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The shadow of hunger

By Aditya Malaviya

Baran is one of 22 districts in Rajasthan designated ‘food insecure’. The Sahariya tribals who have a per capita income of roughly Rs 7 a day live in the shadow of hunger, with not enough money to buy even BPL rations. Children are brought up on little more than bajra rotis with salt and chillies and, not surprisingly, child deaths from hunger are reported every few months

The unpaved road twists and turns over a barren rocky escarpment as we make our way to the village of Baseli. The tree stumps and brush are interspersed with occasional patches of green. Eventually we reach a cluster of mud huts. Outside one of them is three-year-old Piyo. She clings to her sister’s hand as she tries to stand. Her frame is so wasted that she barely has the strength to cry. Her oversized dress only serves to emphasise her withered body. “I don’t know about nutrition and malnutrition,” says her mother, Radha Sahariya. “I just know my daughter cannot walk, she is too weak.”

Why don’t they take Piyo to the mother-child centre located on the nearby hilltop? “Even if we spend precious time and money to take our children to the ma-baari centre, they will be in the same situation soon after their treatment finishes,” says Piyo’s father, Ishwarlal. “Our crop is fed only by the rains, and we live a hand-to-mouth existence.”

Baseli, in Shahbad block of Baran district in southeast Rajasthan, is populated by the Sahariyas, categorised as a ‘primitive tribal group’ by the government. Even though they represent approximately one-third of the population in the Shahbad and Kishanganj blocks, the Sahariyas remain marginalised.

Health of tribals in Rajasthan

Tribals represent 8.2% of the country’s population, but 14.8% of them were in poverty in 1993-94, increasing to 17.5% in 1999-2000 (1). In Rajasthan, the numbers are 28.8% in 1993-94, increasing to 36.5% in 1999-2000. Just 47.1% of India’s tribals are literate (2) (the all-India figure is 64.8%).

According to the District-Level Household Survey on Reproductive and Child Heath, 2002-2004 (3), more than one-fourth (28%) of children in Rajasthan are severely underweight and nearly three-fifths (58%) are underweight. The proportion of undernourished children increases rapidly with the child’s age, up to 6-11 months, and shows a decrease thereafter. More than two-fifths (42%) of children in the age-group 12-23 months are severely underweight, whereas more than three-fifths (71%) of children in the same age-group are underweight. By age 48-71 months, the corresponding figures for severely underweight and underweight children stabilise at 18% and 50% respectively.

Twenty-two of Rajasthan’s 32 districts are designated ‘food insecure’ in a report of the United Nations World Food Programme and the Institute of Human Development. Baran is one of these, a ‘hot spot’ designated as ‘most food insecure’ (4). In 1998, the Department of Women and Child Development published a report on India’s nutrition profile covering 18 states and union territories. It found that 44% of rural children in the age-group 1-5 years were underweight in Rajasthan compared to about one-third in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh (5). The Sahariyas are the worst-off among an already marginalised population.

The 700,000-strong Sahariya tribe is scattered over 11 districts in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Originally self-reliant forest-dwellers, they were dispossessed by the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and reduced to unskilled landless labourers. A study by the Centre for Tribal Development in 2002 (6) reported that the annual per capita income among Sahariyas was Rs 2,691, or about Rs 7 a day -- less than one-third of the official poverty line figure of Rs 26 a day in rural areas. They face social discrimination at the hands of sarpanches, upper-caste villagers and government officials. Longstanding neglect by the state has ensured that they remain largely bereft of the benefits of development. Just as their dwellings are isolated from the rest of the village, the Sahariyas seem to exist on the periphery of society.

Child deaths are not uncommon among the Sahariyas. Angoori Bai lost her five-year-old son Vishal last year; she had already lost her two-year-old daughter the year before to “anaj ki bhookh”, or “hunger for grain”. Guddi Bai lost her five-year-old son Chander Bhan to chronic hunger as well. Guddi Bai struggles to feed her children. “I give them bajra rotis with a chutney of chana plant leaves; we cannot afford oil so I just boil the leaves with salt and chilli.” The family certainly cannot afford milk, pulses or vegetables. Her husband earns Rs 70-80 per day as an agricultural labourer on the few days he gets work on land mostly owned by the Kerada(agricultural caste).

The anganwadi is as good -- or bad -- as their home

The two pillars of early childhood care -- ma-baari centres where children 6-12 years are provided primary education along with free school clothes and midday meals, and anganwadis or government-run creches for children under 6 -- have failed to address the widespread undernourishment crippling the community.

Under the government of Rajasthan’s programme exclusively for the Sahariyas, parents of Sahariya children identified by either the auxiliary nurse midwife or the accredited social health activist as malnourished are brought to nutrition rehabilitation centres for 10 days of treatment, for which they are paid Rs 100 as incentive. But taking children like Piyo to the centre in Shahbad, 35 km away, is “not an option,” says Ishwarlal Sahariya. “Travelling to the hospital costs Rs 15 for each person -- after walking 3 km to the main road from our village. Even if one of us goes, we lose Rs 100 per day as wages. And though we are promised an incentive of Rs 100 when we go to the centre, we get paid only Rs 30. Moreover, they treat us like dirt, taunting and chiding us.”

