On New Year’s Eve, Baghiya Birijiya lost her mother Budhni Birijiyan to hunger, cold, and extreme poverty in Latehar, one of India’s poorest districts. The family had so few means that they could not cremate the 80-year-old’s body for two days, until public pressure led the administration to intervene to provide ₹2,000 for the expenses.
Baghiya, who works in a brick kiln in Mahudanr, says that just a few months earlier, she had witnessed her older brother and sister die.
“A day before last Holi, my brother Ropna went to Satbarwa taking an ox there for someone for payment,” says Baghiya. “He returned home with a foot injury. A few days later, he fell very ill and died.” That same week her sister Seeta died, Baghiya adds, though the cause of her illness was not detected. Baghiya’s youngest brother Sudhan, who had worked in a brick kiln in Varanasi had died of tuberculosis earlier.
“We were four siblings, and I am the only one surviving now,” she says. A few weeks after her mother’s death, her nephew Basant Birijiya’s family, the only ones in the family’s young generation, left for Kerala to look for work.
Baghiya Birjiya (left) lost three siblings and her mother to destitution. She now works in a brick kiln in Mahudanr
The Birijiya are among the 75 tribal communities recognised as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). Earlier known as Primitive Tribal Groups, they are characterised by their forest-dependent livelihoods, the use of pre-agricultural technologies, and having the smallest populations among all tribes. Traditionally, they survived on hunting and gathering honey, mahua, tuber, bamboo from forests. With reduced forest cover and ecological changes, they live in precarious conditions and face dire hunger and malnutrition.
In a bid to preserve and boost their dwindling populations, for decades, the government did not allow the PVTGs to access sterilisation facilities. Though as Santosh Kujur a teacher in a school in Dumbarpaat village in Bishunpur block in Gumla district that will vote on April 29 as part of Lohardaga constituency said under the current NDA government at center and Raghubar Das-led BJP government in Jharkhand state the attack on Adivasis forest and land rights have intensified. Budhni’s family’s experience of multiple deaths within a year shows, these communities are struggling to survive and find an adequate livelihood.
The Supreme Court in the Right to Food case on May 2003 had said all PVTG households are entitled to Antyodaya ration cards, meant for the “poorest of the poor”. The ration card entitles them to 35-kilo rice at ₹1 per kilo every month under the National Food Security Act.
In Jharkhand, these communities also get a small but crucial monthly social security pension of ₹600, which for many elderly adivasis is the only source of cash income.
An investigation by social activists of the Right to Food Campaign in Jharkhand in January after Budhni Birijiyan’s hunger death—it was among the 19 hunger deaths recorded in Jharkhand since 2017—showed that the family did not have a ration card, and received no social security pensions.
After her mother’s death, the Latehar administration had provided Baghiya Birjiya with a ration card. Her nephew Basant Birijiya’s family had left for Kerala seeking work and could not get a ration card, she said. Baghiya now lives with Akhtarun, her old colleague at the brick kiln, who had worked along with her for years carrying bricks in the furnace for ₹150-180 a day. The two women rear three goats for subsistence.
While a Birijaiya woman’s death from chronic hunger in the town at Mahuadanr made headlines and got some redress, in Arahans village, 25 kilometres away, several Birijiya families, especially women and elderly Brijiya Adivasis, struggled with lack of essential public services and social security.
Bandhan Birijiya, an elderly man, says that the traditional livelihood of the Birijiya tribe, along with the Asurs, also a PVTG tribe, was to smelt iron to make tools like “hal, ghana, saabar, teer” (spades, axes, ploughs and arrows). New, faster mining technologies as well as forest laws that restricted them from burning wood to produce charcoal used in their smelting work, made their traditional means of livelihood redundant. “The governments brought laws to restrict us from going into the forest,” says Bandhan, who has a medium built and white, receding hair.
Bandhan Birijiya and Sahri Birijiya have both been denied pension despite applying many times at their home in Arahans
Bandhan had worked most of his life at bauxite mines a few kilometres away. For years, he manually broke rocks that contained bauxite ore with a spear and spade and loaded them onto trucks. It was backbreaking work, but the mining companies paid only ₹15 a day. Now, in old age, he has no savings.
