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'Becoming Beggars': As Lockdown Lifts, Hunger Returns to Bengal's Jangalmahal

In the villages of one of the poorest districts of West Bengal, the lockdown has meant fewer meals and mounting debts.

Across Purulia: Since the lockdown was imposed, Phuleswari Sahis has been living on charity.

Every morning, her sole objective is sourcing rice for the day. Sometimes she walks more than 5-6 kilometres to the market area called Majhidih haat where NGOs come to distribute free ration. “We have no ration card, so we don’t get rice from the government. We have become beggars since the lockdown was imposed,” said the 27-year-old Sahis.

Fifty-six-year-old Deben Sahis has a family of five. Their ‘lockdown meal’ is a steady rice broth, with salt and chillies. Fearing an imminent shortage of rice, they try to eat less.

Before the lockdown, Deben would to climb up a Jabar hill every day, cut wood, walk back down and go to a nearby market to sell it, clocking a total of 15-16 kilometres, only to earn Rs 65. If lucky, he would get Rs 70.

“Now we are alive because of rice given by the state government, without that we would be dead by now,” said Deben. More than 24 hours have passed since his last meal. “The rations are about to get over soon. So, my wife and I decided to eat once daily and give food twice a day to our kids,” he said.

These stories are from Purulia, the west-central district of West Bengal, about 300 kilometres away from Kolkata. Purulia is one of the poorest and most backward districts of the state, with more than 50% of the population living Below Poverty Line (BPL).  Its geographic location, the drought-prone land, the predominant presence of tribal groups, illiteracy, and politicians’ sustained ability to ignore the region has resulted in its poor economic development.

Phuleswari and Deben’s experience is, naturally, not unique. The whole Dumurdih village of Majhidih gram panchayat has the same story to narrate.Villages across Purulia have faced similar hunger.

47-year-old Amabati Sahis of Dumurdih village in front of her house. Photo: Himadri Ghosh

Between June 7 and 8, this correspondent travelled to over 18 villages spread across five gram panchayats of Purulia district to assess the hardship faced by the people of rural Bengal during the lockdown.

Travelling 35 km from Purulia town, on the asphalt Purulia-Ranchi Road, cutting through dry farmlands on both sides, one reaches Kotshila. Narrow, muddy roads thereafter make it impossible for a four-wheeler to progress. Which makes it imperative to take a motorcycle for about 16 kilometres to reach Dumurdih village.

Dumurdih is located in one of the remotest corners of Purulia and has a population of around 700. A majority of villagers have mud houses, on an average, 15 by 20 feet. Some say they built their houses under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana (PMGAY).

Also read: Coronavirus Lockdown: As Hunger Grows, the Fear of Starvation Is Real

Forty-seven-year-old Amabati Sahis had received rations once in April. She was yet to receive May’s ration on June 8. “Life was always ruthless to us. Now it’s worse. I have four kids to feed, but I have nothing to give them. How can a mother see her kids go to sleep hungry?” said Amabati.

For food, Amabati took a loan of Rs 1,000 from a local moneylender or mahajan. With interest, at the end of six months, she has to pay him Rs 1,600. “After borrowing the money, I bought some rice to eat. How will I pay him back when there is no work? It’s better to die than live in this condition,” said Amabati.

Juru Majhi, thinking the correspondent was from the BDO office, came running. Juru has a bigha (6,760 square metres) of land on which he grew tomatoes this January. Plants started producing fruits at the end of March when the lockdown was imposed. “I grew around 11 quintals (1,100 kg) of tomato, and could not even sell 200 kg because of the lockdown. Some villages blocked the road, police didn’t allow us to take the produce to market. Everything was wasted,” he said.

Juru broke down. “Everything is lost. We usually get Rs 10-12 for a kilogram of tomatoes. Whatever was sold, I had to sell for Rs 1-2 per kg. I gave it for free to my fellow villagers and the rest, I had to dump.” He took Rs 6,000 as loan and spent around Rs 13,000 for cultivation.

Shyamal Gan of Lok Kalyan Parishad, a NGO working in rural Bengal for several years, said, “Purulia possibly has the highest number of people below the poverty level in the state. The sudden lockdown announcements have crushed their livelihood. Thousands of people are sleeping hungry every night.”

