Poor Puraina

It is early morning in Kushinagar District of Uttar Pradesh when we arrive at the small village of Puraina. Driving through lush green fields of wheat, maize and sugarcane, the area has a definite feeling of prosperity. As we enter Puraina and make our way down streets of thatched houses, small children line up curiously, to see who the outsiders are. Only then do we notice that their bellies are swollen, that they have rough, blond hair and gummy eyes – all telltale signs of malnourishment.

Sheila Musahar cradles her youngest child, Gaeni, who has had a high temperature for the past six days. Sheila is 25 but looks at least ten years older. Gaeni is two, but looks like a six-month-old. Falling ill in Puraina forces reconciliation to disease, as modern medicines are not just rare, but absent. "There isn't enough money to get food; how can we get medicine?" asks Sheila, as she observes her fevered child. Indeed, the nearest health centre is three kilometres away, and for those who do make the trip, money is invariably the next hurdle. Government clinics are supposed to hand out free drugs, but that is just a myth as far as the people of Puraina are concerned.

While the national economy is booming, the health indicators of India's poorest communities have not been keeping pace, and not just in extremely poor communities such as Puraina. Even as Indian foreign-exchange reserves have rocketed from less than USD 6 billion in 1991 to over USD 150 billion in 2007, hunger is currently stalking more than a third of all Indian children. The proportion of children in India under three who are too thin for their height has actually risen, from 16 to 19 percent over the past seven years. In Uttar Pradesh, the latest National Family Health Survey shows that the numbers of anaemic children under three years of age have increased from 73 to 85 percent over the same period. The central government spends less than one percent of its national GDP on health.

Half-chapatti, chilli, rock salt
But it is not just macroeconomics that is holding back Puraina, it is also generations of discrimination – India's very own apartheid. Puraina's 76 families all come from the low-caste Musahar community, and their situation bears witness to the fact that India's outlawed caste-based discrimination is still very much alive and kicking.

The Musahars are one of the most disadvantaged groups in the caste hierarchy – the 'Dalits amongst Dalits', as some have dubbed them. Some say Musahars were originally Adivasis who lost their lands when the British began clearing forests along the Nepali border. Found in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the name of this four million-strong community literally means'rat-eaters', taken from the fact that Musahars have long been forced to scrounge for food by digging out grains from rat burrows. The rats too become food in extreme circumstances.

For Musahars, poverty is not just lack of electricity, education or economic opportunity. Their poverty can kill. Last year, two 50-year-old men died of tuberculosis in Puraina. Both were agricultural labourers, and they contracted the disease largely due to malnourishment. State officials are eager to cover up such incidents, however, and have denied any connection between the deaths and starvation.

During our two-day trip to Puraina in April, we rarely came across anything that could be termed food. When children did have a meal on their plates, it was primarily sticky rice mixed with a little turmeric. There was no daal and no vegetables. Little wonder that the children have hair discoloured by protein deficiency, and eye problems due to Vitamin A deficiency. Sheila's eldest son, seven-year-old Lakhchand, is undoubtedly suffering from this last ailment. With opaque spots on both of his eyes, he finds it difficult to see, constantly blinking and shifting his gaze.

When we ask Sheila what she feeds Lakhchand and her other children, she shows us half a dried chapatti, some chilli and a lump of rock salt. "This is what we usually eat," she says. "Without money, there are no vegetables." Adults who can stomach the taste also eat a bitter wild root called gethi to push back their hunger. February to June are slightly better months for the Musahars. Women are able to dig up leftover potatoes from landowners' fields, and get by making curry or chutney paste out of the pumpkin and arbi leaves that shoot up around their huts, or karmi leaves found along the riverbanks.

The danger of monsoon  
The fact is, nearly every one of the 76 families in Puraina owns a tiny plot of land – most of which are not more than a tenth of an acre. If they get past the fairly regular floods and droughts, the amount of grain that can be grown on these miniscule plots can only see a family through around ten days a year at the most.

