The Dried-Up Mammaries Of The Welfare State
Baikuntha Sabar had been in the Nuapada jail since the last three months for assaulting a friend in a drunken brawl. He had come out on bail just three days ago. On the 11th of April, Baikuntha, in a fit of rage, killed his wife Suhago Sabar. He hacked her with a machete and then crushed her head with a grindstone. After committing the gruesome act, he left the body in the field outside the village and fled into the nearby forests.
The Police did their formalities and after the post mortem, handed over the body to the villagers. The neighbors took the body to the cremation ground on the outskirts of the hamlet. A few of them saw Baikuntha watching his wife’s funeral from the nearby forest. They informed the village gramrakhi who sent word to the Police Station at Khariar.
The next day a few cowherds from the village found the body of Baikuntha hanging from a tree in the forest. In sheer remorse for his dastardly act, he had committed suicide. The Policemen who had come for flushing him out of the forest were a relieved lot. Their work had been shortened. Baikuntha Sabar too was cremated on the still hot pyre where his wife’s funeral had taken place. For the Police it meant closure of two cases. UD Cases No 8/2013 & 17/2013 of Khariar Police Stations were closed in a record time.
Sabar had been a landless poverty ridden tribal who worked as day wager whenever work was available. He had a small one roomed Indira Awas hut where he lived with his old parents, his wife and four daughters.Savitri Sabar aged 11 and Jagyasini Sabar aged 8, study in the nearby Project Primary School at Chindapalla. Dilleswari Sabar is just 5 years old and would have gone to school in the next session. The infant Mamata Sabar is only 18 months old.
The villager said that Baikuntha was a good man but would go into drinking binges and become violent. He was deeply in debt, and oftentimes would borrow money for feeding his family. All he had ever wanted was a roof over his head and a belly full of food for his family. The small luxury was a little money for his evening tipple of Mahua. He had enrolled his two daughters in the nearby school, where they got their midday meal. At least one square meal was assured. The third daughter was to go to school in a few months.
Three months ago, I had gone to Kalahandi to locate Phanas and Banita Punji, the two women who had, twenty seven years ago, catapulted Kalahandi into shame and fame. I had found them in a village which was just 30 kms away from Baikuntha Sabar’s village.
Their story had resulted in Kalahandi becoming associated with backwardness and starvation deaths, and scholars of developmental economics had got a new subject called “Kalahandi Syndrome”.
In was in June 1985, that Phanas Punji of Amlapalli village had sold her fourteen year old sister-in-law Banita for Rs.40. She had done this utter desperation, as she had two starving children, and the extra mouth to feed was too much for her. Fourteen year old Banita had been sold to Vidya Podh, a half blind middle aged laborer of the nearby village. After the matter was reported in the vernacular dailies, it was picked up by the national media. The subsequent spiraling shock effect forced Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to visit Amlapalli. He, along with his wife Sonia had visited the thatched mud hut of Phanas Punji and a visibly concerned PM had doled out promises like confetti. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit had resulted in a few acronyms being coined. KBK (Kalanandi-Balangir-Koraput) became the catch word for poverty and starvation, PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) was the place from where these districts were henceforth monitored.
In these twenty seven years, Kalahandi has undergone many upheavals. A huge amount of money has come and gone, but the district is still the poorest in the poor state of Odisha. Kalahandi has only become a ladder for politicians, bureaucrats and so called development professionals. The plight of Phanas Punji and Banita, the ultimate icons of poverty, is still being written and rewritten. My story had resulted in Banita getting a house and some amount from the NAC Chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
I had once again come to Kalahandi, this time following a small page six story of Baikuntha Sabar written in a vernacular daily. I had taken along with me the local MLA Hitesh Bagarti, Umesh Khandelwal and Sumitesh Hota, a young social worker who runs a NGO Youth for Action & Research in Khariar. It has just been a week since the incident, but very few of the people in Raj Khariar remembered it. Even before I had left for the village, I had a premonition that this story too would play out as a shameful symbol of India’s hunger and poverty.
