Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Wednesday, Mar 31, 2004

About Us
Contact Us
News: Front Page | National | Tamil Nadu | Andhra Pradesh | Karnataka | Kerala | New Delhi | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Miscellaneous |
Classifieds | Employment | Obituary |

National Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Nothing has changed for this tribal woman

By Aarti Dhar

AMLAPALLI (ORISSA), MARCH 30. Phanus Punji, a tribal woman from this little-known village in Kalahandi (now Nuapada) district of Orissa, made international headlines in 1985 when the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, along with his wife, Sonia Gandhi, visited her house after she reportedly sold her 12-year-old sister-in-law, Bonita, to a blind man for Rs. 40 and a sari to feed her family. Phanus Punji had spent Rs. 20 to buy clothes for her three young children and the rest, to purchase food that lasted a few days.

Nineteen years later, nothing has changed for Phanus Punji despite assurances by Rajiv Gandhi that "something would be done to help her" and life has become even more difficult for Bonita, who now has five children and an aged, bad-tempered blind husband to look after.

The two women work as `helpers' in the local anganwadi centre, earning Rs. 160 per month. While Phanus Punji sometimes also goes to work in a local rice mill and her son gets employment as a daily wager, Bonita is the only earning member. "I have not got salary for the past six month," Bonita just managed to say before her husband came out of a dilapidated hut in Hathimunda village, making his dislike for journalists quite obvious. "It is an old issue now. You people come, take photographs and go away. Nothing ever happens after that," he said.

The couple was married with the help of a local politician in the early 90s when the villagers objected to their living together since they did not have enough money to perform the marriage.

The family's bitterness and contempt for the system was understandable. For the journalists, they have just been stories and for the local administration, the target of ridicule. "You complained to the Prime Minister against the local administration, nothing happened. Now, complain where you want to," Phanus Punji is often told when she approached anyone for help.

Last month, she was caught stealing wood from the forest — which she claims was meant for cooking in the anganwadi centre — and had to hand over her month's salary to the policemen to hush up the case against her.

Phanus Punji's husband had deserted her in the early 80s and Bonita worked as a maid with a family in Raipur in 1984. She was sold off during one of her visits to her village.

When the issue was highlighted a few months later, Rajiv Gandhi visited the family and promised them help. The two women were subsequently employed as helpers in the anganwadi centre and two acres of land mortgaged by Phanus Punji was released. Though she still owns the land, it has remained fallow. "Just help my son get a regular job, if you can do something for us," she pleads with everyone who visits her. The visit of the VIP couple still fresh in her mind, she says the local administration had promised to give her land and money and get one of her daughters married, to prevent her from complaining to the Prime Minister.

An outspoken person, Phanus Punji had actually embarrassed the J.B. Patnaik-led State Government by "exposing" the public distribution system and rampant corruption in the district administration.

She says Sonia Gandhi entered her kitchen and saw the `broken rice' and green vegetables stocked there. "She shared our sorrow but did nothing to help us overcome it," she says, well aware that Rajiv Gandhi — whom she earlier referred to as a "tall, fair-looking man" — was no more alive and that his wife is a politician now.

Printer friendly page  
Send this article to Friends by E-Mail


News: Front Page | National | Tamil Nadu | Andhra Pradesh | Karnataka | Kerala | New Delhi | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Miscellaneous |
Classifieds | Employment | Obituary | Updates: Breaking News |

News Update

The Hindu Group: Home | About Us | Copyright | Archives | Contacts | Subscription
Group Sites: The Hindu | Business Line | The Sportstar | Frontline | The Hindu eBooks | Home |

Copyright 2004, The Hindu. Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu