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Published in the 16-30 Apr 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Murshidabad starvation deaths

"They come and take our photos only"

The Milli Gazette Online 

Jalangi, Murshidabad, 28 March: People of this area are fighting to save their lives from death by starvation and there seems no light of hope for them in the near future. No help reached them until today when we offered some food packets to some of the worst affected people here. So far the area has witnessed only a few visits by the local Block Development Officer (BDO) and some mediapersons in addition to local political leaders. 

Life in Jalangi

Life in Jalangi

Ramola Bewa, wife of late Panchu Mondal who died of starvation a fortnight ago, told me that she has not seen any help so far. All they did was "fotok tullo" - took my photographs. 

Most affected areas here seem to be the villages of Biswaspara, Direpara, Hogladire, Jaikrishnapur and parts of the Jalangi town itself. All these areas consist of poor Muslims with the exception of Hogladire inhabited by the Hindu community which is comparatively well off because they control the business here and manage to garner all available jobs too.

Local people tell us that this situation has been persisting here since around 10 years but the stark effects have been felt only recently. It all started in a big way in 1994 when river Padma started to change its course by cutting into its western banks here and gradually swept away all the agricultural lands of the inhabitants of the villages of Biswaspara and Hogladire as well as Jalangi town. The river even cut into the inhabited areas of Jalangi town. Now almost the whole of the historical town of Jalangi has been swept away and whatever is left of the old town of Jalangi is marooned in the middle of river Padma.

Victims of starvation in Jalangi collect to take food help from MG

Victims of starvation in Jalangi collect 
to take food help from MG

People informed me that during the last 10 years river Padma has changed its course by 8 to 10 kms westwards. Whole of Jalangi population has migrated to Biswaspara, Jaikrishnapur Schoolpara and Gauripur "Bhanganpara" (i.e., swept away locality, in Bengali language). In this way, almost whole of the proper Jalangi population has now migrated to Choapara Panchayat. Literally speaking, the historical town of Jalangi proper does not exist today, while in Choapara Panchayat there exists "another" Panchayat called "Jalangi Choapara" at Jaikrishnapur. Those who had land settled at Biswaspara. At Jaikrishnapur Schoolpara and Gauripur "Bhanganpara", the administration has allocated land for resettlement. Even here some of the relocated areas get submerged in water during the monsoon season. Moreover, they have not been allotted any financial help for rebuilding their collapsed houses. People have built shanties on their own. Financial assistance from governmental agencies is rare or even denied. Because of no bandh or barrage, river Padma is most active near this small town of forty thousand people.

Those affected by this calamity are living in a dire situation of slowly starving to death. Their main source of income was agriculture or related activities. Now they do not have any source of income left in the area. People of working age are seen biding their time loitering around. A very few of them get to work occasionally and for this they get paid around rupees 30 for females and rupees 40 for males, after a full-day's work. They mostly engage themselves in either household work, rickshaw-pulling, agricultural labour or menial jobs at shops and stores which are few and far between. Some of them also do bidi-making and the like. 

Sewing machine donated by MG to a vocational centre run by Jalang Mahila Samiti in Jalangi (Nadim Ahmad is seen second from left)

Sewing machine donated by MG to a 
vocational centre run by Jalang Mahila Samiti in 
Jalangi (Nadim Ahmad is seen second from left)

The total affected population here is around 25,000 and the most affected are the elderly and children below the age of five. All of them are suffering from malnutrition. Most of them have not been allotted even the below poverty line (BPL) ration cards. At the minimum, one kg of ration on a daily basis is required urgently for at least fifty families tottering at present on the line of death in Jalangi, i.e., Biswaspara, Schoolpara and Gouripur Bhanganpara. There are other needs such as clothing specially for women some of whom could be seen half-naked because they simply do not have clothes. Shelter is also urgently required for some. Wherever this correspondent went, people took him as a representative of some aid agency and asked him to register their names in his notebook, hoping to get some help. They stare curiously at every newcomer. The area needs a long-term concerted rehabilitation programme.

Second report from Jalangi

Another starvation death
Jalangi, Murshidabad, 6 March: Local authorities here are sitting on at least 1652 quintals of rice of the National Food for Work Project (NFFWP) while they have allowed another 843 quintals of rice to rot along with Rs 240,000 under Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (Full Village Employment Scheme - SGRY) which was allotted for 12,000 working days for Jalangi Panchayat Samity and lies unutilised. In the current year 1652 quintals of rice have been made available to them by the previous month which is also in danger of being left to rot. District Magistrate Mr. N.M Prasad accepted that he has no information regarding this. As regards starvation deaths in the area Mr Prasad accepted that the administration has been slow to move. Had they moved efficiently and in time they could have saved a few lives, he said. On 19 March Mr. Prasad had a meeting with the local authorities at Berhampore Zilla Parishad regarding the poverty eradication programme there. He reprimanded the concerned officials for not taking or being up to the required level of functioning. 

