Twenty-seven years after the Left Front came to power in West Bengal and 26 years after Operation Barga was officially launched to allocate land to the landless, people are still dying of starvation and acute poverty still stalks the countryside. Last week, CPI(M) leaders were mightily embarrassed with reports that five tribals had recently died because of lack of food in Amlashole village in Belpahari block in West Midnapore district. An allegation not heard of since the 1942 Bengal famine, the report of starvation deaths seems to falsify official boasts of great success with agrarian reforms, agricultural boom in the state and equal success with the public distribution system.
FACE OF HUNGER: A child awaits his turn to receive food from NGOs
The situation continues to be tragic a week after the incident. Take the case of Thagu Sabar. He heads for the nearest tree when he gets hungry. Thagu, a member of the denotified Kheria Sabar tribe that lives in a remote part of West Midnapore district, is luckier than most of his brethren in the neighbouring villages in Belpahari block. He can at least find some "kurkut"-a red ant that lives on trees -to fill his stomach. Thagu mashes them between his palms and pops them into his mouth, bites, stings and all. For the past few months, kurkut has been the staple in Thagu's Chirakuti village. But that is more than can be said for the Sabars living just a few miles away in Amlashole, Amjharna, Kankrajhor and six other villages in Belpahari.
A few days ago Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya received an official report on the Amlashole deaths. Although he does not divulge the contents, he admits this much: "Amlashole is not a sudden development. There are other areas in the state where poverty and hunger are prevalent."
While Bhattacharya is at least being upfront, officials and partymen of the Left Front are falling over themselves trying to deny the starvation angle. Says West Midnapore District Magistrate Chandan Sinha: "The widow of (victim) Sanatan Mura told me that her husband died of jaundice. I have this on tape." According to Sinha it was "illness rather than starvation'' that claimed the five lives. What officials like Sinha forget is that regardless of the cause-starvation or jaundice-they are deaths due to official neglect and that the administration is squarely responsible.
STILL HOPES: Khanti, who is running a fever, has only jackfruit seeds to eat
Ironically, it was a local gram panchayat official, Kailash Mura, who first played whistle-blower. In a letter to the administration, Mura stated that the five victims in Amlashole died because of lack of food, which possibly exacerbated their life-threatening ailments. Tribals corroborate Mura's contention. Budhu Sabar, who lost his father Samay and sister Mongli earlier this year, has no doubt they starved to death. "My father had nothing but water for almost a fortnight before his death," says Budhu. "In the end he got fever and I watched him die without food."
There seems to be no reason for the Amlashole deaths apart from starvation-there is no drought, no epidemic. Some recent developments added to the poverty in Belpahari block. Locals either cut wood or collect and sell sal leaves for a living. They have stopped going into the forest since February when the PWG engineered a landmine blast in the area to prevent the security forces picking up innocent tribal youth suspected to be guerrillas. The hitherto lucrative trade in kendu leaves has also suffered since the traders who bought leaves from the tribals were displaced by the Left Front Government on behalf of a state cooperative. The cooperative does not pay the same rate as the traders and wants the tribals to bring the leaves to Belpahari. The tribals are resisting going there since there is no transport.
The civic amenities in the area are abysmal. The majority of the villagers of Amlashole and Kankrajhor say they have no ration cards. The tribals are not even on the BPL list. "Do they think that my people are all very rich? Why would they be dying then?" asks Mura. A block development official responds to this with a shrug, "I don't know what the state can do about this." For the all but forgotten tribals of Belpahari, that can hardly be reassuring to know.