Denied dignity in both life and death, a tribal man from Bengal is now receiving the blame for his own death
India celebrated its 75th Independence Day and the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in August 2022. However, a large part of the indigenous community in India continues to struggle with food security while the country celebrates its laurels.
A fact-finding team from the Right to Food and Work Campaign, West Bengal, visited the family of a 30-year-old Adivasi to make sense of his alleged starvation death August 9, 2022. Coincidentally, the day is also earmarked to celebrate the achievement of indigenous people worldwide.
While white cars of very important people rushed through the rain to attend different ‘celebrations’ for the Adivasis of our country, one indigenous family from a village in Bengal's Jhargram district recounted their chronic food and work insecurity experiences.
Sonu Sardar had gone to the village pond like every day August 3, 2022, but fainted near a neighbour’s house on his way back. Sardar was rushed to a hospital, where he was declared dead.
The medical officer on duty did not share the cause of the death with the family, who were told to wait for the autopsy report that would arrive after 15 days. The family waited 10 hours for Sardar’s body to perform the last rites.
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Sardar’s family had four members — his wife Laxmi Sardar (27) and two children, Geeta (9) and Sonu (6). They had been struggling with food insecurity, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown.
Sardar was a migrant worker who had returned home after the first lockdown in March 2020. The family depended on his wages as a daily labourer, which were irregular and underpaid. He had even applied for a job card under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act but had not received one.
Further conversations revealed the family was struggling for even one meal a day. They had West Bengal ration or RKSY II cards, which provided them only 2 kilogrammes of foodgrains monthly. They had been denied even these meagre provisions for the last six months for not possessing digital cards.
Sardar had to stop working in June after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, so Laxmi had to look for work and buy food. Before Sardar’s death, he and his wife had been eating tiny quantities of food and tried to feed their children first.
The team also met other villagers, who said they had reported several grievances against the local ration dealer.
Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives — female health workers — in the area were also not well aware of the government schemes, the team found. They were unsure whether the money for treating Sardar’s TB under Nikshaya Yojana had been released or not.
The workers did share that there was a prevailing situation of malnutrition and anaemia in the region and TB cases seemed to be on the rise as well.
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The block development officer (BDO) and district magistrate of Jhargram denied that Sardar’s death was due to starvation. However, the district administration has been in a frenzy to prove that Sonu’s death is due to drinking and TB after meetings with the campaign team.
Sardar’s family had another visitor the same day the team met them, the local ration dealer, who threatened Sardar’s younger brother Deb. The dealer also told Deb to sign a piece of paper declaring the cause of death as TB, not starvation.
Officials from the office of the BDO visited Sardar’s house on August 14 and produced a report after talking to Laxmi. However, the report blamed the family’s condition on them.
The ration cards of the family were ready, the report said, but the family had not contacted the right sources. Government service providers could not reach out to them as the family was migrating for work, it claimed.
Another major claim in the report was that Sardar was consuming alcohol regularly despite his TB diagnosis and he was receiving direct benefit transfers of government subsidies regularly.
None of these statements is a complete truth. Sardar and his wife are holders of RKSY II, which is a gross injustice since they are eligible for Antadaya Anna Yojana cards that provide 35 kgs of foodgrains every month.
Both Sardar and Deb had repeatedly gone to the ration dealer and block office to change their RKSY II cards to RKSY I. However, the demand was only raised once Sardar’s death was brought to the notice of the BDO and DM.
Sardar’s entitlement of Rs 500 per month under Nikshaya Yojana for TB was also credited just a week before his death and neither he nor his family was informed.
Lastly, there is no proof of Sonu’s excessive drinking. Neither the doctor who pronounced his death mentioned any reason nor is the postmortem report out yet.
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Sardar’s life and death are reflective of the general apathy and breakdown of the government machinery in a hunger-prone region like the Jungle Mahals of Bengal. Bankura, Purulia and Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram districts of West Bengal are still colloquially referred to as Jungle Mahals from the era of British rule.
The government keeps announcing special schemes, but starvation deaths have also been reported previously and basic health indicators have only worsened, as shown by National Family Health Survey 5.
Distress seasonal migration from such areas is now a widespread phenomenon. Even the Centre is aware of it and has rolled out E-shram portal, One Nation One Ration Card, etc. However, Sardar’s life has fallen through the cracks of these new and old initiatives.
Hunger deaths like these indicate the malicious attitude of those in power to blame the marginalised for their plight. Implementation and information gaps are often covered up with reasons of a large difficult-to-reach unmanageable demography.
In this case, the fact that Sonu and sometimes his wife had to travel out to work to make ends meet is being made to look like a problem and hence a valid reason for their deprivation.
It is also a common phenomenon to describe Adivasis as being too lazy, too dependent on government ‘freebies’ and too preoccupied with drinking and dancing. Unfortunately, Sardar’s life and death will be accounted for within this false stereotypical vocabulary, too.
Mrinalini Paul is a research scholar at TISS and was part of the team that visited Sonu Sardar's family.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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