HINDIYANKALAN, India – One afternoon last November, 10 people in this eastern Indian village sat in a circle on a dirt road and told us about their fight against hunger. We wanted to know: What would drive a person to eat a poisoned root?
I was on a research assignment with my colleague Ankita Aggarwal from the Centre for Equity Studies, a New Delhi think tank. It was part of a broader investigation we are conducting of government responses to starvation deaths as India debates sweeping reforms to its food policies.
Hindiyankalan – a drought-stricken village in Chatra district in Jharkhand state that has no electricity and is six miles from the nearest paved road – was a good place to examine how the weakest communities in Indian society, the indigenous tribes, are confronting chronic hunger.
Tribal communities are worse off than India’s average on a host of malnutrition indicators. For example, 54% of their children under five years old are underweight compared with the 43% national average, according to India’s national family health survey. So-called “primitive tribes” like the Birhors of Hindiyankalan are in even worse condition.
We were also interested to see whether it makes a difference when a tragic incident gets widespread attention. The starvation deaths we were investigating in Hindiyankalan happened in early October 2008 and sparked a wave of initial media outrage. The chief minister of Jharkhand later instituted a state-wide program that promised all primitive tribal groups free grains. The state also ordered local village councils to maintain emergency stocks of about a half a ton of grain to prevent starvation deaths.
Yet by the time we visited, it was clear there was confusion among government departments on how to follow through on those and other promises and, more worrisome, there was a general reluctance to acknowledge starvation deaths and address their primary causes.
As we sat chatting with the villagers, we heard families describe how difficult it was to get government-subsidized grains and how poorly other government welfare programs were functioning. They told us that children only receive government-mandated mid-day meals in school four or five days per month. (The village school is closed on the remaining days, partly because of a lack of staff.) They told us how family members were forced to migrate to far-away states in search of work as contracted laborers because there were no local jobs.
Sahria Devi, a 65-year-old widow, sat next to us, alert but quiet. She wore a nose ring and a red, yellow, and blue sari. Deep wrinkles lined her forehead.
Afterward we met her outside her small brick home at the end of a narrow dirt path lined with bushes. She was busy working, carving a stick of bamboo with a sheering knife – a step in the process of making a soop, a basket used to separate husk from rice. A group gathered around us while she recollected the days of October 2008.
The story actually starts much earlier, she explained. Villagers had been unable to get discounted grains from the government since 1998, despite clearly meeting the “below poverty line” threshold for such benefits. Only four food ration cards had been distributed to them since 2000, according to an investigation by a state activist who advises the Supreme Court on hunger issues. The investigation also found that the grain shop dealer in the area was selling grains on the open market and falsifying records to make it look like villagers were actually getting their food delivered.
“My family was starving”, she said.
The Birhors, whose population is estimated at around 10,000, had a history as farmers and hunters and traders of forest produce. Today, the community survives by collecting and selling honey and wood from the forest and selling soops for 15 rupees (30 U.S. cents) each.
Ms. Devi’s family’s only source of income in 2008 was from selling soops. The rate then was seven rupees (14 cents). She, her three sons – Lalan, Anil, and Sunil – and two daughter-in-laws could make two or three per day. It was never enough to feed the household’s eight people, including her grandsons, Kuldeep and Korhiya, who were two and four years old at the time. Sometimes, the family would trade in soops for one kilogram of rice.
The family was legally entitled to a ration card from the national “Antyodaya Anna Yojana” program, which would allow it to get 35 kilograms of grain at highly discounted prices. The Supreme Court had ordered in 2003 that all primitive tribal groups should qualify – part of a series of orders in the Court’s longstanding “right to food” public interest case. But Ms. Devi couldn’t get a card, despite her pleas with local leaders.
In fact, none of the programs the Court has mandated were working properly. The village didn’t, for example, have an Integrated Child Development Services center, which is supposed to guarantee all children under the age of six, adolescent girls, and pregnant mothers free supplementary meals of adequate protein and nutrients. Instead, the service ran out of one villager’s home, where kichidi (rice and lentils) was provided to children two or three days per month.
Ms. Devi’s family, like the rest of the Hindiyankalan Birhors, survived on next to nothing: a bit of rice, which they would eat once daily with chakora, a local spinach, and a wild root known as gethi. Gethi is poisonous. The toxins are drained by steeping the root in water for 24 to 40 hours.
On the night of Oct. 1, 2008 villagers were so hungry they could not wait to detoxify the gethi, so 20 to 25 people ate the raw root and fell ill. They vomited and suffered bouts of diarrhea. The nearest hospital was just 13 kilometers away, but villagers couldn’t get the sick people there. None of the Birhors in Hindiyankalan have a motorized vehicle. They generally carry patients to the hospital manually on a cot, but the journey, which involves navigating unpaved roads with deep ditches and sharp rocks, is too dangerous to do at night.