We reached the village of Sunari Sikuan in the afternoon. The newly built concrete road that connects the highway with the village would put the roads in the State capital at Bhubaneswar to shame.
The villagers soon pointed the house out to us. It was a dilapidated Indira Awas Hut, on the verge of collapsing. Seeing the Jeep in which we had come, and recognizing the MLA, many villagers came forward to complain that they have not got the BPL ration cards yet. Nor do they get any employment under the various programmes that have been prominently chalked out on the walls of the houses in the village. We ask about Baikuntha’s family, his children and parents. Most of the crowds skulk off, refusing to answer the questions that I put out to them. One young woman points at small waif of a girl, who is looking at us curiously. She is wearing a torn frock, and has a frightened look on her face. Another village woman assures her that we are not the Police, only then does Jagyasini Sabar, Baikuntha second daughter come forward. We ask her to get her sisters and she walks away to the houses behind the road.
A little later Savitri, the eldest daughter, emerges from the hut along with her three siblings. The children are severely malnourished and in a state of shock and trauma. The old grandmother is distraught. She cannot bring herself to utter a single word. Throughout the conversation with me, Savitri, the eldest of the siblings, wept quietly. Perhaps she was the only one who understood the situation; the others were too young to comprehend death. Her two little sisters do not leave her side for a moment. Their youngest sister, who is cradled by the wizened and old grandmother, cries inconsolably.
“She eats nothing,” said Munga Sabar, the grandmother. “I feel scared of losing her too.” The whimpering 18 month old looked more like a new born baby. I asked her if she had taken the child to the Primary Health Centre, she denied, the fellow villagers told me that there has been no doctor for months.
One does not require any medical expertise to diagnose chronic malnutrition. The tell-tale signs of malnourishment were evident enough in the frail bodies and gaunt faces of the children, the ribs sticking out prominently, and the despair in the eyes of all of them. Even my untrained eye did not miss the drastic physical signs produced by lack of calories and nutrients.
I asked the villagers what plans they had for the family. The MLA asked them their suggestions, but nothing was coming. There was a collective shame in the faces of all the villagers who were present. On our repeated coaxing they said that it would be better if the children were taken away from the village as they would be stigmatised. The MLA told them about the nearby Adivasi Kanya Ashram at Gandabahali just 5 kms away. No, said the village women, take them away from here. The ghosts of the dead parents would haunt them. The helpless grandparents were resigned to their fate and nodded their consent.
The old man told me that Baikuntha had burnt up the BPL card and the Election ID Cards of his family earlier. He could not even apply for any help to the authorities.
Even a week after the incident and after the plight of the children was reported in the local newspapers, no government official had visited the spot. Even the Sarpanch had not come, we met the ex-sarpanch Gopinath Baithuru, who told me that the incumbent Sarpanch, an adivasi lady had been informed, but she had not shown up. In fact, except for the Police, we were the first to visit the family since the death of the parents.
Poverty in Kalahandi has been paradoxical in nature. It has been called a “perennially drought-stricken” area with “perpetual drought” conditions existing for the past four decades. Experts opine that it is “practically impossible” to mitigate human suffering from an area which is ecologically devastated, the only viable “alternative” being to continuously provide food aid and financial support. The hunger and misery that stalks Kalahandi is known to everyone. But what remains unknown is that starvation and hunger exists amidst plenty.
The area is rich in natural resources, both forests and minerals and has a large labour force. The landholding size is larger than the average size of landholdings in Punjab; it receives more rain than Punjab, and the cropped area in the district is the highest in Odisha. It also has the highest number of Rice Mills in the State. The undivided districts of Koraput, Balangir and Kalahandi popularly known as KBK are one of the poorest regions in the country. The KBK regions now comprises of eight districts (Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, Rayagada, Balangir, Sonepur, Kalahandi and Nuapada). These eight districts comprise of 14 subdivisions, 37 tehsils, 80 blocks, 1437 gram panchayats and 12,104 villages.