Thirty years on, the wage for breaking and loading bauxite rocks had increased to ₹200, and most Birijiya and other Adivasi men continued to do the same work for uncertain daily wages.
Adivasi workers earn ₹200-220 a day in bauxite mines for breaking rocks manually and loading them on trucks
Under the Jharkhand government Aadim Jan Jaati Pension Yojana (AJJPY), or PVTG pension scheme, all PVTG households are entitled to the social security pensions. As per the Ministry of Rural Development’s National Social Assistance Programme portal, all but five of the 649 PVTG households in Mahuadanr block in Latehar get this pension. But on the ground, this is not true. Most families reported not receiving any pension, and several whose applications had been denied.
Bandhan Birijiya and his wife Sahri had tried to get included but failed. “I applied three times, in the village, with the mukhia, at the block office, but they did not give a pension to either my wife or me. Ab haar gaye hai (we feel defeated now),” he says. The elderly couple took care of their infant granddaughter after their son-in-law died in an accident while working in Kerala. They got ration rice, though their granddaughter’s ration card was cancelled after her father died, they say.
Another Birijiya family in the village, Sukhmain and Sangru Birijiya say they too had applied for social security pensions but had not received any. “This land was all rocky,” says Sukhmain Birijiya. “We made it into farms, and we grew rice and paddy on it for the first time. But it is difficult to earn anything now,” she says. They say that there were no works opened under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee that provides 100 days of employment to any household willing to do manual labour. Both worked as farm labour earning ₹150 a day from time to time.
Women said crucial health and nutrition facilities were missing in the village.
In 2011-12, Jharkhand was India’s most impoverished state with 37 per cent of its population under the poverty line. It has 26 per cent Adivasi population. A recent report of the Expert Committee on Tribal Health focusing on Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, examined how accessing health care is a critical challenge for impoverished Adivasi communities.
As per the National Family Health Survey-4 for Jharkhand, only 62 per cent of 12-23 month-old children get basic vaccinations against six major illnesses. Nearly 45 per cent of children under five are stunted, 29 per cent are wasted (low weight for height), indicating malnourishment, and 65 per cent of women have anaemia. The conditions in remote villages such as Arahans show how the poorest fall through the cracks.
Sukhmain’s daughter Neelu Birijiya had given birth to a boy the previous day in the family’s half-built PM Awas Yojana house as the family could not afford to access health services, she says. Though she is entitled to get ₹6,000 as maternity benefit entitlement under the 2013 food security law, a scheme Modi had introduced again in December 2016 after renaming the scheme, Birijiya had not received any maternity support despite having a bank account. Poonam Lakda, a frail woman who has six children, says she could not get two of her children vaccinated because there was no Anganwadi in Arahans. “We do not find out when health workers visit the Anganwadi at Khairipaath village downhill, because it is at a distance,” she says.
Poonam Lakda (centre) says she was not able to get her children vaccinated despite trying because there was no Anganwadi in their village in Arahans
Neelu Birijiya gave birth at her half-built house by herself the previous day because the family could not afford to go to Mahuadanr, 25 km away
Ten kilometres away too, in Chaapipaath, a hamlet of the Korwa Adivasis, also a PVTG tribe, many families cannot access social security pensions and basic public facilities. Ration dealers give them 32-kilo grains instead of their full entitlement of 35 kilos, they say.
Kalawati Korwa says the only service that worked well in the hamlet was that the Anganwadi provided eggs once a week to children. Most families lived in dilapidated houses built by a government contractor under development assistance funds meant for Korwa families.
“Our ancestors made and sold bamboo utensils like soop, toki, bainwa(baskets, brooms). But now there are bamboo groves left only deep inside the forest,” says Lakhni Korwain. Her husband Bhola Korwa who worked for years in brick kilns in Bengal has started working in the bauxite mines nearby, the same ones that Bandhan Birijiya the village elder in Arahans had worked at in his youth.
