The strange, tragic deaths of numerous Birhor villagers in Jharkhand State on October 2 continue to reverberate in India, particularly since other so-called tribal peoples have also been dying of mysterious causes.
Eight people died due to unknown circumstances within a few hours of one another that evening in the village of Hindiakala, and evidently a ninth Birhor died there subsequently. During the month of October, at least 20 members of “Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs),” died in remote Jharkhand villages due to unknown, suspicious causes. News articles up through October 16 reported conflicting statements about the causes of the Birhor deaths, and another story at the end of October only confused the situation further.
Since no autopsies were performed on any of the dead people, factions that support the state government continue to maintain that the people died after they had eaten poisonous plant materials from the forest. Blame the victims, not the government agencies. On the other hand, social and health workers support the state Supreme Court, which found that they had died due to starvation-related causes.
Two articles in Indian news magazines over the past couple weeks have added more insights into what may have happened. India Today reported on November 5 that the state government formed a Committee of Secretaries to investigate the deaths. It included the state secretaries of Health, Welfare, and Rural Development. While the Committee ruled out hunger as a possible cause of the tragedy, it did condemn the government for not accurately determining the cause of death of the victims.
The report by the Committee said that “the Birhors took rice and saag [leafy vegetables] on the night they died. The suspected poisonous saag could be bathua, gandhari and kantela.” The report continues, “starvation death cannot happen in this pattern as the age of [the] deceased varies from one-and-a-half … to 60 years.” The report admits, however, that the plant materials suspected of being poisonous have not been tested for any possible toxic content.
The Committee expressed its shock at how inadequately government services were being provided for people in the remote, tribal villages. Food distribution schemes had not been carried out for years, and the report blamed the governments of the districts within the state for the failures. The state government agencies have prepared appropriate welfare plans, but it is “the district administration which has to implement the schemes.”
In order to provide balance to its reporting, India Today also contacted Balram, the spokesperson for the Supreme Court who was quoted early in October as condemning the state government for the deaths. He is highly critical of the report by the Committee of Secretaries.
The Committee was apparently unable to reach the village of Hindiakala to investigate the issue on the ground since there is no road into the community. And perhaps more to the point, the Central Reserve Police Force was unwilling, perhaps afraid, to provide a military escort so the Committee could visit the village, which is in the heart of Naxalite territory.
The article condemns government agencies on many levels. Many animal species are protected more effectively in India than threatened PTGs; human societies such as the Birhor are declining more rapidly than some of the endangered animals. The article also points out that the literacy rates among the PTGs are very low, the extent of lands they cultivate is below that of other rural people in Jharkhand, and their average monthly income is much less than that of other villagers.
Tehelka, an Indian fortnightly magazine, carried a story about the Birhor tragedy on Friday, November 14. It appears as if the author, Gladson Dungdung, may have had the courage to visit the village—or at least have copied his first paragraph from someone who has.
The article opens dramatically: “The dilapidated houses, scattered utensils, hanging torn clothes, children, barely clad, and the hopeless faces on the men and women are more than enough to reveal the painful realities of Birhors, the tribals residing in Hindiyakala village of Pratapur block in Chatra district of Jharkhand, where nine of them, one after another starved to death just this October.”
The author is quite scornful of government claims that the deaths were due to food poisoning. He argues that since autopsies were not carried out, the state cannot possibly know what happened. Besides, the Birhor certainly ought to have known which wild foods are edible and which are not, he says. And he castigates the investigative Committee of Secretaries for not visiting the Birhor village. “The government officials have always used the [presence] of Naxalites as a major excuse for not going to the remote villages. This time, it was no different,” he writes.
He describes some of the 20 government welfare schemes for the primitive tribal groups, and argues that little of that support actually makes it to the people in the villages. He provides even more dire figures than the India Today story on the numbers of tribal people who have died due to illnesses caused by starvation over the past month in Jharkhand.
The author strongly condemns corruption in government agencies that allows people to steal food grains intended for the poor. Dying of hunger seriously violates human rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, he argues. “The lack of awareness, rampant corruption, lack of transparency and accountability are the obvious reasons for the failure of the welfare schemes. The starvation death[s] can not be contained as long as the welfare schemes continue to be milch cows for government officials, dealers and middle men,” he concludes.