By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Kushinagar happened to be one of the finest and most peaceful places of the world according to local quoting mythology. As Lord Buddha found this place as beautiful and peaceful, he decided to stay put here and ultimately got his ‘Mahaparinirwana’ here. Since then, for the Buddhists and all those who believe in human values and humanity, who consider Buddha as humanist per excellence visits this place annually and pay tribute to him. After India opened its door to Foreign Direct Investment and Japanese government also started investing in the Buddhists circuits, Kushinagar became a well known tourist hub where the number of international visitors is growing. The number of land purchase for making hotels, inns and other recreation centres for the foreign nationals is increasing. So is the number of displaced people without any rehabilitation.
Paradox of a historic city where one of the greatest sons of the world preached equality, non-violence and dignity is missing these days. For thousands of Mushhars who once upon a time were officially declared as a criminal tribe by the British, life remain as dark and unpredictable as the electricity in the villages, which can go any moment and come after long hours. Mushhars remained thoroughly disemboweled and marginalized in Uttar-Pradesh. One has to go to a village and she their conditions and the exclusion looks complete.
If political powers have reached certain communities among the backward and Dalits on the basis of their numbers then definitely the minority among them remains on the margins. In fact, our village system is crudely majoritarian in concept. Hence democracy which should have ensured protections of minorities in our villages became voice and rule of the majority. The concept of majority rule therefore brutally suppressed the feeling of minorities and turned to a complete caste state.
Yes, Uttar-Pradesh has seen Dalit empowerment and that of backward communities and yet it is here that Mushahars, Bansfors, Kanjars, Doms, Kols, kachis, Kahars are facing the worst crisis of their lives. These communities remains on the margins as their number does not really matters in the power structure. Their votes most of the time is already caste. The irony of the concept of the Bahujan is that it remains politically inclusive but socially exclusive. Mushahars became totally disempowered due to this as they have no political representations.
All pervasive Hunger
During the past few years a large number of Mushahars, Kols and Banfors have died of hunger and malnutrition. Due to lapse of administration, exact numbers are not come yet Mushahars remains in the forefront. When Mushahars were dying of hunger, a number of Non-governmental organizations also jumped into the fray to work for them and yet the Mushahars remains the same.
According to information received by us, about 50 Mushhars have died of hunger and malnutrition during the past one year. Local journalists vouch that the situation is really of grave concern as if government fails to act fast we may see an endemic issue of deaths in the region. People do not eat in the evening. Even if they cook it is rice for a few but snail for a majority. Women, Children and elders are the worst victims. As Ram Chandra Prasad, a local social activist says about the Mushahar life style, “Mushhar gets married around 15 years of age, by 25 years of age he become father for nearly 6-7 children, by 40 he looks frails due to lack of malnutrition. If he earns some money, he drinks because he cannot fetch the family. Illicit liquor becomes his only rescue to save him from tensions and deprivation. By the age of 45 he dies.”
Conditions in Mainpur Tola, Khadahi, Kasaya, Kushinagar
Three Mushahrs died in this village during the past one week out of hunger. Two of them happened to be elderly people while one girl of around 10 years of age. This village is situated about 8 kilometer away from the block headquarter and 20 kilometer from Kushinagar.
The total families in the village remain 105 with a population of about 613 people. According to Bomb Bahadur, 21, no government schemes have reached the village. ‘ Nobody come here sir. We have nothing to eat. The two elders died because we could not collect enough money to feed them. Every one is concerned about him.’ Interestingly, this village has ‘Grain Bank’ opened by Action Aid. According to the concept, the village people can borrow grain from the bank and will have to return 40% more once they get the work. Unfortunately, in the absence of the work, not many of them have been able to return. In fact, a majority of villagers have been completely ignored by the Grain Bank as they were surprised to hear about the same.
40 years Hardev is unable to walk. He has no money to get himself cured. The nearest hospital is about 10 kilometer away.
Gulli is 45 years of age. He was in jail for 8 months as he was considered as a wrong witness. His mother died during this period. There was no one to help the family. His wife was looking after the children and the villagers collected funds for the family. After his mother’s death he came out on bail for Rs 40,000. This is a great burden on a person who has nothing. One wonders how come Mushhars who can not stand in front of a person face such tyrannical punishment. One wonders how he could have killed any one.