This is how River Padma is eroding farmland and habitation in Jalangi

This is how River Padma is eroding 
farmland and habitation in Jalangi

As for the local Block Development Officer (BDO) Mr Kanchan Chaudhary, he has the information because he was informed officially by the authorities concerned of the NFFWP. The area chairperson Bharti Ghosh inspected the stock some 15 days earlier at the Jalangi godown and found that the condition of the stock is not good. Zilla Parishad President Ms Aisha Siddika Begum has assured that she would look into the matter herself as reported in the local news paper (A.B. Bangla, Kolkata) of 4 April 2005. 

Today I met some local people, Rupjan Bewa, Nirupma Mondol and Sinltu Mandol at Dayarampur in the Ghoshpara panchayat. They informed me that at least 200 women and 600 men had worked two months back under the NFFWP project but they are still waiting for their payments.

There was one more victim on 2 April 05 of the on-going rage of starvation deaths as reported in the local newspaper here (A.B. Bangla, Kolkata) dated 4 April 05. I personally met the family members of the victim Rumpa Sharma, a girl aged 16. Her mother told me that on the fateful day Rumpa had asked for some food two or three hours before taking her life, and also had a scuffle with her younger brothers on the food left in the house, which she could not eat because her younger brothers did not share it with her. Mother went out to find some food for her. On returning home, she did not find her daughter. When she (mother) asked about Rumpa’s whereabouts, she was told by her elder daughter that Rumpa was in her room weeping. The mother started cooking food, and having done that she called out Rumpa. When she did not get any reply, she went to Rumpa's room. She found the door closed from inside. After a few calls, she peeped into the closed room from the adjacent room which shared a window with the other room. 

She could not believe her eyes. Her beloved hungry Rumpa was hanging from the roof-bamboo. Later on the dead body of the victim was brought to the local police station and sent for postmortem report to Berhampore. At the Jalangi police station, ASI Mr. Sarkar told me that the postmortem report had not been received till now. He also claimed that the case is not of starvation but that the girl had some differences with her father and mother. During the last two and a half months at least 9 persons have died of starvation in Dayarampur village alone. They are: 1. Alimuddin Sheikh, 60 years, 2. Janera Bewa, 50 years, w/o Alimuddin Sheikh, died eight days after her husband, 3. Afijan Bewa, 60 years, 4. Sattar Sheikh, 50 years, 5. Jamera Bewa, 50 years, 6. Ajijul Mondal (originally of Paraspur now living at Dayarampur), 60 years, and 7. Ajijul Mulla s/o Muljan Mulla. Family members say he died a few months back, 8. Gadal Mondal, 16 years, s/o Sasticharan Mondal. Reportedly he consumed Caoh (chune ka pani) by mistake during night stealthily due to acute hunger assuming it to be toddy, 9. Rumpa Sharma d/o Somendra Sharma, 16 years, who committed suicide on 2 April 05.

There is information about starvation deaths from other areas such as one casualty in Paraspur village. Victims names are Gohar Mondal, 50 years, who was suffering from anemia and Dhiren Mondal, 55 years, of Taltoli. These deaths have occurred in the Ghoshpara Panchayat area. The Ghoshpara Panchayat Pradhan Santosh Ray denied to provide any information regarding starvation deaths. He claimed that most of the deaths had occurred due to old age. He reused to offer information about the number of below poverty line (BPL) ration cards issued to people below poverty line in his area. He also refused to divulge any information regarding the APL or AAPL ration cards.
 
The local MLA, who belongs to the CPIM, also denied any starvation deaths. However, he confirmed that there are 25% people below poverty line out of which 20% have been alloted BPL ration cards. 

There are many other families at Dayarampur village who are suffering from the starvation and anyone of them could die any day. Out of these I have seen four persons identified as Supria Bewa, 60 years, mother of Ajijul Mondal the deceased, Amina Bewa, 65 years (paralysed) and Manjura Bibi. Another family which is in acute poverty is Janara Bibi’s of which one casualty Afijan Bewa has already been reported.

Most of the starvation deaths have been reported from Dayarampur, in Ghoshpara Panchayat area, which I have not touched in terms of relief work because there Mr. Salim and Mr Jahangir Sheikh of Murshidabad Gram Unnayan Samity are doing relief work and have done some distributions of rice (8 or 7 kg per head).

People who have their land are allowed to go to the other side of the Padma river when they submit their voters identity cards. I was not allowed to cross the river to take photographs and was asked to take permission from the area headquarters at Roushanbagh in Lalbagh, Murshidabad.

A local active person, Gopal Sharma of Dayarampur, has started an agitation against the dire situation prevailing in the area, but the police have arrested his mother Sewa Sharma, 72 years, as well as his son Parimal Sharma at 8 pm in the evening of 30 March 05, and have threatened to arrest Gopal Sharma himself if he does not stop his activities. Now the arrested persons are languishing in jail at Berhampore. The Police has accused them of harassing Parimal Sharma’s wife. A case was lodged against them on 04 February 05 under No. 25/05 Jalangi P.S. They have been sent to jail under G.R. 173 / 05 u/s 498 A, 307/34 IPC.

Reports and photographs by Nadim Ahmad, Jalangi, Murshidabad 

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