice and wheat and a few litres of paraffin as
This is at least one positive, if also feeble, attempt at neutralising
starvation and malnutrition.
The two NGOs also increased accountability by involving locals in
monitoring government schemes through the establishment of village
committees and creating a limited buffer grain stock for emergency
But three successive years of drought in a region dependent entirely
on agriculture (state authorities maintain that only 4 per cent of
paddy fields can be planted this year – this is down from about 80 per
cent earlier), together with enduring corruption, caste rivalries,
lawlessness and political turbulence, further restricted Bihar.
And if that were not enough, the proliferating Maoist insurgency,
dubbed by Singh as independent India's gravest internal security
challenge, has gripped large swathes of Bihar, including Gaya,
triggering frequent ambushes, mine blasts and armed attacks on
villages and government buildings and installations – particularly the
rail network which was the state's lifeline.
Bihar's armed Maoist rebels are predominantly dispossessed
They are driven to violence by their callous treatment at the hands of
the upper castes who control the majority landholdings, on which they
were dependent for their livelihood.
"This area offers mukti only for the dead, not sustenance for the
living," Ram Kishan Bhuyian resignedly said.
He is reconciled fatalistically, as are many hundreds of his fellow
villagers, to a wretched existence bordering on the inhuman.
"Till we meet our god, we will continue to starve and suffer."
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