Bhola Korwa and Lakhni Korwain at their home in Chaapipath village. Korwas made and sold bamboo products earlier and now most families work in bauxite mines nearby for daily wages
Korwa did not hold a regular job there though and was paid ₹220 for breaking ore stones with a hammer and loading them on a truck. The earnings at the bauxite mines, which include large mines run by the Aditya Birla Group’s Hindalco Industries Limited, are as low as the wages in unregulated brick kilns, says Korwa.
“At the kilns, they paid us ₹300 for every 1,000 bricks made,” he says. “Here, the truck drivers hired by mining contractors pay ₹900 for every truck four of us load and fill with rocks we break.” The past week, there was no work either for miners or for those loading trucks like Korwa after three large mines of Hindalco Industries near these villages were closed down after a massive accident at the firm’s alumina refining plant, 65 km from Ranchi, on April 9.
The only sign that a parliament election is approaching is a jeep with a loudspeaker that passes through Arahans playing bhojpuri songs, asking voters to support Rajendra Sahu, an independent candidate. There have been no political speeches or rallies by major national parties even in a hundred kilometres distance of these villages. No political representatives or campaigners have visited, say the Birijiyas, Korwa and Asur families.
The only election campaign activity in Birijiya hamlets was a truck with loudspeakers hired by an independent candidate Rajendra Sahu in Chatra constituency
In Ranchi and Mahuadanr town, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party has put up large hoardings asking voters to re-elect Narendra Modi as prime minister for his muscular leadership and military response to Pakistan in Balakot air-strike. The issues of livelihood and access to social services are nowhere in sight.
“No one died of hunger”
In Ranchi, the state capital, Saryu Rai, the minister of food and civil supplies in the current BJP government in Jharkhand, denied that anyone including Budhni Birijiya, had died from hunger. “If you examine these 19 deaths recorded in the past two years in detail, you will find that maybe a few lacked enough nutrition, but it was usually someone who was old or someone who died because of the cold,” he says.
Minister Rai added: “We are the only state government that has set up a protocol to investigate cases of hunger or starvation. We have created a revolving fund of ₹10,000 for the panchayat mukhia to help any family in extreme destitution if there are suffering from extreme hunger,” he says.
Absent from political agenda
Dayamani Barla, an Adivasi activist, says it was not just the governing party, but even the Opposition that had failed to make malnutrition, livelihood, and social welfare a political issue. “The Opposition including the Congress (which is fielding the Opposition candidates in Chatra and Lohardaga seats) is focused on saving their party. They do not care about looking out for Jharkhand’s people,” she says.
Jharkhand Congress President Dr Ajoy Kumar said the party had regularly spoken against Adivasi and moolvasi (domicile residents)’s access to social welfare. “We have demanded why the central government slashed funds by half for maternity and child schemes and raised questions of why the state government failed to make pension and MNREGA payments on time, but these issues are also not highlighted by the press,” he says.
The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) that won two out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in the last elections—the rest went to the BJP-Led coalition—makes a brief mention of hunger deaths in Jharkhand in its manifesto released on April 27. Noting that “making Aadhaar mandatory in social schemes is depriving people of their welfare benefits”, JMM says it stands for a policy of not making Aadhaar mandatory for the poor, who face glitches and biometric errors in accessing ration and pensions.
JMM leader and former chief minister Hemant Soren says the party is concerned at the government’s failure to address hunger and illness. “More than 30 per cent of our state is below the poverty line. The poverty line is in fact a destitution line, people living at income levels below that are vulnerable to starvation,” he says. “People who are hungry cannot eat nationalism. The BJP government will see the impact of their neglect on the election results,” he adds.
Right to food campaign activists say this was “promising”, but not adequate. “It is good that at least JMM included some of the people’s demands such as making Aadhaar voluntary, protecting Forest Right Act and repealing land acquisition amendment. But it is silent on universalisation and expansion of welfare and basic services,” says Siraj Dutta, an activist with Jharkhand Janadhikar Manch, a coalition of social activist groups. The activists’ groups had on March 11 released a demand charter asking the new government to increase social security pensions to ₹3,000 a month, besides measures such as providing eggs six times a week in Anganwadis and universalising access to food, education, health and maternity benefits.
Chatra constituency is set to vote today as Jharkhand goes to polls in the fourth phase of the elections.