Eight people died in the village that night. Among them were Ms. Devi’s two grandchildren and her daughter-in-law, Jethi Devi, who was Lalan’s wife.
Deputy Commissioner Manoj Kumar, the senior-most bureaucrat in the region, acknowledged that the Birhors are suffering and said the state is committed to preventing starvation deaths. “It is true that Hindiyankalan is one of the most neglected regions,” he said. He said vacancies in key administrative posts are to blame for the failure to implement policies to improve the lives of tribal communities in the area.
That October, Indian newspapers such as Naya Duniya, Dainik Jagran, Hindustan Times, and Prabhat Khabar reported the deaths in over 30 stories.
They documented the defunct public programs, lack of infrastructure, and the struggles people in Hindiyankalan faced to survive. They reported 35 starvation deaths of people classified as primitive tribals throughout the state in that single month. They reported the shocking fact that desperate villagers ate poisoned food to stay alive.
Numerous public officials visited the village in response to public pressure. Jharkhand’s then-Chief Minister, Shibu Soren, launched the “Mukhyamantri Khadyan Sahayata Yojana,” which entitled all primitive tribals to 35 kilograms of grain free of charge. New ration cards were distributed to all villagers immediately. Those steps had some positive effects. Today, villagers do have access to the local ration shop on a monthly basis. But they say they are only getting about 25 kilograms of their food benefit.
The causes of the deaths became controversial. According to news reports, Jharkhand’s health minister, Bhanu Pratap Sahi, met with families of victims and acknowledged that shoddy implementation of the government’s food and work programs was denying Birhors their legal entitlements. But Mr. Sahi and other local officials concluded that the deaths were due to food poisoning. Villagers believed it was obvious that food deprivation was the root cause.
The state government ordered an official investigation into the causes of death to settle the controversy. The four-member investigation committee – comprised of the state’s Welfare Secretary, Food and Civil Supplies Secretary, Rural Development Secretary and Health Secretary — didn’t go to the village. Citing the threat of Maoist rebels who are active in the area, they instead summoned the Birhors to a meeting in a nearby town. The report they submitted to Jharkhand’s chief secretary on Oct. 31, 2008, did raise questions about the government’s poor delivery of social services. But it concluded that the cause of death was food poisoning. No autopsies were conducted on the bodies.
The Supreme Court has ordered that officials must investigate and then fix any failures in food-delivery programs immediately after any starvation deaths occur. Chief secretaries of states – the top bureaucrats – can be held accountable for not following through and showing progress. Fixing the programs would mean some heavy lifting – filling large numbers of vacancies in administrative posts, replacing under-performing government officers and increasing coordination between programs that now operate in silos.
Officials responsible for nutrition and health programs, for example, acknowledge that chronic hunger and malnutrition afflict the people of Hindiyankalan. But their primary concerns are to meet the mandates of their respective departments. “There is a lot of malnutrition here,” said Ravinder Lal, a physician at the government medical facility nearest to the village. “But we’re from the medical side. We can only treat health problems.”
Dr. Lal was part of a team of physicians, led by Shivshankar Pandey, that visited Hindiyankalan after the deaths and concluded food poisoning was the cause. Dr. Pandey and his team gave out mosquito nets and medicines and took blood samples of 50 people who were sick with malaria. They also administered saline solution to 15 villagers for dehydration.
Balaram, an activist who goes by only one name and is the state’s advisor to the Supreme Court on hunger-related matters, was with us when we met Dr. Lal. He told the doctor that his own investigation a few days after the deaths found evidence of severe malnutrition in the area. All children in the village were underweight, he said.
My colleague Ankita and I told Dr. Lal that before people decided to eat the poisoned roots out of desperation, they were living with chronic hunger. They had not been able to get government-subsidized grains for 10 years. We wanted to know if this was taken into consideration during the official team’s investigation.
“Do you agree that these people weren’t receiving subsidized food grains at the time of the deaths?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” Dr. Lal said. “I am not willing to say. That is (the people’s) problem.”
Starvation is a brutal but little-discussed reality in India. The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time is publishing a six-part series on starvation, showcasing the findings of an investigation by the Centre for Equity Studies, a New Delhi think tank that is researching hunger and advocating reforms of India’s food policies. The series of essays documents the stories of starvation victims, explores the primary causes of their deaths, and argues fiercely that India must overhaul its broken food security system. We welcome your comments and feedback.