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India: A Model Village Where People Starve To Death

Tarun Kanti Bose

Dayarampur (Jalangi): West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya had once declared Dayarampur—a village near the Indo-Bangladesh border and situated on the banks of River Padma—as a model village. Now the village has turned into a hungry hamlet, with several confirmed deaths being reported in the past ten months.

The River Padma has swallowed up agricultural lands, gardens and residential huts. The uncontrolled erosion over the years has displaced the villagers and pushed them to the brink of death. After losing everything, they have little option but to beg or toil in other people’s farms as agricultural labourers. If they are fortunate enough, they manage to afford one meal a day for their families. If not, they go hungry. It has been found that majority of the children in the village suffer from night-blindness caused by the lack of vitamin A.

A starving family of Jalangi: If they are fortunate enough, they manage to afford one meal a day...if not, they go hungry.
 

In the village, we met Jahan Ara Bewa with her skinny little granddaughter Rupali, clinging to her lap. She told us that her husband, Hazrat Mollah and mother, Afizan Bewa died of starvation in September 2005. Crying helplessly, she said: “After losing my husband and mother I have to beg and feed my daughter, Nargissa, my granddaughter and myself. Nargissa’s husband has no work so he sent his wife back.  See my daughter and granddaughter, how emaciated they look. They have not eaten for three days. People have nothing to give us as the river has gobbled up everything. I live on Samir Sarkar’s land. I have still not been issued a BPL card. But Santosh Roy, head of the Ghoshpara Gram Panchayat and CPI(M) functionary threatened us to keep silent, even if we are starving”.

Agricultural labourer, Alauddin Shiekh lost his father, Alimuddin Shiekh, and mother, Zaheda Bewa in February 2005 when they both starved to death. Said Alauddin Shiekh: “My abba (father) lost his homestead in the erosion caused by the River Padma and then took to begging. Five days after his death, my ammi (mother) also died.” Standing nearby, Gopen Sharma, human rights activist and campaigner on behalf of starvation victims said: “Rendered penniless by the erosion, Alimuddin Shiekh took to begging. But who could afford to give alms in a village that had lost everything? So though both Alimuddin and his wife begged they were unable to feed themselves even once a day.

Their daughter-in-law Golenur Biwi joined a group of male labourers carrying soil for a  road construction project—under Swarnajayanti Gram Rozgar Yojana (SGRY—Golden Jubilee Village Employment Scheme) and commissioned by the Ghoshpara Gram Panchayat. But none of the villagers were paid for their labour, apparently due to problems with the ‘paymaster’”. Alauddin confirmed, “My wife thought that her labour would help keep my father and mother alive. But she was deprived of her dues of Rs. 20 and 7 kilograms of rice and my father and mother died.”

We were also informed that, after Alimuddin’s death was reported in ‘The Statesman’, the district administration hastily got his dying wife, Zaheda, admitted to a hospital. But it was all too late. She developed friction-induced bruises on her body—due to writhing in hunger on the earthen veranda of her hut. Being malnourished for several months, she also suffered from liver malfunction and died five days after her husband.

Maneka Mandal, who lost her 16-year-old son Gadal in December 2004, said: “Unable to bear the hunger anymore, my son ate limestone paste thinking it was curd. My husband, Sasti Mandal died of tuberculosis. But still we have not got any government assistance. The BDO, Nakhul Chandra Mahato, promised me assistance of Rs. 20,000 but I have still not got a single paisa from him. But there are many like myself, struggling to feed their families but who have not been provided with a ration card under any welfare scheme, be it the Antyodaya or Annapurna Scheme.”

Another villager Saiful Shah, revealed: “Most of the welfare schemes meant for starving erosion victims or their families are being appropriated by Amir Mandal, Attar Mandal and Idris Mandal, who are neither poor nor starving but close to the CPI(M). They are also known to be involved in smuggling items such as cows, rice, fodder, lentils, wheat etc., to Bangladesh under the direct supervision of the BSF.”

Shyamolie Haldar, who lost her two-year-old daughter, Bipanna Haldar, began weeping when asked about her daughter's death. She said: “We were unable to feed our two children. Our only daughter, Bipanna, died in March 2005 because we could not feed her and she used to eat rubbish and soil. Five days prior to her death, her stomach swelled up and it was found that she had been eating dirt. Even now, one meal a day is a luxury for us. But despite our plight, we have not received any government assistance, yet.  Rather, Husna Ara Begum, a CPI(M) functionary and member of Ghoshpara Gram Panchayat, tried to silence us into submission. She told us, ‘you had no right to voice your woes to Gopen Sharma or Manavadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM). Now you will not get any relief.’ She tells me to ask Gopen and MASUM for a BPL card.”

In the village, we meet Sanjeev Karmakar, who ran a blacksmith shop until it was totally destroyed by River Padma in September 2005. Inconsolable and broken-hearted, Sanjeev’s father, Gurupadha Karmakar could not take the devastation and died just three days later. Remembering those fateful days, Sanjeev started crying like a child. He said: “My father’s last wish was that his body be immersed in the Padma. So I tied his corpse to some boulders and dropped it in the river.”

When asked about his current situation he replied: “River Padma has gobbled up everything that belonged to us. As relief, we were offered (by the government) a polythene sheet to cover our roof and a few kilograms of rice. But now we have no money and food and no choice but to toil hard in the field or beg on the streets. This winter, we will have to shiver throughout the night as we have only one thin blanket for our nine-member family.” 

Faijuddin Biswas, another victim of starvation, and popularly referred to as ‘Faij kaka’ said, “The CPI(M) led State government is totally indifferent to our plight. Its functionaries and supporters in the Panchayat are appropriating all the relief materials meant for us victims. The villagers, whose land and homestead were destroyed by the Padma, have to starve, beg, toil on others’ farms or involve themselves in cross-border smuggling. The villagers earn a pittance while a few flourish, sharing their booty with the CPI(M) MLA, police, BSF and even government officials.”

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