Garasagma, a small village in Purulia, seems to be frozen in time since 1871. The difference between primitive tribal Sabars and predominantly land-owning Mahatos is stark ~ symptomatic of a stubborn adherence to feudal ways even as the rest of the country has moved on after Independence, writes soma basu
GIDDU Sabar’s family will go hungry for days to come. His hut vandalised the day before by men from a nearby village, the 38-year-old had lost a finger trying to save his home that had been half-battered by a monsoon downpour. His only stigma is that he is a Sabar, one of the denotified tribes of West Bengal. It’s not that his family gets a plateful every day, but the loss of a finger ensures he will not be able to hunt field rats or snakes for several days. His house was attacked because there had been a robbery in the neighbouring village and the unwritten law in villages in this part of Purulia is that if a house is robbed, a Sabar just has to be guilty.
The small village of Garasagma seems to be frozen in time since 1871. The difference between the Sabars, primitive tribals, and the Mahatos, mostly landlords, is stark, symptomatic of a stubborn adherence to feudal ways while the rest of the country has moved on after Independence. Among its 421 people comprising around 69 households, the Sabars are in the majority but the Mahatos possess pukka houses and employ Sabars to work in their homes, often for nothing in exchange.
Work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act goes to the Mahatos who own agricultural land and supply minor forest produce like saal leaves and babui grass to the markets. Day after day, the rich prosper and the poor sink deeper into misery in Garasagma.
In 1871, the then British government “notified” certain tribes as “criminals” and passed the notorious Criminal Tribes Act. The people thus “notified” were nomadic cattle grazers, wandering singers, acrobats, etc. The actual reason was to brand these tribes as thieves for a lifetime because these free jungle inhabitants would resist British repression from time to time. The aim was to control fakirs, rustic transporters and disbanded groups of soldiers who revolted against the Raj and took shelter in the forests.
They were notified on the claim that these people lived in forests and only criminals would do so. Since the son of a Brahmin remained a Brahmin, the British, adhering to Indian tradition, put it on paper that the son of person belonging to a criminal tribe would be a “hereditary” criminal. Till 1944, amendments to this Act saw new areas and new communities included, all of whom lost livelihoods with the introduction of the railways, roads and outsiders entering their lives.
In 1952, the government of India officially “denotified” the stigmatised ones but made no provisions for their livelihood. In 1959, it passed the Habitual Offender’s Act, which was not much different from the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. Since 1961, it has, through state machinery, been publishing state-wise lists of “Denotified and Nomadic Tribes”. The Lodhas, Sabars, Birhors and Dhikarus are some of the denotified tribes in Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore districts.
Till date, the police and vigilante mobs continue to target these unfortunates, often doling out punishment far in excess of the supposed crime committed without benefit of a fair trial.
Between 1979 and 1982, according to author and activist Mahasweta Devi, 42 denotified Lodha tribals were lynched by mobs — not for crimes committed but for being born “Lodhas”. Between 1960 and 1998, more than 50 Kheria Sabars have been killed by the police or lynched by mobs.
Totally landless and basically forest-dwelling, they get agricultural labour work for only three months as Purulia is drought-prone and has a mono-crop system. Denudation of forests for timber and largescale plantation of eucalyptus have deprived them of their main livelihood — collecting and selling minor forest produce and eating fruits, roots, tubers, etc.
According to a policy paper, “Hunger, Under-nutrition and Food Security in India”, by NC Saxena, former secretary of the India Planning Commission, subsistence agriculture, gathering of non-timber forest produce and wage labour are the main sources of livelihood among tribal people. They are concentrated in the least developed, rain-fed, undulating and often remote hilly regions of the country, largely untouched by the “green revolution”. Thus, while landlessness is relatively low among tribal people, compared to other poor communities, agriculture productivity is low and other farm-based avenues, such as dairy and horticulture, are also poorly developed, leading to widespread food insecurity.