There is not a single house in the bustee which is constructed. All of them are thatched huts which during the summer often catch fire. Fire that is rarely quenched and often kills members of the family.
The most agonizing moments for me was to speak to Panmati Devi, a colored woman in her 50s who was looking much older. With tears flocking from eyes, she did not have any one visiting her for any cause. She cannot walk and even cannot cook. The villagers have been providing her all assistance.
There was this woman Ralori w/o Fago who both happened to be disabled. None of them have got any pension or work for their living.
In a hut, I found more than 15 person living. One can assume how dangerous it could be and how suffocating when husbands, wives, sister in laws, brothers, sisters sleep together. Unbelievable. People simply have nothing.
Men after men, women after women, child after child that we meet, gives us gory picture of the malnutrition and hunger prevailing in the area. Most of the men looked much beyond their age. Their tummies inside down while the tummies of the children always looked swelling. The veins in hands, the bones in the chest and the structure of our body was thoroughly and transparently visible once you visit them. It looks shocking, and disgusting.
Children have nothing to eat. Women have nothing to cook and men have nothing to work. None have got a ration card to buy ration. Even if they get it , they do not have money to buy ration. Despite Kushinagar being declared as a district under ‘ National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, not a single person in this village was selected under the scheme.
Most of the families eat once a day. A young widow, whose husband died 6 years ago and who is now feeding her three children, mentioned that from 7 am to 1 pm she works and gets Rs 10/- from the local landlords. From 2 pm to 6 pm again fetch the same amount of the money. In a day of around 8 hours of work a person earn Rs 20/-. In this age of inflation these Mushahars do not get 1/3rd of the price recognized by the government of Uttar-Pradesh.
None of the children that we met had covered their bodies. None of the men had cloth to cover their upper limbs of the body. They eat once a day and the day they could get some work, it is possible to eat in the evening which simply is a treat for them.
Mushahar Tola, Laxmipur, Padrauna
Five kilometer away from Kuber nath, where a big temple offering money to Kuber is situated, the Mushhars in the Laxmipur village remain completely cut off from the rest of the village. They live about 1 kilometer away in the outskirts of the village towards the South. The distance to this place from Padrauna block is about 10 kilometer. The total number of families living in this village is 63 with about 419 people according to those who were present. According to Newspapers report Mushhars have been eating snails here. As we reached this village, people started coming to us and take us to the place where they had kept the shells of snails after boiling them. They boil and drink the snails and consider it as giving them nutritional power. So rains bring some cheers for them as they go to the nearby river, ponds and fish these snails. In fact, they might also be catching other stuff such as tortoise for the purpose of eating.
Two elderly couple Tetari and Ganesh are in the last stage of their life. Both of them can not work and are fetched by the locals by contribution. They take us to the place and inform us that they have got nothing from the government. None of them have any house. The children simply do not go to schools and do not have anything to eat.
The scenes at both the two villages of Mainpur Tola, Khadha, in Kasaya Block and Mushhar Tola, Laxmipur in Padrauna block have been a reminder that our society has lost touch with its aboriginal people.
One does not need to say here that Dalit empowerment, Nationalism, great vibrant India makes any sense for these poor people where officials do not reach, where NGOs makes money over the poverty and where our sensibilities have simply become superficial.
Reason for the Disempowerment of Mushahars
Mushahars claims to be tribals. They worked in the forest but the power politics of Uttar-Pradesh rarely recognized their rights as tribal. They used to make ‘Pattals’, the plates made of tree leaves of Sagaun. They used to have pigs and collected minor forest produce. Over the years, the feudal forest department continues to thrash them at their wills resulting in their complete disempowerment. Being a numerically minority community, Mushhar could not change the voting pattern. Completely isolated in forest, they were thrown away in the lurch. Hence no right to collect timber, minerals, water, wood etc from the forest. The forest officials would maltreat them and take away their grazing cattle. Already they had been termed as ‘thieves’ and for any theft the officials would get hold of a Mushhar and put him behind the bar.
