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Death stalks villages in Odisha’s Keonjhar district

Tribal villagers are seen near the polluted water stream in Keonjhar district, on the foothills of the ‘Gandhamardan’ iron ore mining hills, in Odisha.   | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

Over the past few months, Sukurmani Munda, a 31-year-old tribal woman in Rugudisahi, a dusty hamlet by Keonjhar’s Gandhamardan mines, one of the biggest iron ore mines in Odisha, has been suffering from persistent cough and bouts of fever.

A few houses away, Raibari Munda (25), too, showed similar symptoms and lost weight rapidly before she passed away a week ago.

Tala Munda, a 46-year-old neighbour of Raibari, also died a couple of months ago after being “reduced to a pack of bones”.

Ms. Sukurmani says she cannot sleep thinking of the terrible end that awaits her like it does other people in Rugudisahi and its neighbouring villages. In Uppar Kainsari village, 10 people have reportedly died with identical symptoms since 2020, while Salarapenth, another village close by, has seen two such deaths.

Though the District Headquarter Hospital is just 15 km away, most villagers are unable to afford losing a day’s wage to travel for treatment. Visits by health workers to the villages have been fitful.

Iron ore is scooped up every day by the large earth excavators of the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) — lease holder of the Gandhamardan iron ore mines and the largest profit-making public sector undertaking in the State — but little has changed in the lives of tribals like Ms. Sukurmani, who live near the huge facility. By one conservative estimate, iron ore worth ₹5,000 crore has been excavated from the Gandhamardan mines in the last five years.

“We survive only on pakhala (fermented rice in water) throughout the year. The only other dish that we can afford is a preparation of arum leaves,” said Ms. Sukurmani. She has been drying up arum leaves for her family’s use till the next monsoon. Mushrooms and tubers available in nearby forests are an affordable alternative source of food.

While the land beneath their feet is a massive iron reserve, Rugudisahi’s villagers are unable to even access basic needs. The village does not have an anganwadi centre. This year, six students in Rugudisahi started herding goats after dropping out of school. “Most kids below the age of five years only have only one or two pairs of shirts. On most days, they wander about aimlessly in torn pants,” said Pandav Munda, a tribal.

Iron ore dust mixes into the stream in which villagers bathe. The water is reddish brown.

Keonjhar MLA Mohan Majhi, who visited Raibari before her death, thinks she might have succumbed to tuberculosis. “Lack of access to safe drinking water, and pollution caused by iron ore mining, are the major reasons behind people dying early. Untimely deaths have been occurring among tribal families who live around iron ore mines in the district. I had requested the district administration to send mobile health units for treating villagers, but there has been no response. People are left to die while the government exchequer is full with cash,” alleged Mr. Majhi.

However, Ashok Kumar Das, Chief District Medical Officer, Keonjhar, said, “These villages have been the special focus of the district health administration. We have invariably found high liquor consumption by tribal people, which could be one of reasons behind early deaths. Due to social stigma and low awareness level, they don’t approach hospitals in the first place. After the situation worsens, they come to the hospital.”

Dr. Das said a health survey was conducted in different villages but extensive prevalence of tuberculosis was ruled out.

Tribals also fall prey to superstition. In Uppar Kainsari village, 34-year-old Bikash Dehury suffered a painful death last month after family members branded his stomach with dozens of hot iron rods in a desperate attempt to save him.

“He was left with pieces of bones in his body. We had applied hot iron rod branding so that he could survive,” said Sonaram Munda, Bikash’s father-in-law.

Rushani Dehury, wife of Danabandhu Dehury (35), who died under similar circumstances, said he was taken to different hospitals before his death but could not be saved.

Kiran Shankar Sahu, president of the Keonjhar Citizen Forum, laments that not even a tiny fraction of the profit earned by mining companies in Keonjhar has percolated down to the district’s poorest people.

“Iron ore worth ₹2,65,000 crore has been extracted from Keonjhar and parts of the Sundargarh district, with miners, including the State-owned OMC, earning super profits. In 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the levy of fines on miners for the violation of environmental laws. Accordingly, the ₹17,000 crore fund of the Odisha Mineral Bearing Areas Development Corporation came into being. It was mandated that the funds should be spent on mining affected people. However, a sizeable amount of the fund is lying unutilised,” Mr. Sahu alleged.

The District Mineral Foundation has also been constituted by the order of the Supreme Court, under which ₹5,000 crore has been collected in Keonjhar alone.

In the 1980s, a pyrophyllite stone grinding unit came up at Madarangajodi, just 2 km away from Rugudisahi. Villagers still cannot forget its devastating impact on the local population. “Most male members working in that unit were exposed to silica during the 25 years of its operation. They had died one after another. After years of struggle, family members were compensated. People fear a similar situation will take place in Gandhamardan,” said Mr. Majhi, the Keonjhar MLA.

“The presence of minerals has turned out to be a curse for the people of Keonjhar,” said Mr. Sahu.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 12:13:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/death-stalks-villages-in-odishas-keonjhar-district/article36927557.ece

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