The Sabars have become used to injustice and deprivation. Naked, hungry Sabar children roam around most of the day. They look at the uniform-clad Mahato children as if they are characters out of the real world and when asked why they don’t go to school, they say, “Amra Sabar.” These children with abnormally thin limbs and potbellies were born “criminals”.
Twelve years ago, a school in Garasagma was donated by the Ramon Magsasay Foundation, due to the initiative of Mahasweta Devi. A teacher, a cook and helpers were appointed. Sabar children were given books and uniforms. Most importantly, they were given a mid-day meal every day. It has been eight years since Mahasweta Devi, who has been ailing due to old age, last visited the village, said Bablu Sabar. “Mahasweta Devi had said that since she was old, Prasanta Rakshit from the Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti would visit us to know of our grievances. But it has been over seven years since he last came to the village,” said Gurupada Sabar.
Kanak Mahato, the teacher deputed by the Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti, left after two-three years, the villagers said. The school building is now deserted, used by locals to keep their cattle in at night.
Strangely enough, mid-day meals continue in a dilapidated hut nearby that is named the “Khichuri Centre”. What passes for khichuri — served thrice a week – however is a bland concoction of rice and turmeric.
In April 2001, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a human rights organisation, filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court, arguing that the right to food was a fundamental right of every Indian citizen and demanding that the country’s gigantic food stocks (about 50 million tonnes of grain at that time) should be used without delay to prevent hunger and starvation. It argued that the right to food should be seen as a corollary to the fundamental “right to life” (Article 21) in so far as it was impossible to live without food. The Supreme Court hearings have been held at regular intervals since, and the case has attracted wide national and international attention.
The Supreme Court has passed orders directing the Indian government to introduce hot cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools; provide 35 kg of grain per month at highly subsidised prices to 15 million destitute households under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, a component of the Public Distribution System; double the resource allocations for the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (India’s largest rural employment programme at that time, now superseded by the Employment Guarantee Act); universalise the Integrated Child Development Services by increasing the number of centres from 0.6 million to 1.4 million; and identify Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe hamlets/habitations for new ICDS centres on a priority basis.
Realising the gravity of the impact that lapses in implementation has on the well-being and even the survival of poor people, the Supreme Court, in an interim order dated 28 November 2001, converted the benefits of nine food-related schemes into “legal entitlements” and directed all state governments to fully implement these schemes.
However, implementation has been at the mercy of the ration dealers who have disregarded the norms completely. Giddu, Bablu and Gurupada have been getting a mere 12 kg of rice every month and each of them has a family comprising six to eight people. Work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has been out of their reach and ICDS centres have long been shut down. The ration outlet is operated at the whim of the dealer.
Leftist extremism in the district had further compounded the problem with government officials fleeing the area and there was no form of monitoring. The “discrimination”’ by the Centre, vis-à-vis the Public Distribution System, was always a major plank for the erstwhile Left Front government in the state. The Statesman had published a report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General for fiscal 2009-10 that pointed out that the Left Front government lost a whopping Rs 133.66 crore in food subsidy receivable from the Centre as the finance department under Asim Dasgupta did not prepare the annual PDS accounts from 2005 to 2010. The Cag report was released to the media in September last year after being tabled in the state assembly.
Also, due to the non-issuance of required ration cards by the Left Front government, 193,000 eligible families were deprived of the benefits of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana under which rice is distributed to poor families at a subsidised rate.
The Cag also came up with a startling finding that while the Left Front government had always been hyperactive in its allegations of discrimination by the Centre on various fronts, including the PDS, in reality it was never serious about doing its duty with regard to the identification of Antyodaya Anna Yojana beneficiaries in West Bengal.
Giddu Sabar has no qualms about life. But what peeves him most is the sight of his four children withering away before his very eyes. “The government has not left any other option for us than to commit robbery. Our community had stopped it completely after Mahasweta Devi intervened. Nobody wants to be called a thief. But how can we see our children die of hunger?” he asks.