By Saadia Azim , WFS

The Jungle Mahal region of West Bengal, which spans the three districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia, used to be notorious for providing safe passage to Maoist rebels transiting between Bengal and neighouring Jharkhand. Today, however, people here are facing a challenge even more dreaded than the conflict they had once experienced: extreme malnutrition especially prevalent among tribal women and children.

Amlasol, a tiny village in West Midnapore has been battling hunger for a few years now with little success. Illness and deaths among the Sabar tribal households is quite common although hunger deaths are still difficult to prove for administrative records. And this dismal reality is common to all the hamlets nearby.

Purnima Mura, 30, belongs to Amjharna village that adjoins Amlasol. She earns a living by selling ropes made from babui grass and plates fashioned out of sal leaves picked from the jungles close by. Every day, Purnima and her friends trudge into the Kankrajhor and Lakaichini forests to collect Sal leaves for making plates, while tendu leaves are rolled into bidis (local cigarettes). This is the only source of livelihood for most households in these Sabar and Munda dominated tribal villages located at border between Bengal and Jharkhand.

Purnima’s daily chores start at the crack of dawn. She hurriedly prepares whatever little store of food she has for the family and then rushes to the forest to collect sal leaves or grass. She sells the leaves at the weekly haat (village market) held at Hulung village on the other side of the border. In Jharkhand a bundle of 1000 leaves fetches her Rs 35. Purnima is among the healthier women in her village, can collect leaves quickly and then get back home to immediately start making plates or ropes that she knits into mats. Of course, her ability to work tirelessly belies her physical appearance – the young woman weighs barely 40 kilos. But she is grateful that despite being severely underweight she is not suffering from any dreadful illnesses like her friend, Pakhi Sabar, who lives in Amlasol. Despite being much younger to Purnima, Pakhi is so weak that she cannot even feed her two month old baby.

A mother of four, Pakhi’s eldest child had died couple of years ago because of diarrhoea – the family had just not managed to get medical help in time. Her two other children, aged 12 and five, weigh just 19 and 10 kilos, respectively. Ever since Pakhi gave birth to her fourth child, she has not been able to regain her strength. Since she is unable to cook at home, the mid day meal her children get at their school, the Amlasol Prathamik (Primary) Vidyalaya, is their only cooked meal of the day. Says Payal, her 12-year-old daughter, “There is no food at home and no one to cook too. So we eat the rice and dal dish (khichdi) given at school, which we get only for 14 days in a month. The rest of the time we go to the jungles to collect something that we can eat.”

What do these tribals forage from the forest? Lulu Sabar, whose father’s name figured among the many starvation deaths that had occurred in Amlasol in 2004, which had made national headlines at the time, explains, “We usually eat the roots of potatoes and jackfruit. But even wild vegetables and fruits are seasonal. Moreover, going into the dense forest makes many of us vulnerable to snakebites and other dangers.” She adds, “If something were to happen to us, the administration then claims that the death was not due to the lack of food but because of an accident. But it is hunger, after all, that is driving us there.”

Of course, ever since news of starvation deaths drew people’s attention to this region, a lot has changed. For one, roads have been built ensuring better connectivity, although the main reason why the state has done this is to combat the rebels. Besides this, wells have been dug and subsidised food is being provided. “But, unfortunately, we still do not have adequate access to proper rations or clean potable water. People drink contaminated water from the open dug well and still have to go into the jungles looking for food,” reveals Lakshmikant Murathe, the only youngster to have made it to college in Kolkata.

Murathe explains why deprivation persists, despite the government’s promise of food security to those living below poverty line. “The only ration shop that was opened in Amlasol two years back provides rice at Rs 2 per kilo and 750 grams of wheat flour at Rs 5 per head per week. But then, the supplies don’t reach on time and the shop is open only occasionally,” Murathe says.

Krishna Mura, 40, a former panchayat representative from Amjharna village, adds, “The reason often cited for the erratic food supply is that we live in very remote areas, but the continuing clash between the security forces and the Maoist rebels is an additional cause for delays.”

In 2008, Jungle Mahal districts had witnessed a remarkable uprising against ration shops. It was alleged that shop owners were indulging in blackmarketeering. This led to strong protests and even now many of the PDS shop owners are on the run.

In 2012, there was a proposal from the state government to set up fair prices shops through all-women Self-Help Groups (SHGs). This was suggested on two counts – one, it would promote women’s empowerment and two, it would enable SHGs to effectively establish themselves in the area. Most SHGs, however, did not come forward to run the 65 ration shops that the government had wanted to open for the people of Jungle Mahal.

Sarada (name changed), a member of the Ma Sharada SHG in Jabala village, which has become defunct now, reveals the reasons for their reluctance, “We knew we would not be able to run the fair price shops as the supply of food is so little and very irregular. In addition, the fear of failing to distribute supplies properly also kept us away.”

Last year, her SHG had tried to create a community kitchen near the panchayat office in the village. The idea was to let women bring rice and dal and cook khichdi and mashed potatoes together in the common kitchen, which would help conserve fuel. “We had to discontinue this as it did not prove feasible. We did not have enough fuel for the kitchen stove after the ration shop stopped providing kerosene. Also as prices of grains soared women did not have enough to cook proper meals,” says Sarada.

Alarmingly, the India State Hunger Index, which measures hunger and malnutrition at the state level, indicates that even if equitable economic growth improves availability of, and access to food it might not immediately lead to improvements in child nutrition and mortality rates. It suggests an urgent need for direct intervention – not just in terms of providing food to households but ensuring quality nutrition to people. The women in Amlasol, however, have the more immediate concern of regular meals.

According to Dr Pratima, who provides health care to the people of Amlasol and other nearby villages, “While poor quantity as well as quality of food affects a child’s normal growth, the first priority of these families is to eat regularly. Only then can they think about the quality of the food. Tragically, people here have spent their whole lives hunting for food in the jungles only because they had no infrastructural support for equal and adequate distribution of food grain.”

What Purnima and Pakhi and millions of other women across Jungle Mahal desperately need is food security for their families, especially their children.

—(Women’s Feature Service)