“Most anganwadis are dysfunctional or semi-functional, and anganwadi workers either poorly trained or uninterested,” says Ramesh Sahariya, former president, Kasba Thana panchayat, Shahbad block. “There are no proper utensils, no toys and games, inadequate stocks of foodgrain and nutritional supplements. Many do not even have proper floors, ventilation or painted walls. For the children, the anganwadi is as good -- or as bad -- as their home.”

Parents also complain that children do not like the soya bean kurkure (soya puffs) that are given as part of the nutrition package. “The taste is alien; they prefer something akin to what they eat at home,” says Angoori Bai of Kasba Thana village. Similarly, ghooghri, a gruel made of wheat andjaggery, which is the midday meal served by the anganwadi, “looks and tastes so unappetising that most children prefer to go hungry rather than eat it,” says Guddi Bai. There is no milk, even for those who are willing to buy it from the market. This is ironic, since Rajasthan is the third largest milk producing state in the country (7).

‘Do you think we like to live like this?’

Sahariya habitations are usually located outside the main village, called seharana, a cluster of ramshackle stone-and-mud homes with stone slab roofs. In some villages, the mud structures have tin roofs. Brick and concrete are rare, and even these homes are shoddily built one-room tenements with no toilets (the logic being that water is scarce and the Sahariyas will not flush this precious commodity down the toilet). Indeed, in Kasba Thana, the seharana had no drainage, sanitation or paving. It is surrounded by overflowing drains close to open wells. Ram Pal asks: “Do you think we like to live like this? When government officials come, they are more concerned with holding a handkerchief to their noses; what will anyone say with a handkerchief to his nose?”

The door to the tiny ten-by-five-foot structure that Guddi Bai calls home is so small you have to get down on your knees to enter. It is pitch black inside, and I bump into the roof. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I notice I am standing on a floor of crudely plastered mud. The walls are made from a mix of jungle brush plastered with mud. There is no electricity or drinking water source. Vegetable oil lanterns are the only source of light at night (kerosene is not cheap or freely available). The roof is improvised with paddy or wheat straw, thatch grass, and a sheet of old plastic to keep the rain away. The kitchen occupies a tiny corner of the hut; it comprises a small mud chullah, an iron kadhai and a few aluminium pots and pans for eating or storing water. A small stone slab, used to grind masala or make vegetable paste, stands against the wall. Bags of foodgrain occupy another corner of the hut. The remaining space is taken by a worn cotton mattress for a bed; a jute rope on which to hang clothes runs from one corner to another. The worldly belongings of Guddi Bai and her family are, quite literally, on a string.

“Food is cooked twice daily, around 11 am and then in the evening before it gets dark. Chapattis made of bajra or wheat are eaten during the day. In the evening we usually cook gruel or porridge; it requires less grain, allowing more family members to eat. His family shares about half-a-cup of boiled pulses or vegetables, says Arjun Sahariya, who lives in another part of the village. “When things are really bad, we eat lapti of wheat flour and gur(jaggery).” The morning meal, for those who can afford it, is roti and one vegetable or onion, or a thin buttermilk, or tea, or daldiluted with water, and with lots of red chillies. Intake of vegetables is very low and seasonal. Usually, leaves of plants like chana (gram) are added to boiled lentils or just boiled into a paste and eaten with chapattis. Milk is rare because the Sahariyas do not domesticate buffaloes or cows. To that extent, milk and milk products are denied to infants and small children. The only milk that is consumed is in tea, which is also given to children. Meat is eaten rarely, only on ceremonial and festive days.

Sahariya women are back at work a day or two after delivery. The only ‘special’ diet they get is gur or wheat rotis, with some milk if it is available. Compare this to theKerada women who get milk every day, nutritious food made with cooking oil, as well as gur, nuts, etc.

No work, no money, no food, no healthcare

The arid, rocky landscape means that most Sahariyas have little land to cultivate. “Many still have not been issued below-poverty-line ration cards, which would make them eligible for subsidised grain at the rate of Rs 2 per kg (35 kg per month) through the public distribution system (PDS). The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), a central scheme, promises -- especially for the Sahariyas -- 200 days of employment to every poor rural household. However, either the job card issued to some Sahariyas like Ram Singh under this scheme is kept with the village head or the wages are never received. Many are yet to get their job cards allowing them to register for work under the MGNREGS,” says Chittarmal Jat of the Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultants Society (CECOEDECON), a non-government organisation working in the area.

Even when PDS grain is available, the capacity of the Sahariyas to buy food or clothes is limited, and barter is used to buy essentials like oil, sugar and salt, exchanging either a portion of grain stored at home or firewood collected from the forest. Everything -- even the humble gutkha which costs Rs 2 -- is bought by bartering grain.

