With the Bihar government questioning the Centre over the number of BPL families in the State, Gaya's hunger deaths proffer a sober reality check to a State government consistently serenading its schemes for the uplift of its Maha Dalit community
Three years ago, 14 members of the Bhuiyyan community (a Maha Dalit sub-caste) from a village in Gaya's Mohanpur block died after eating rotten meat of a dead goat's carcass.
The reason for this desperate act being an absence of food grains in the village for a long period.
Fast forward two years in time to Dobhi block. More than six deaths due to starvation have been reported from this block alone.
All the victims belonged to the Bhuiyyan-Musahar sub-caste. The reason: their names did not figure in the BPL list.
Similarly, in Tetua tola, which has150-odd Bhuiyyan-Musahar families, barely 69 villagers have their names in the BPL list.
A mere 14 have received some part of the benefits of the Old-Age Pension Scheme.
Hardly any of the villagers had been issued with the Yellow Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) cards, which entitles them to 25 kilo of food-grains at highly subsidised rates.
Gaya's hunger deaths climaxed this April with the death of Congress Manjhi of Manan Bigha. Manjhi, who had been ailing for the last three years, was diagnosed with TB six months ago when he died on April 14- too ill and too weak work.
The authorities pegged his death as an illness- and not due to starvation. Manjhi, despite being a Maha Dalit, did not figure in the BPL list.
In each instance, the kith and kin of the victims were given the token 1 quintal of rice. This, understandably, to calm the villagers' frayed tempers.
“Till date there have been over 100 hunger deaths in Bihar, with 26 of them occurring in Gaya alone. Every single one of them smacks of incredible bureaucratic-political torpor,” states Mr. Rupesh, State advisor to the Supreme Court Commissioner.
According to activists like him, very little has changed for the Bhuiyyans since the last 2,500 years.
A Jan Sunwai (public hearing) organised this Wednesday by activists from the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Koshish – a Right to Food organisation - saw a determined stream of a thousand odd Bhuiyyans braving the scorching heat for the sole purpose of making their voices heard after a very long time.
Not one of them had been consistently issued food grains on their BPL “red” cards since June 2009, while barely a dozen of them had ever been issued AAY cards.
“Even in states with dismal human rights records, there has been at least some advancement; but here, there has been very little progress” said Mr. Harsh Mander, Special Commissioner of the Supreme Court and jury member in the hearing.
Noting that “there was a systematic breakdown in Bihar's Public Distribution System (PDS)”, Mr. Mander said: “It was vital for the district administration to get the aanganwadi centres in working order if the Bhuiyyan-Musahar communities were to get any relief in the near future.”
“In case of hunger deaths, there is a long period where the victim has consistently survived on a low ration of food-grains. When the autopsy is performed, there obviously will remain bare traces of food morsels,” said Mr. Mander, noting that the Human Rights Commission had ruled that there was no need to submit a post-mortem report in case of hunger deaths.
“Unless there is a mechanism to control corruption at the delivery levels, it really wouldn't make any difference whether the government switches to cash transfers in lieu of the PDS,” says Father Jose, of the PUCL's Bihar unit.
In the days of yore, people in the Magadh region used to offer pinda dan (food grains) to appease the spirits of their ancestors. This is exactly what the Bihar government has been doing – distributing cash and food-grains after the victims have met their squalid ends.