Even after 66 years of Independence, almost 75 per cent of the total population is reeling under the poverty line. The KBK districts account for 20.50 per cent population, and 30.59 per cent of the geographical area of Odisha. Nearly 90 per cent people of these districts live in villages and remote areas. As per 2011 census about 40 per cent people of KBK districts belong to the Scheduled Tribe and 18 per cent of the population belongs to Scheduled Castes communities. Literacy rates are the lowest in the state as well as national averages. Female literacy is only 25 per cent.
As per the 2010 census of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families about 70 per cent families live below the poverty line. Nuapada ranks as the district with highest number of BPL families of 85 per cent and Bolangir ranks as the lowest with 61 per cent of BPL families. Nearly 80 per cent of the tribal workers earn their living as cultivator and agricultural laborers.
The extent of poverty and malnutrition that afflicts Kalahandi belt is beyond the comprehension of the standard economic models. And it is perhaps for this reason that the economists and sociologists have not been able to see the human side of continuous suffering and servility. If development assistance is the lone measure of economic growth, Kalahandi has failed miserably. Not even 15 paise out of a rupee of development aid has percolated down to the people who needed it most. The real beneficiaries are the government officials, who more often than not bribe their way to stay put somewhere in the four districts of western Odisha.
Umesh Khandelwal, who is the National Convener of the Marwari Yuva Manch, offered to extend all financial help to rehabilitate the children. We asked the children if they would come with us, they clung to each other in sheer fright. There was no one who was even willing to take the little amount that we were collectively giving for the family. Eventually the perplexed old parents agreed to take what we had to offer.
One of the salient features of the Indian constitution is the effort to establish a welfare state. The Preamble and the Directive Principles of State Policy as made by the framing fathers of our Constitution spell out the primary goal of a welfare and socialist state. It promises to secure to the Indian people Justice-social, economic and political. The Directive Principles are non justifiable (hence they cannot be enforced by a court of law); none the less they are regarded as fundamental in the governance of the country.
Article 38 of the Constitution reads: “The state shall strive to promote the welfare the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may, a social order in which justice-social economic and political-shall pervade all institutions of national life” provides a broad framework for the establishment of the welfare state ideal.
Article 46 directs the state to promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and in particular, of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and to protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.
For these orphans of Sunari Sikuan, the mammaries of the welfare state had all dried up. They had been milked dry by crooked politicians, greedy bureaucrats, corrupt officials; profiteering NGO’s. The mammaries are now shriveled and shrunk.
Sumitesh told me that developmental and welfare schemes have not helped change the miserable lives of the Adivasis one little bit. Kalahandi-Bolangir is being projected as a showcase of poverty. It pays to keep western Odisha poor and deprived. The government has even built an air-strip near Khariar Road, in the heart of the hunger belt, to enable successive prime ministers and chief ministers to derive political mileage from the incessant poverty.
Earlier in the day, I had come across Kandarpa Tandi at the Raj Khariar Bus Stand. He told me that he and his wife came to town every day from Sinapalli, a good 30 kms away to beg. Yes, he gets his old age pension of Rs 300/- a month, but it is insufficient for his sustenance. The rheumy eyed old man could just totter; I wondered how he went around begging.
The media too has to take its share of blame. I had gone to Sunari Sikuan after reading a small news story in a local paper. It was a good 650 Kms from Bhubaneswar. Earlier in the day, I had met journalists at Khariar Road and later at Raj Khariar, all of who knew of the incident but then death is not news in Kalahandi. Not even a gruesome murder and a subsequent suicide, and certainly not four orphaned helpless children.
On the way back from Nuapada, I came to know of the gut wrenching story of the five year old rape victim of Delhi. The fate that lies in store for these four orphan girls of Kalahandi is grim and foreboding. I have written to the Collector, and the other powers that be, but I have little hope. What will happen will be too little and too late.
By Anil Dhir from Kalahandi