Nagada: A journey into India’s heart of darkness
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Nagada (Jajpur district, Odisha): On a mud wall inside 25-year-old Mangala’s thatched hut in the forested hills of Odisha’s tribal heartland hangs a school bag, the sole sign of hope in the four-member family that lost one-year-old Saraswati to malnutrition in July last year.
Mangala, who has two children left, does not know who the prime minister of India is. Neither do most of his fellow tribals in Nagada village, where 19 children died in 2016 allegedly due to malnutrition. But he knows the name of the chief minister of Odisha, as he has been coaxed to vote for conch (the symbol of Biju Janata Dal that chief minister Naveen Patnaik leads) for several years now. Nagada is part of the Sukinda block of Odisha’s Jajpur district, home to vast mineral wealth.
“It does not matter whether Naveen Patnaik is a good man or bad man. He has woken up to our miseries only now,” Mangala says tersely.
The journey to Nagada is not for the faint-hearted. You need to trek for at least three-and-a-half hours uphill, making your way around giant boulders amidst deep forest to arrive at the top of the hill. From there, you descend to the other side to reach the three hamlets of Nagada— upper, middle and lower—to witness the miserable state of the 71 Juanga tribal families.
It’s a treacherous journey all right, yet the “welfare state” with its plethora of schemes for the poor should still not have taken this long to reach the hamlets. Nagada would have remained isolated from civilization had Tulasi, who was two years and nine months old, not died at the nearest hospital run by Tata Steel Ltd within its Kaliapani mining complex in the last week of June. That was when the local media first discovered the miseries of this inaccessible village.
You don’t even need to visit Nagada to gauge its despair. 2011 Census data tells an appalling tale. One in every three persons here is below six (95 out of 307 persons), implying a high birth rate. But the death rate is equally high and you don’t see anyone above 65 in the village that Juanga tribals have inhabited since time immemorial. Census counted only one literate person in the village. We met three. Dhania Pradhan is the most educated, having passed Class VII. He had to cross a river on the other side of the hill to reach a school in Ekuli village in Dhenkanal district. He can read Odia with ease but can only recognize English letters.
All the mud houses in Nagada have thatched roofs. Everyone collects drinking water from the stream flowing down. Not a single house has either a toilet or any assets, though a few have radios. Electricity was unheard of—till the government gave solar lamps to each family after the deaths.
The tribal head (mukhia) of the Nagada is Gada Pradhan, one of the oldest members in the village. He claims to be 65 but looks far younger. Gada says he has often complained about their plight to the village sarpanch and ward member, who have only given empty promises. Nagada with 71 households does not qualify for a ward member and comes under Deogaon ward and Chingudipala panchayat, both on the plains.
Plight amid affluence
The Sukinda mining belt is the chromite capital of the country, holding 96% of India’s total deposits of the mineral. Ferrochrome is extracted from chromite ore, which is used chiefly to make stainless steel. India also exports almost 30% of the 4.6 million tonnes of chromite produced every year to countries such as China and Japan. According to the ministry of mines, India has deposits for recoverable chrome ores that will last for another 47 years. And then there is Kalinganagar in Sukinda block, the new industrial hub of Odisha. Spread over 13,000 acres, nine major steel companies including Tata Steel Ltd, Jindal Stainless Ltd, VISA Steel Ltd and Neelachal Ispat Nigam Ltd have set up factories in Kalinganagar, producing 3.5 million tonnes of steel a year. In 2006, 12 tribals and a policeman died as they clashed over land acquisition for the Kalinganagar site.
In May, the Central government approved an Odisha government proposal to expand Kalinganagar into a National Investment and Manufacturing Zone that will lead to building an industrial township in an area of 163 sq. km. Amid all this affluence, the tribals of Nagada live cursed lives.
“We were aware that there is such a tribal village, as the tribals come down to the weekly haat (market) in Deogaon. But we had no idea the situation was so bad for the children,” Sukinda block development officer (BDO) Debadatta Mohapatra confesses.
When the news of a wave of deaths in Nagada broke, the state government swung into action, sending scores of officials, food items, solar lamps, table fans and water filters up the hill to the village that somehow every welfare department of the state government had pushed under the carpet till then.
But it did not last. “Government intervention in the village continued from 4 July to 1 September. We withdrew from the village because it was interfering with their privacy. They were getting irritated as the camp was in front of their houses,” says Sukinda BDO Mohapatra.
The Central government sent a high-level team of specialists led by Chetan B. Sanghi, joint secretary at the women and child development ministry, and the National Human Rights Commission sought a report from the state government. But somehow, another unfortunate and equally shameful incident in another part of the state in Kalahandi where Dana Majhi, a tribal farmer, had to carry his wife’s body on his shoulders for 12km dominated the discourse in the national media, relegating Nagada to the background.
The Juangas believe that in ancient times, their tribe emerged from earth on the hills of Gonasika in nearby Kendujhar district from where the river Baitarani originates. The villagers, who have learnt to speak Odia apart from their own tribal language, told us they don’t believe in gods or deities and only worship Basumati or Mother Earth. According to the ministry of tribal affairs, Juangas are one of the 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG) out of the total 62 tribes found in Odisha.
About 23% of the population of Odisha are tribals. Infant mortality among tribals in Odisha is 92 against the national tribal average of 84. Under-five tribal mortality is 137 in Odisha against the national average of 123 among tribals.
