'Animals here are better off than human beings in this cursed, holy region'


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 authorities.

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 journey.

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 benefiting few.

“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 Civil Liberties.

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 cheap medicines.

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 consequences.

“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 (NGO).

Along with Oxfam, it recently launched an innovative food security programme in 18 villages around Jalhe for thousands of predominantly low-caste residents.

Many, he declared were deprived of numerous government schemes to aid the poor due to endemic corruption, abiding misgovernment and callous maladministration.

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 cooking fuel.

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 disbursement.

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 agricultural labourers.

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.”

Tomorrow:programmes that NGOs, including Oxfam, are implementing to empower women in Uttar Pradesh