Op-Ed: Kashipur to Jharigaon: Precious little has changed

It all sounds so eerily familiar. Three members of a tribal family die in a span of 18 hours after consuming a gruel made of fermented mango kernel in Mainapadar village in Jharigaon block of Nabarangpur district. And within an hour or so of the last of the three deaths, a minister is quick to dismiss any suggestion that it could be a case of starvation deaths – even before the post mortem is conducted. The family owns a tractor and one of the deceased is a ward member, Commerce and Transport minister Ramesh Chandra Majhi, himself a tribal, points out.

Nabarangpur CDMO Sivarani Mishra all but blames the family for the deaths. “Despite suffering from nausea and diarrhoea, they stayed back at home. It was only after a 15-year-old girl in the family died that the three others complaining of similar symptoms were rushed to the Jharigaon hospital and later referred to the district hospital,” he said.

Here is my two-penny worth prediction about how things would unfold over the next few days. The post mortem and viscera would find that food particles were present in the stomachs of the deceased, which would automatically rule out the possibility of it being a case of starvation. The inquiry by the block and revenue officials would find that the family of Arjun Santa was covered under the NFSA and had lifted its quota of subsidised rice shortly before the deaths: further ‘proof’ that it could not have been a case of starvation death. At least I won’t be surprised if a minister, a ruling party spokesperson or an official attributes the deaths to the inexplicable fascination for mango kernel among tribals of the area.

Seventeen years ago, the same routine was played out in Kashipur in Rayagada district, not far from the place where the latest round of mango kernel deaths has taken place. The difference was only one of scale. While three persons, all of them from the same family, have died in the latest tragedy, at least 24 people from a cluster of villages in Kashipur block had perished to the killer gruel in 2001. Then, as now, there was a desperate – and laughable – attempt to blame it on the tribals’ preference for mango kernel over rice. The then chief secretary had actually termed mango kernel as a highly nutritious ‘delicacy’!

A scene from that trip to Kashipur remains etched indelibly in memory. On my way back after visiting the villages where the deaths had taken place, I saw hundreds of people – men and women, young and old – on the road carrying sacks on their heads. On enquiry, I found that all of them were carrying powdered mango kernel on their head to the panchayat office to barter it for rice. [After over 20 deaths, an embarassed state government had just announced that it would provide rice in equal measure for mango kernel surrendered by tribals.] I remember asking an old, frail looking woman why she had taken the trouble of trekking such a long distance under a scorching sun when they preferred it over rice. Her answer stumped me. “Why shall we eat ‘tanku peja’ if rice is available?” she asked in response, clearly annoyed at the sheer silliness of my question. Her answer convinced me for good that this weird theory of the tribals’ preference for mango kernel was the creation of the fertile imagination of some mandarin in the establishment to shift blame. If someone in the ruling dispensation does come up with this theory to explain away the Mainapadar deaths, you know what to make of it!

As in the present case, there was an attempt to whitewash the administration’s failure in preventing starvation deaths by branding the victim family as ‘rich’ in 2001 too. If minister Ramesh Majhi found out that Arjun Santa owned a tractor in the present case, Bishnupada Sethi, the then Collector of Rayagada and the present Special Relief Commissioner, had come up with the startling revelation that Biswanath Majhi, three members of whose family had died after consuming mango kernel, was a ‘zamindar’ of sorts who employed 20 people in his ‘large’ farm. I had read the story in India Today, the magazine owned and edited by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s buddy Aroon Purie, which had quoted the Collector, before leaving Bhubaneswar and had made it a point to visit Biswanath’s house to find out the truth. It looked like anything but a ‘zamindar’s house and was no different from other thatched and ramshackle kuchha houses in Panasguda village. And the ‘large farm’ that the Collector had talked about turned out to be a patch of undulating land on a hill slope measuring no more than half an acre where nothing except ‘suaan’ (a grain grown in the area) grew. The produce from the ‘large farm’ sustained the family for barely three months a year.

There was more surprise waiting for me. The ‘hiring’ of labourers by Biswanath turned out to be part of a unique system of ‘labout barter’ widely prevalent in the area where no one has the wherewithal to hire labourers for agricultural or household work. Under the well settled norms of the practice, the hirer’s responsibility is limited to providing lunch to the ‘labourers employed’: no money is paid. Biswanath, who had ‘hired’ a few people, had given the same ‘tanku peja’ that his family members had prepared for itself by way of lunch. The result was catastrophic: seven people died, including three members of the zamindar’s own family: his wife, mother and son.

The truth about the administration’s claim that all the victims had BPL cards and had lifted their quota of rice before their death turned out to be even more devastating. ALL of them had mortgaged their BPL cards for a few rupees since they did not have the money to buy even the subsidised rice available under PDS (Rice@Re 1 was still some years away)! I, for one, would not be surprised if it is revealed tomorrow that the family of Arjun Santa had also mortgaged its NFSA card.

Nor should anyone be surprised if the state government sets in motion the same tried and tested routine aimed at obfuscating the whole issue that has helped it sweep scores of starvation deaths under the carpet over the years.

Precious little has changed between Kashipur, 2001 and Jharigaon, 2018.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).