After the alleged starvation deaths of seven persons belonging to the Lodha Sabar community in Jhargram’s Jangalkhas village last month, a report released by the Right to Food Campaign in West Bengal said that one more person died and three others were hospitalised.
While the officials had declared Tuberculosis (TB) as the cause of the seven deaths, the Right to Food Campaign report, which was released in November, said that TB as a disease is intrinsically related to malnutrition.
When the issue was taken up in the Assembly last month, the TMC government maintained that the deaths were due to diseases like TB and liver failure, while the opposition alleged they were starvation deaths.
The state government had on Wednesday decided to distribute nutritious food to the Lodha Sabar community at subsidised rates. It has also decided to hold health camps in the area.
“We got reports that three more people had been hospitalised, and one died on the way to the health facility. We visited their villages, including Jhitka and Bhumi Dhansol,” said Anuradha Talwar of the Right to Food Campaign who had visited the villages on November 17 along with a team. The report identifies the deceased as Janta Sabar (60).
“When we raised the issue of TB, the government blamed excessive drinking as a cause behind it. It was agreed that TB was highly prevalent in the community. Yet its relationship with poor nutritional status was not acknowledged by the administration,” the Right to Food Campaign report stated.
Reacting to the allegations, District Magistrate (DM) Jhargram Ayesha Rani said, “There is no problem of food shortage in the area at all. The rationing system is robust here as well as in the entire district. The people sent to the hospital were suffering from TB.”
The report further states that the DOTS (Directly Observed Treatment Short-course) programme of ASHA workers, who are supposed to administer the anti-TB drug to people at their homes every day, was also not followed. “This was apparent in the case of Mangal Sabar (who had TB and died of alleged starvation). His father said that no one came to administer the TB medicine. They had to collect it themselves. Sometimes they would get confused with the timing and Mangal would miss the dose,” Talwar said.
According to her, the Block Medical Officer of Health (BMOH) said that Mangal was allergic to TB medicines, but before they could treat him appropriately, he had died. “According to the Midday Meal Scheme (MDMS) Nodal Officer, Rs 500 per month was available for the TB patients, but no one had received this money in the past,” she said.
Describing the overwhelming police presence in the area, Talwar said,” The entry to Jangalhas village was guarded by two policemen with rifles. They were assisted by two sub-inspectors with three or four cops in civil dress. Besides, several well-dressed young men from the Mahato and Santhal community could also be seen. They claimed that they were there to “help” the Lodha Sabars, who are unable to talk properly. We heard that in Bhumi Dhansol and Jhitka, a police force had descended on the village on November 17 to “capture” four unwell Lodha Sabars.”
“Sub-Inspector Somen Sinha Mahapatra, who was the in charge, told us that this has been an exclusive police action, with no involvement of the health officials. The police had used its civic police volunteers to find out who was unwell and had forcibly picked them up. The BMOH had no idea about this. While three of those “captured” were comparatively elderly women and therefore easy to round up, the fourth, one Subhas Sabar (35), ran away when the police came. They had to chase him down,” she said.
The report further states that they came to know that Sabars were afraid of going to the hospital and relied more on their own herbs. The policy of using police to forcibly admit ill people to the hospital would increase their reluctance, the report said.
DM Ayesha Rani called the police presence as “normal” as it was a former Maoist area.
“It is not unusual for the police to have taken them (the ill people). We keep visiting villages across the district and when we find that the people are unwell, we admit them to the hospital,” the DM said.
The report states, “We found almost everyone from the Lodha Sabar community to be stunted in growth and suffering from anaemia. There is, however, no information available with the BMOH on their health status, except for information with the ICDS staff on health and nutritional status of children and pregnant mothers. But the public health nurse said that separate information on Lodha Sabars would not be available.”
“Kripasindhu Sabar, the block president of the Lodha Sabar Kalyan Samity, told us that diets are generally very poor with food grains being the main item consumed. There is very little or no consumption of milk, fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and eggs. The Sabars we spoke to claimed to receive Rs 100 – Rs 130 for a day’s work in agriculture. The work hours varied from 5 to 7 hours. The statutory minimum wage for agricultural workers in the state is Rs 244 from July 2018,” the report said.