New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced a complete lockdown of the country for a period of twenty-one days. All work, except that of essential service providers, is to be stopped. Daily wage workers nationwide are suffering under the lockdown because of the nature of their work. Hunger and poverty are looming over their heads.
The prime minister’s Lok Sabha constituency, Varanasi, is no exception.
On Wednesday, a group of children were seen sitting cross-legged and eating grass, called “akri” in the local language. The six kids, about five years old, from the Musahar community, live in the Musahar Basti in Koiripur village in the Badagaon block of Varanasi district. They have been identified as Rani, Pooja, Vishal, Neerhu, Soni and Golu. Out of desperation and hunger, the children were eating the grass usually given to cattle as fodder from a wheat field in the village.
In another video, a group of children can be seen eating phaliyan, a small bean-like shrub attached to the straw given to cattle to eat, from a plate.
Of the ten families that reside in Musahri basti, there are about twelve kids under the age of ten. The earning members of most of the families, are daily wage earners and work in construction factories and brick kilns nearby. Due to the lockdown, sealed borders and suspended transportation, workers are stuck in different parts of the state, while others are sitting at home without any work, according to a reporter who lives close by and witnessed the children eating grass.
On Monday, a day after the Janta Curfew, the children of the family, according to Tiwari, remained hungry. Tiwari said, “Late in the evening, after a funeral procession in the village, the family filled their bellies with leftover food from the 13th-day ritual after the death of a person, called, ‘Tehrevin‘ But it wasn’t enough. The next day, hunger came again in full force. Desperate, they picked up potatoes from nearby farms to boil and eat. But on Wednesday, they had no other option left but to eat grass that was usually given to cattle to eat. It was a painful sight; they were eating this grass with salt.”
After the photograph of them eating grass went viral on local social media handles in Varanasi, the administration intervened.
Sanjay Kumar Singh, station officer of Badagaon police chowki, visited the village on Wednesday and offered to help the family. In a video acquired by The Wire, he can be heard saying, “You should have reached out to the police station, or to the SDM. Go to the Pradhan. If he doesn’t listen to you, come to us if you are in trouble.”
Singh can also be seen reassuring a man from the family that the SDM and Pradhan of the village have been informed of the incident, and that they should collect some food from their office. According to local, Kaushal Raj Sharma, district magistrate of Varanasi made 15 kgs of ration available to the villagers on Wednesday with assistance from Sanjay Kumar Singh as well as the Pradhan of the village, Shivraj Yadav.
One of the male members of the village said, “We have received about 15 kgs of grocery for the next 21 days, and in the next month they have said they will again help us if we need it.”
A woman from the village, said, “For the past few days, people here were close to dying. My kids were so hungry, they had to eat grass with salt and water. We went to the Pradhan, he didn’t help us. He said he’ll see what can be done. Only after 3-4 days, we received some food –we don’t know if that too will be enough for all the houses here.”
Ajay Rai, an ex MLA from the area, and currently a Congress member, also sent some relief material to the villagers. He said, “People in that area hadn’t eaten for 2-3 days. As I have been an MLA from that area, I had an idea about how badly this sudden lockdown would affect the people of the Musahar community who work in brick kilns in nearby villages. Keeping that in mind, I have made available three days’ worth of food.”
He also said that people in that area can only dream about things such as “sanitisers”, as they didn’t even have soaps to wash their hands with. Keeping that in mind, he said he had sent some soaps along with food items.
Attacking the prime minister, Rai said, “This is his constituency. He even addressed the people of his constituency, but did he mention the poor? Did he do anything for these people?”
District authorities clarify
However, the local administration has claimed that children were actually eating pulse, and not grass.
After multiple reports of kids eating grass came out from the area, the DM, Kaushal Raj Sharma, released a photograph of his son eating the same grass, claiming that “it is fit for human consumption.”
On Thursday, the DM also sent a notice to Vijay Vineet and Subhash Rai, author and editor of the newspaper Jansandesh Time, which first carried the news. He claimed that the “reporters were spreading fake news” during “sensitive times” and “defaming the Musahar community.”
Ismat Ara is a Mass Communication student at AJKMCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia.