Hunger helps Maoists spread their wings

Hunger helps Maoists spread their wings

Mirgitand, Jharkhand: If you want to understand why the Maoists grow stronger, watch frail Shyam Charan Kisku, 5, as he keeps hunger away by nibbling at a wild berry called Kendu on a hot April afternoon.

Kisku and 40-odd children in this scraggly village of mud-and-thatch homes, 180km south-east of Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi, did not get their free lunch this day under the national mid-day meal scheme, the world’s largest cooked-meal programme.

Kisku’s mother, Joba, said she would cook dinner in the evening: boiled rice, salt, whatever vegetable is available—if none, red ants would do. She shrugged. Like many of the 32 families here, mostly Santhal tribal woodcutters, Joba can afford a meal a day, at most two.

Lunch for the youngest is available at the primary school. It is shut this day, as are most state-run schools in East Singhbhum district; the Maoists, who evoke both sympathy and fear in the hilly, poverty-stricken district, have called a bandh (shutdown) in neighbouring West Bengal.

So, Kisku and his friends, inhabitants of Jharkhand’s most educated district with a literacy rate of 69%, must eat berries.

Of Jharkhand’s 24 districts, the government’s own food security atlas of rural Jharkhand rates 17 as “food insecure", a situation where there is no access to “sufficient, safe and nutritious food".

It is no coincidence that the government also classifies these 17 districts “highly Naxalite affected".

The collapse of almost every national social security programme—India will spend Rs1.18 trillion this year on five major schemes—across East Singhbhum indicates how deprivation fuels the Maoist cause across nine states.

The latest example of this misgovernance is the absence in Mirgitand of a scheme that, theoretically, gives the poorest rice and wheat at Re1 per kg, announced by chief minister Shibu Soren on 7 April to celebrate 100 days of his government.

“The government’s claims are rubbish," said Ravi Tuddu, 30, the village head. “There is no public distribution system (PDS) shop in our village. We trek 13km to Kesarpur to fetch our ration, where the supply is irregular."

Most children in Mirgitand are frail, silent and have distended bellies, a sign of malnutrition. With no medical intervention, it’s hard to say how badly off they are.

Mirgitand, like at least 15 other villages in East SinghbChild Development Services hum, doesn’t have a centre of the 35-year-old Integrated (ICDS) programme, the world’s largest programme (budget for 2010-11: Rs7,806 crore) for the nutritional, health and school needs of children under six.

“To my knowledge, there is an ICDS centre at all 2,000-odd villages in the district," said East Singhbhum district programme officer J.K. Choubey. Asked about Mirigitand, he said irritatedly: “Let me find out."

The government’s food security atlas reveals more than its officials hide. In two Jharkhand districts—Gumla and Garhwa—130 and 156 children, respectively, die of every 1,000 born. In Sub-Saharan Africa, regarded as one of the world’s most impoverished places, the child mortality rate is 160.

A joint study of the UN World Food Programme and the Institute of Human Development, Ranchi released last year at a function in Ranchi noted, “Jharkhand, carved out of Bihar nine years ago, has seen no progress despite scores of welfare schemes."

Back in Mirgitand, no one has ever attended high school; the nearest is 22km away. Children out of primary school lapse back into illiteracy and wild berries for lunch. For those who speak up, the line between protestor and Maoist begins to blur.

“Malnutrition and chronic hunger deaths are common in the area, but the government has never accepted them," said Manoranjan Mahato, 45, accused of being a Naxalite after he fought for government compensation to a widow whose husband died, reportedly of hunger, two years ago.

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“I know how problematic it is to report hunger in Jharkhand," said V. Murli Krishna, a government doctor, who was suspended for various reasons for four years after he reported a “hungry" patient in nearby Mosaboni block. One of the reasons: Being “negligent" by not being present when the superintendent arrived. Krishna, who uses crutches, said he was in a village where it was raining heavily.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a common disease in Mirgitand. Since 2008, at least 13 people, including four children, have died of TB and malnutrition, villagers said. There is no record of these deaths.

Babies are delivered at home. “Till last year, we used to cut the umbilical cord with sterilized arrows," said Bishu Hembrom, 20. “Now we use blades."

When the Hindustan Times visited, at least five children had enlarged spleens and three adults had TB, said village head Tuddu. There was no medical help. “Where’s the money to pay to the doctor?" said the village head. The primary health centre is 30km south, the nearest road 13km away.

Over the last two years, Mirgitand villagers have got 60 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which guarantees at least 100 days of work every year to one member of each rural family. They are better off than Jharkhand’s average of 48 days. The government has allocated Rs40,100 crore for the job guarantee programme in the Budget.

So, the poor live mostly as they always have: chopping firewood two-three times a week. Each trip to the market fetches them Rs30-40. The average monthly income of very few families is Rs500 (for the rest, it is Rs200-300), marginally above Jharkhand’s official rural poverty line of Rs404 per month.

The figure is irrelevant. For the last month, as security forces have fanned out in the Maoist backyard, the Santhals have been stopped from cutting wood.

Every family in Mirgitand is listed as living below the poverty line (BPL) and has BPL cards, which, theoretically, allows them access to the subsidized food they never get.

Food supply and cooperatives minister Barkunwar Gagrai is happy with the state of affairs. “Our government is committed towards reaching all anti-poverty schemes to the beneficiaries," he said. “Negligent officers will be taken to task."

Tracking Hunger is a joint effort of the Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger. Mail your suggestions at thehungerproject@