A few tribals of Nagada cultivate rice, corn and vegetables on top of the hill. The rest work at others’ farmlands in return for some rice. They dig out special roots from the jungle used for making local liquor and sell them at the Saturday market at Deogaon to buy vegetables, rice and salt. Sometimes, they sell their chickens, goats and pigs to make ends meet.
Many local government officials claim the villagers feed their children only rice and salt and refuse to feed any vegetables even if it is freely available, leading to malnutrition. However, the villagers of Nagada refute the allegation. “When nothing else is available to eat, we feed rice and salt to our children out of compulsion, not by choice,” says a villager.
Early marriage is a common practice among Juangas, leading to complications among children born out of young parents. Ira Pradhan, 55, says they get their children married as they turn 15 because everybody in the village chides the parents saying, “Your son is getting old. Nobody will now give him a girl.”
Mangala, who works in others’ farms, says Saraswati developed fever in the evening and died early morning. “My daughter could have been saved if there was a hospital nearby,” he laments.
But most other bereaved parents reported symptoms like high fever, diarrhoea and measles for more than a week before the children died. Some parents treated the kids with herbs from the jungle, others just wished the child would gradually recover. Most children are not vaccinated because parents think they don’t need to until and unless they fall ill. And the designated ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) and Anganwadi workers for the village who live in the plains are reluctant to make the difficult trip every day to ensure immunization and provide healthy food for the children.
Renuka Deuri, sarpanch of the Chingudipal panchayat, said it was near impossible for the young Anganwadi worker to climb the hill everyday to deliver food items to children and pregnant women. “The ASHA worker used to visit the village once or twice a month and give medicines to the villagers. But the villagers didn’t take medicines. The main problem was road connectivity. I had asked the district collector to build a road in 2014 but the forest department didn’t permit. Had the road been constructed two years ago, no child would have died,” she said.
A doctor at the Tata Steel hospital who treated the Nagada children said there is complete lack of awareness among the villagers. “Almost all the children are unimmunized and most of them malnourished. Of all the kids treated at the hospital, only two to three kids have been discharged after proper treatment. Rest of them left without necessary nutrition and weight gain. The villagers think if the fever subsides, the disease is also gone and the kid need not stay in the hospital,” the doctor says on condition of anonymity.
“The child Tulasi that died in the hospital was severely malnourished and had malaria and pneumonia. From the description of the villagers, it seems there was a chickenpox outbreak in Nagada, not measles. Malnourished kids with low immunity can succumb to any disease if not treated immediately,” the doctor said.
Asked why it took the government so long to reach Nagada, BDO Mohapatra says: “We have very limited funds available to us under various schemes. It would not have been possible to build a road in this difficult terrain earlier.”
However, Nilakantha Panigrahi, associate professor at the Department of Anthropology and Tribal Development of Bilaspur Central University, disagrees: “After the 11th Five Year Plan, the fund flow for tribal communities increased manifold due to the focus on inclusive growth. So, lack of funds is not an issue. Providing basic infrastructure facility should be fundamental to any developmental activity for tribals. Tribals like Juangas need more exposure to the modern world to break away from their inherited social hierarchies,” he added.
Pradip Pradhan, Odisha state convener of Right to Food Campaign and the first to lead a fact-finding team to Nagada, said the situation in the village is a result of callous and insensitive attitude of the government towards the sufferings of tribals. “It’s a failure of the grassroot governance system due to lack of proper monitoring. The issue is not limited to Nagada. Malnutrition is a major issue in most tribal areas in the state,” he added.
Hope amid despair
At one corner of his dilapidated one-room hut that Mangala calls home is a chulha (firewood stove) and a heap of ash, above which stands a bamboo platform used for drying paddy. Near the bamboo door is a hole dug out on the floor to dehusk rice using a stone hammer. At another corner are four leaking aluminum water-pots and a few utensils. Mangala doesn’t have a mat; so his family of four wipes the floor with a dry cloth before going to sleep at night. On a string that runs from one corner to the other over the head are a few sarees and clothes of Mangala’s remaining two children. From a nail on the wall hangs the school bag, gifted perhaps by the non-government organization running a one-room school in the village.
The state rural development ministry briefly employed the villagers to arrange the boulders on the village street and lay a temporary road. At Rs200 per day per person, Mangala and wife worked for five days and earned a total of Rs2,000. From the Saturday haat, Mangala bought clothes for his children and two polyester sarees for his wife who was so far wearing knotted torn sarees. Mangala only recently got a ration card after the government officials visited the village. “I had gone to the Sukinda block office four times walking 20km for the ration card, but each time I was told that my turn had not come,” he says.
The state government has made a long to-do list for Nagada. It has also asked all 30 district collectors to find out similar unconnected villages. Sukinda BDO Mohapatra says Rs13 crore has been sanctioned for an all-weather road from the district mineral development fund under the amended Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act. Odisha chief minister Patnaik laid the foundation stone of the road to Nagada in November.
A school at Nagada, a health centre, four Anganwadis, a 200-seat residential school and a maternity waiting hall at the foot of the hill figure on the list.
While most villagers don’t want to leave the hills for houses in the plains, some like Ira are willing. “Whoever has farmland wants to stay here. I don’t have any farmland here. What will I do staying here?” she asks.
But Mangala is hopeful. “I have been told by the government officers that once the road is built, I can travel to the nearby mines and get work every day,” he says.
Nineteen children had to die for the government to take notice of Nagada’s plight. But there is still hope left for the village. Like that school bag on the mud wall.