56-year-old Deben Sahis. Photo: Himadri Ghosh

Gan has previously worked with National Sample Survey Office as senior field superintendent. He said over 70-80% of agricultural land is only used for growing a single crop in a year. Thus many have dumped their produce as waste because of the lockdown. “It has also pushed many farmers into debt traps. Government must intervene and offer immediate help,” he said.

On the way to the next village, Upar Batri, Nirmal Kumar’s cycle shop is a prominent stop, near Patrahatu village. Kumar opened the shop after 70 days. “On an average, I used to earn Rs 300-400 per day. What will we eat if we don’t work for 70 days?” Kumar said.

Also read: Holding Hunger at Bay During Lockdown: Stories From Bengaluru and the Nilgiris

The cycle is the most popular mode of commute in Purulia, so the profit in the repairing business is relatively more, Kumar explained.

Sunil Mahato, who owns a grocery shop, said that with no income for more 70-80 days, villagers have stopped buying. “They are just living on the government’s free ration. I hardly made any sales in this lockdown period,” Sunil said.

Families complain that their MP has ‘gone missing’. Photo: Himadri Ghosh

Mrintunjoy Mahato, the headmaster of Jilling Lahar high school, is sceptical of the future. “The government imposed the lockdown and for the first 65 days, Purulia had no positive cases. Now when the cases are increasing every day, they open everything,” the local said.

Mahato further said that given the abject poverty that exists in Purulia, the fact that there has been no income for 70-75 days comes with a heavy price. “Majority in Purulia live on daily income, it’s almost impossible to have dignified life now,” Mahato said.

At Upar Batri village are the families of three migrants who were killed after the truck they were travelling in collided with another vehicle in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh on May 16. A total of 27 migrant labourers were killed, of which seven are from Purulia.

Twenty-year-old Arati Rajwar’s son is 14 months old. Arati lost her husband Swapan, who has returning from Rajasthan, in the accident.

Swapan used to work in a marble factory in Ajmer and got paid around Rs 12,000. He had left home in January this year.

“Last time when he called, he said he was coming back. I was happy hearing that. But everything finished within a few hours,” Arati said. Arati and Swapan were married in 2018. At present, Arati has no answer as to what lies ahead.

Two other migrants, Ajit Mahato (32) and Dhiren Mahato (26) from Upar Batri village, also died in the accident. Dhiren Mahato’s father said, “I have learnt a lesson after losing my younger son. I am never going to send my elder son or anyone from the family to work in a far-off land.”

Also read: Packed Into Trucks, Auraiya Deceased Get Ambulance After Jharkhand CM Intervenes

The Purulia district administration had arranged for two ambulances in the aftermath of the accident and hired two private cars to transport the family members of the deceased, with a police escort to Uttar Pradesh. District magistrate Rahul Majumdar and minister Santiram Mahato visited the families of the deceased workers and handed out compensation cheques worth Rs 2 lakh each.

Arati Rajwar, wife of deceased migrant worker Swapan Rajwar, receives a cheque from a Lok Kalyan Parishad member. Photo: Himadri Ghosh

“Our organisation was working closely with the district administration to bring back migrant workers from different states. Upon hearing of this tragic incident, we along with two other social services groups, gave cheques worth Rs 25,000 each to all seven families as a token of solidarity in this tough time,” said Gan.

At the same village lives Rabindranath Mahato, a folk music artist. He said he usually makes Rs 7,000-10,000 every month by singing at various events. Not in the past three months. “Suddenly my income came down to zero. I haven’t earned a single penny in the last 80 days. And the way things are going, I don’t see a change in the next few months,” Rabindranath said.

“All my savings are drying up. If things don’t get better in two months, I will have to beg for food,” he added.

A complaint echoed from all the villages — “Our MP has just vanished. No one knows where he is.”

Villagers across Majhidih and Nowahatu gram panchayats wondered where 35-year-old BJP MP Jyotirmay Singh Mahato was.

To The Wire, Mahato attempted to underplay his absence and said, “I am present in my constituency and I am always available to the people. Obviously, it is not possible to visit each and every village.”

Multiple calls to Shaktipada Mahato, the Trinamool Congress MLA of Joypur legislative assembly went unanswered.