Thirty-five Shabar families, belonging to the tribal Shabar community, live in the Jangankhash village of Lalgarh - out of which seven have lost their battle with life in the last 15 days
Kolkata: Picture a 100 square feet structure that is open from two sides, standing on bamboo and mud. The roof is made of tin and there are cracks within the mud structure. In the monsoon, only a cheap plastic cover can save people inside from rain; that’s too if they can afford one. That’s the bedroom that doubles up as a kitchen and a drawing room. This 100 square feet ‘house’ is of Mangal Shabar who was among the seven who allegedly died last week due to hunger and malnutrition in Bengal’s tribal-dominated Lalgarh area. And all this was happening away from the glitz of the Kolkata Film Festival where Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee is personally overseeing arrangements.
Thirty-five Shabar families, belonging to the tribal Shabar community, live in the Jangankhash village of Lalgarh - out of which seven have lost their battle with life in the last 15 days. Its alleged that all of them died because of consistent malnutrition and hunger, something that the state government has vehemently denied.
The state government may be hard-selling its development model in the annual business summit ‘Rising Bengal’, but Jangalkhash village is unaware of what 'development' is. Most houses are made of mud. Some of the people in the community don’t even have four walls to cover them.
This is an area that resembles Abujhmad of Chhatisgarh – a state within a state. Though state officials are free to enter this area of Lalgarh, unlike Abujhmad; it is meaningless to ask how many visits the area has witnessed by the district magistrate, or for that matter, a simple Block Development Officer (BDO). Education is in shambles as the Shabar’s primary concern is to find something to eat than sending kids to school.
Lalgarh has once been the epicentre of Maoists movement in Bengal, during the fag end of the Left rule. It is not very far where Maoist leader Kishenji was engaged in a firefight and gunned down by the security forces.
This area is plagued by Tuberculosis (TB), a disease directly linked to severe malnutrition. Mangal Shabar, 28, has been suffering from tuberculosis. His family claims that he was taking medicine for the last few months and suddenly died on Saturday. The district officials rushed to claim that the Shabars are irregular in taking medicines.
This is not just about Mangal Shabar. Sudhir Shabar, 63, also died among the seven complained of inflammation in the leg. Ananda Bazar Patrika, a vernacular daily, quoted Sudhir Shabar’s daughter-in-law confirming the same, “He was complaining of inflation in legs and stomach for few days. He went to consult a doctor in the Lalgarh hospital. The hospital authorities refused to admit him. He was sent back with few medicines." On November 7, the 63-year-old died a silent death.
The Shabar community is spread across Lalgarh area apart from tribal-dominated Jhargram and Purulia district in Bengal. Most of the community is a victim of hunger or acute malnutrition. Tuberculosis and inflammation of legs and stomach are household ailments for the community, for whom eating a hearty meal is a luxury.
If abject poverty isn't enough, rampant corruption makes the situation worse. A villager has accused the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) of extorting money from these villagers who can’t even make both ends meet, for implementing central schemes. He alleged, "We got Rs 75,000 for constructing house under Indira Awas Yojna (now known as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna). But we had to give Rs 3000 each to the party fund of TMC for availing this".
The BJP questioned the Mamata administration over these deaths that have not only stunned Bengal but many at the national level. While Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh told MyNation, "Prima facie the deaths seem to have occurred due to acute malnutrition or worse hunger", state BJP general secretary Sayantan Basu expressed 'deep concern' as well. Basu said that he will lead a fact-finding team to Jangalkhas village to find out 'the gravity of the situation'.
But for CM Banerjee, it is fake news. She announced, "There's not a single death due to hunger in the state. Bengal government takes special care for backward areas (like Lalgarh). The district magistrate too blamed it on illnesses like tuberculosis and habits like drinking alcohol, for the deaths. Mamata never expressed her sympathies for those who died allegedly of hunger.
The attitude of state government hasn't changed much. In 2004, six tribal people died allegedly due to hunger and malnutrition. Their 'house' was also an epitome of abject poverty. The left government of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya rubbished it back then. The TMC protested back then against the Left's 'arrogance'. The table has turned this time in 2018. After 14 long years, the allegation of deaths due to hunger and malnutrition now surface in Bengal that is ruled by Mamata Banerjee. She too has rubbished the allegations.
Meanwhile, Nayan Shabar, son of deceased Srinath Shabar who is barely seven years old, is getting ready to face the upcoming winter in their tent. Because he knows that he needs to live to fight another day. For the Shabars, grief is a luxury they can't afford.
Last Updated 16, Nov 2018, 4:42 PM IST