Phulia Devi, a 50-year-old grandmother, shows us a special broom she uses to gather leftover grains from the fields of the large-scale land owners. On a good day, she can collect three kilos; on a bad day, nothing. "Till two years back, our kids used to cry their hearts out for food," she says. "We used to put them to sleep by telling them that food will come in the morning." Thanks to a communal grain bank where villagers deposit some wheat or rice post-harvest, and to which aid agencies also make regular contributions, Phulia can now afford to put rice and chapattis on her children's plates on a fairly regular basis. But there is still a long way to go for daal and vegetables to be included.

For the most part, the Musahars' existences have long depended on finding semi-regular agricultural work. With the introduction of mechanical combine harvesters in Kushinagar District, however, threshing and harvesting jobs have all but dried up. Weeding can still earn Musahar labourers a meagre INR 25 a day. To supplement their income, three-quarters of the men in Puraina also make bricks. Turning out 1000 bricks a day earns INR 160 during the summer months and INR 120 in the winter.

At 6:30 in the morning, we meet 24-year-old Ramesh Musahar at a local brick kiln. He has already been working for over an hour, digging out mud, wetting and casting it in brick cases. He tells us that brick work halts during the rains, as does agricultural work. "Monsoon is a time of crisis for us," says Ramesh. "We cannot earn." It is during the rainy season that the Musahars are forced to seek loans from brick-kiln owners and landlords. If they are unable to repay the advances, they mortgage their farms; sometimes, they end up becoming bonded labourers. And monsoon is not the only harbinger of insecurity. A wedding or an illness in the family is enough to unhinge whatever little financial stability a Musahar family has been able to achieve.

Full of holes
Ration cards are supposed to be the government's safety net for communities such as the Musahar. But in Puraina, the net is full of holes. Less than half of Musahar families here have ration cards, which would otherwise entitle them to buy subsidised grains from the government's public distribution system (PDS). Five families do have cards meant for those living below the poverty line, currently pegged at expenditures of less than INR 1600 a month. These Below Poverty Line cards can get a family 35 kilos of grain for a little more than INR 200, about 40 percent less than the market price. Just 27 families have so-called Antyodaya ration cards, which are meant for the poorest of the poor, and entitle holders to 35 kilos of wheat for two rupees per kg, and a similar amount of rice for three rupees.

But in Puraina, even those who do have ration cards have not had them for several months. In January, Musahars were asked to deposit their cards at the ration shop for renewal; since then, not a single family has received a new one. Rumours are rife that the PDS officer is selling off food grains meant for poor villagers for private gain.

The benefits of the government's Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme are also not reaching the Musahars. This programme was designed three decades ago to meet the health needs of toddlers and young children. ICDS centres, commonly known as anganwadis, are supposed to provide panjiri, or grain flour fortified with vitamins, proteins and minerals, to adolescent girls, pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under the age of six. In 2001, the Supreme Court directed India's central and state governments to cover anyone that fell into these categories,"and to ensure that every settlement had at least one functional anganwadi".

But the anganwadi attached to the government school in Rahsu Januvi Patti, the village council under which Puraina falls, is bare. The panjiri sacks that are usually seen piled high on anganwadi floors are missing. Indeed, the school itself is a picture of extreme neglect. Dust, from the ongoing construction of a water tank right outside the school building, has gathered in the classrooms. Cobwebs hang from ceilings. There is no cleaning staff appointed for these school buildings, says the headmaster, Paras Nath Giri. He also shows us a two-year-old classroom with massive cracks in its cement ceiling, which could come crashing down on students at any time. The headmaster says that he has alerted top district officials and the state education minister on these conditions, but with no result.

Seventeen Musahar children from Puraina are enrolled in this school, but none of them are present on the day we visit. Devanti Rao, the anganwadi worker who belongs to a landowning caste, is also nowhere to be seen. The headmaster, who also belongs to a dominant caste, is quick to cover up for her: "She is unwell today." When we enquire about the missing grain, he points to a half-filled sack. When we open it up, the sack contains nothing more than a few school uniforms.  

