A strange series of contradictory Indian news stories over the past couple weeks have carried confusing reports about the possible causes of a tragic set of deaths in a Birhor village. It is difficult to sort out the truth, but the essence of the issue—that really poor country people don’t matter and can be used as pawns for political purposes—can be inferred from the reporting.
The story first surfaced on October 4. Eight Birhor had died of food poisoning, and five others had been sickened, from eating wild roots in the village of Hindiakala, in Chatra District, Jharkhand State. The Deputy Commissioner for the district, Abu Bakar Siddique, said on the 4th, “all of them had consumed some wild roots in the forests near Pratapur on Thursday night [i.e., Oct. 2].” Eight Birhor dying from eating wild forest foods, which they have been consuming for millennia—their name “Birhor” means “men of the forest”—immediately seemed suspicious. The article in The Hindu indicated that the families of the victims had been paid Rs 10,000 (U.S. $206) as compensation, but it did not say why.
Last week the story became more alarming, and confusing. On Monday, October 6, another source reported that the Supreme Court had appointed a board of commissioners to investigate the situation. The report by the board presented a contradictory interpretation of the events in the Birhor village. It indicated that the Birhor had died due to starvation, not due to poisoning from eating wild foods. The advisor to the commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court said that it was a case of “criminal negligence and a police complaint will be lodged against the officials.”
The investigation found that the villagers did not possess any ration cards, which are supposed to be provided for the poorest people of Indian society. The cards, the investigators found, were still being held by some outlets of the Public Distribution System. Over the past ten years, the Birhor villagers had not gotten any of the grain handouts that they had been entitled to.
Another news report, also dated the 6th, indicated that the tragedy occurred on October 1, not October 2. It added that the adviser to the chief investigator appointed by the Supreme Court, someone named Balram, said, “during the field visit, I found that only one of the victim Birhor families had some maize grains. The rest had no foodgrain.” He and the other two investigators who visited the village said that the Birhor had died of what they called “fourth grade” hunger, caused by acute malnutrition.
The investigating team found that the rest of the villagers are also quite malnourished and more of them could die at any time unless help is provided quickly. Balram said, “the day the victims died, they had eaten some food, but could not digest them as they had not eaten for several days. They suffered from diarrhea and later died.”
District government officials refuted the claims of the investigators. Chatra Deputy Commissioner Siddique said that the victims had eaten pulses and rice on Wednesday, but they had died between 8:00 and 11:00 p.m. A medical team had rushed to the village to issue medicines to people who had diarrhea. Most of the families in the village had their rationing cards, he said.
The spokesperson for the investigating team is not accepting the government’s response. Despite the sworn affidavits by the officials that the ration cards had been issued, the investigators found that they had not. The investigating team will submit its report directly to the Supreme Court and it will urge the court to try to save the lives of the Birhor people.
Later in the week, on October 9, Yahoo News reported that the Civil Surgeon for the District, Ramesh Prasad, has attributed the deaths to either food poisoning caused by infected fish or to malnutrition. “Most of them were the poorest of the poor. Their frail bodies made it clear that they were malnourished,” he said. “However, some of them [the villagers] also told us that the victims died because they ate poisoned fish.”
A news item on October 10 helps to confuse the matter even more. It indicates that the medical team has treated 40 members of the village for a variety of ailments and distributed medicines to them. It adds that seven people who had gotten sick from the tragic illness the week before had all recovered. Interestingly, that article says the Congress Party has sent its own team to investigate conditions in the Birhor community. A spokesperson for the political investigative team promises a detailed report about the problems in the village.
A report on October 11 concluded that the Birhor had died from eating poisonous roots and contaminated food. The newspaper interviewed Mr. Siddique, who defended the Chatra District government’s attempts to ameliorate the poverty in Hindiakala. He blamed the victims, the Birhor, for their poverty since they were reluctant to take government jobs—for which they were unfit anyway, he feels.
The cumulative effect of these news stories is to give the impression that some bureaucrats are trying to cover up for the absence of effective rural social support programs. But it also appears as if some officials may be trying to make political capital out of the situation. Until the various promised reports are made public, it is difficult to make out what actually happened, and hard to see if anyone will really provide long-term help for the Birhor in Hindiakala village.
None of the reports mention the possibility that the destruction of the Birhor forest habitat may help cause their problems. For the moment, it is safe to conclude that the villagers suffer from a combination of tragic difficulties.