Package of Basic Demands for the Mushhars of Kushinagar
A casual approach to resolve the crisis would not work. I have myself reported and filed reports with the National Human Rights Commission and other Human Rights Commission on Hunger and Malnutrition for the past 5 years. During the past three years, we had filed report on Mushhars, Bansfors and kols in Bundelkhand, Sonebhadra, Deoria, Gorakhpur and Kushinagar about hunger situation. Two years back when in Raup ( Sonebhadra) around 18 tribal children had died, the authorities rushed to distribute rice and wheat to the victim families after NHRC issued notices. One does not know what happened.
I would therefore want to bring into the picture several important factors for the survival of Mushhar community with dignity and honor. As well known economist Jaffrey Sach provide a ‘package of basic needs’ in his book ‘ The end of Poverty’. I would add a few more things along with his package for immediate action to save the dying Mushhars. It is the responsibility of humanity. All National and International Aid agencies should also look into it whether their approach has failed.
Sach suggest following package eliminate poverty:
1. Primary education for all children with designated target ratios of pupils and teachers.
2. Nutrition programmes for all vulnerable population
3. Universal access to anti malarial bed nets for all house holds
4. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation
5. One half kilometer paved road for every thousand of population
6. Access to modern cooking fuels and improved cooking stoves to decrease indoor air pollution.
Unfortunately Sach has missed one of the most important points about access to Land and Water. Therefore I would request the National Human Rights Commission to act on this report on an urgent basis and ask the state government to save the Mushhar community from sinking further. Following action should be taken immediately :
1. Provide immediate emergency relief in terms of nutrition food in the above two villages as well as many other such villages of Kushinagar.
2. Involve Mushhars in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programmes ( in these two villages none of them know about it).
3. Distribute land to them so that they can do farming.
4. Distribute land to them for building houses. The clause that Indira Awas Yojana could only be given to those who have their own land actually makes it a redundant scheme for the poor as a majority of those who get it for them do not need and those who need the house do not have a land to build it.)
5. Send Medical vans to these areas and start a vaccination programme. We fear the children suffer from lever problem while the older people suffer from multiple diseases.
6. At the moment, Mushahars should be allowed to collect minor forest produce and should not dislocated from the places they are living.
7. Ensure Mushhar get the tribal status or status of a forest dweller so that they can be benefited from the proposed new bill named as ‘ Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers ( Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006).
8. For evaluation of both the government and NGO work, a regular monitoring mechanism consisting of a team of NHRC, civil society organizations should formed.
What can we Do
Interestingly, the World Bank has also come out with its India specific report suggesting that ‘ Forest Incomes can help take millions out of poverty’. According to the bank an estimated 275 million people depend on forest in India for their livelihood. The bank’s report suggest that ‘ with improved forest productivity and policy reform, a typical forest based community could increase its annual forest based income from around Rs 200,000 as of today to rs 1 million or more in cash income by 2020. At the same time the annual revenues per hectare collected by the state government would automatically increase many time. According to the bank the state and the centre must have a reform agenda on the following lines:
1. More secure tenure and resource rights for forest dwellers
2. Strengthening forest management: monitoring and control systems
3. Access to more effective market system
4. Develop more effective and flexible institutional models
Though the government of India is already bringing a new legislation named as Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers ( Recognition of Forest Right Act 2006) which will ensure 2-5 hectare land for every tribal family and that of the forest dwellers. It need to be seen how the environmental lobby will be dwelt with. One need to understand that tribals and forest dwellers did not destroy the forest. It is the big timber mafia and our new life style which is responsible for degradation of forest. The better we realize that tribals and other forest dwellers are the best bet to save the forest, the greater it would be for the country.
hope that by the time this bill passes and communities like Mushhars are recognized as tribal or forest dwellers so that they could be saved from hunger, humiliations and indignity. It is an emergency time for the international community, for the civil society to act. Do we need another Tsunami to move our hearts and mind? A strong long term initiative with emergency relief for Mushahars is the need of the hour and I am sure we all have to pull our resources and energy for this calamity which might not attract our attention because it has not occurred suddenly out of a Tsunami or an earthquake.