People like Kumar Pal and Ram Singh have an Antyodaya Anna Yojana card that is issued to the poorest of the poor living below the poverty line. But most times they can collect only a small amount of the 35 kg earmarked for them; sugar and rice are perpetually “out of stock” at the ration shop.

Curative health in tribal hamlets is almost absent. There are not even private hospitals to be found. This means easy pickings for the ‘Bengali doctor’, or quack. Most ‘Bengali doctors’ charge Rs 50-100 for each visit, including medicines, the favourite being bottles of intravenous glucose for every ailment. “Long distances, unaffordable fees and the callous attitude of health staff at health centres means that the Sahariya is forced to rely on quacks when illness strikes -- and strike it does, with regularity. “We rarely know what is being prescribed, but the medicines usually cure us, even if temporarily,” says Kumar Pal, a labourer in Kasba Thana village, Shahbad block. “Most doctors do not come to the health centre. The nurse or compounder prescribes the same white tablets for every ailment. If we ask for better medicines, they write a prescription and tell us to buy the medicines from the market. Because we cannot afford it, we go back to the‘Bengali doctor’ to seek relief.”

Is there hope?

Poor land quality, gradual loss of community resources such as water, land and forests, dependence on manual labour and outdated agriculture skills, inadequate knowledge of natural resource management, and poor outreach of government schemes and programmes -- all this has meant that the Sahariyas have limited livelihood options, and these too have shrunk over the years. Non-government organisations like CECOEDECON are chipping away at the problem through broad-based interventions including education, agriculture, natural resource management and mobilising community-based organisations.

Compared to other taleti (lowland) areas, Ogad village in Shahbad block looks green and relatively more prosperous, thanks partly to the availability of water. While the problems facing the Sahariyas here are as daunting as anywhere else, some people feel that the difference here is that solutions are being explored and newer ideas taking root. One such idea is that of a grain bank.

“The grain bank was set up in this village to overcome the chronic shortage of foodgrain that forced most families to go to bed on an empty stomach. Twenty families came together to start it three years ago, with a loan of Rs 18,000 from CECOEDECON, and Rs 500 as membership fee from each member. Since then, it has been able to ‘bank’ 29 quintals (1 quintal = 100 kg) of foodgrain, primarily wheat. Anyone -- whether or not a member -- who faces a shortage of foodgrain can borrow so long as s/he returns the borrowed grain along with ‘interest’ in kind; the amount is determined on a case-by-case basis by those who run the grain bank, says Chittarmal Jat of CECOEDECON. Kesri Chand Jatav, a member of the grain bank, says: “The PDS grain is not enough for a family of six to eight members. Also, we never get the PDS grain on time. Sometimes, it is two months late. Will hunger wait?”

While the interest in the grain bank is lower than the usurious rates charged by moneylenders, it still represents a substantial amount to the borrower. The grain bank can work only if members are in a position to return the grain they borrow. This is now a reality, thanks to better yields made possible by water harvesting. In Sanwada village, 23-year-old Bajwal Sahariya’s 3 bigha patch of land is covered with ripening stalks of wheat. “The land was on a rocky slope. A small stream flowed through it, eroding the soil during the monsoons and dwindling to a trickle in the hot summer months,” he says. CECOEDECON helped construct an anicut, a micro-reservoir to store run-off water. Aboundary wall was built to stop animals from grazing on the crops. Bunds and other inexpensive techniques ensured that water was retained on the land without stripping it of soil cover. The arid landscape was transformed into a patch of green and a much-needed source of income and food for the Sahariyas.

Says Kanhaiya Sahariya: “The availability of water allows us to harvest at least 15-20 quintals of wheat. This can be sold in the market at Rs 1,500 per quintal. Even otherwise, the grain can sustain a small family for a few months.”

A local saying goes like this: “Do bigha Mali ka, nau bigha Jat ka, aur bees bigha Rajput ka.”What the Mali (agricultural class) grows in two bighas, the Jat grows in nine, and the Rajput in 20. There is no mention of the Sahariya. Perhaps it is time the Sahariya is finally allowed to correct this historical aberration by coming out of the shadow of hunger.

Note: The field visit for this article was facilitated by Chittarmal Jat, programme coordinator with the Centre for Community Economics and Development Consultants, Jaipur (Rajasthan)

(Aditya Malaviya is a researcher and journalist based in Bhopal)


1 Report of the Steering Committee on Rapid Poverty Reduction and Local Area Development for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-2012), Government of India, Planning Commission, New Delhi.
2 Annual Report, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, 2008-9.
3 Nutritional Status of Children and Prevalence of Anaemia Among Children, Adolescent Girls and Pregnant Women, District-Level Household Survey on Reproductive and Child Health, India 2002-2004.
4 Food Security Atlas of Rural Rajasthan. World Food Programme, Institute for Human Development, 2009.
5 National Human Development Report, 2001, ‘Health Attainments and Demographic Concerns’.
6 Mentioned in the eighth report of the commissioners of the Supreme Court, August 2008, available from:
7 Department of Animal Husbandry, government of Rajasthan.

Infochange News & Features, July 2012