Away from the glare of the headmaster, Nirmala Devi, the hesitant anganwadi assistant, quietly yields to our questions about what is going on. "Devanti Rao doesn't get the panjiri," she says. "The anganwadi worker, along with ICDS officials, shares the profits they get from selling panjiri as cattle feed."

In Puraina, Musahar women and their children have never even heard of panjiri. If a village has a particularly large number of underfed children, the anganwadi worker is supposed to go there regularly to distribute the mix. Puraina is just a half-kilometre away from its anganwadi, but has Devanti Rao ever visited the village, or monitored the health of its children? "No," she says dismissively, after suddenly appearing. "As if the panjiri would be enough to make them healthy anyway." She refuses to let us photograph her.

There are similar problems with the central government's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 (NREGA), which technically promises poor peasants a minimum of 100 days of work every year. But the programme is executed through village councils, and Indu Devi, the council pradhan in this area, seems unconcerned with the affairs of the villages she represents. Her brother-in-law, on the other hand, shows great interest. Harish Chandra Yadav, the acting chief, has issued job cards to 45 Musahars in Puraina. But the workers say that he had kept their cards with him for many months, so that he could pay them just INR 50 per day, rather than the INR 58 that was then the minimum wage (the national minimum wage has since gone up). In the official records, he could also show more days of work than workers were actually offered.

A new agenda?
The absent anganwadi worker, the corrupt PDS staff, the feudal village chief – none of this is news to Jagdish Mishra, the erstwhile member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly, in Lucknow. Puraina was part of his constituency. When we visited, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party was still in power in Lucknow, and had not yet been ousted by Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). "The ruling state government and the Samajwadi Party does not pay attention to malnutrition or exploitation of Dalits," said Mishra, who is a member of the then-opposition BSP. "This is not the case in Puraina alone; villages across Uttar Pradesh are suffering."

At the time of our visit, Uttar Pradesh was in the throes of assembly elections, but politicians were not talking about the growing number of underfed children in their campaigns. Mishra, however, was keen to talk elections with us. "Unless the corrupt, autocratic Samajwadi government goes, there is no hope." As an elected representative, could he not demand that the district administration gets the required work done, at least in his constituency? "The district administration is not answerable to me," he said. "I have gotten some tube wells installed. Whatever I could do, I did."

The truth is that district administration can be made answerable to anyone who wants to force the matter, Mishra included. But development issues are rarely election issues. When the election results were finally posted, Mishra's party had won, but he had lost his seat. Puraina is now overseen by Vishwanath Singh, of the Samajwadi Party, which is now in the opposition.

With Dalit leader Mayawati now heading the Lucknow government, Puraina's Musahars hope that the district administration will start listening to them. Mayawati has increased the state's minimum wage from INR 58 to INR 80, and Musahar communities are now hoping that there will be corresponding work so they can actually bring home those wages. They also hope that the new government will not play truant with the people who voted them to power. "Our elected leaders remember us only when they are soliciting votes," worries Lalmati of Puraina. Indeed, Puraina Musahars have almost no self-confidence, and find it difficult to believe that a strong collective could change things. "Can we ever come together?" Lalmati asks. "Can we ever improve?"

Not all Musahar villages in Kushinagar have such low self-esteem as seems to be the case in Puraina, and it is this potential momentum on which rights activists are pegging their hopes. Recently, a non-Musahar chief of Gauri Sriram village, in Kushinagar, had to seek forgiveness from Musahars for stealing their NREGA job cards. Furthermore, a dishonest ration official in that village was recently jailed for selling grains at a higher price. "Action against offenders was taken because there was awareness about rights among the Musahars in Gauri Sriram," says Arvind Kumar, a local activist. "They may not have food, but they are not willing to silently stomach exploitation.

~ Anjali Lal Gupta is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. This story was made possible with the assistance of ActionAid

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