Dambaru Munda clutches the feverish, wailing Krishna to his chest, trying his best to pacify the three-year-old. In another room of his kuchcha home in Lahanda Mundasahi village, in Joda block of Keonjhar district, his 6-year-old daughter Bamuni and 12-year-old son Suresh too are running high temperatures.
It could be malaria, but Dambaru wouldn’t know. Though nervous, he is waiting for a verdict from the witch doctor to take his three children to the nearest government hospital, around 4 km away. Earlier that day, the quack gave shots of some antibiotics to Bamuni and Suresh for Rs 100. Now he is trying to propitiate the tribal god Marangburu with the help of the local witch doctor.
“Let the rawadia (witch doctor) tell me to take my children to hospital,” Dambaru purses his lips. “The gods need to be satisfied.”
It’s been just a couple of days since Gura Munda and five of his family were killed in the village, allegedly by his neighbour and elder brother Tumba Munda, for “practising witchcraft”. Two of Gura’s sons survived, one of whom is still critical. None of the neighbours came to his help though the attack lasted at least half an hour.
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A reason Gura’s wife Budhini was suspected to be practising sorcery was that one of their children had been ailing for some time, as was Tumba’s son. Their ailments were blamed on Budhini. At a village meeting, Budhini’s entire family was declared cursed.
Of all the people in this tribal-dominated village, this shouldn’t have been Gura’s fate. The 40-year-old was the chairman of the governing body of the village’s only government primary school.
“Gura sent two of his children to study here and encouraged other villagers to enrol their children,” recalls headmaster Sukanta Rout. He also remembers Gura sending his children to hospital when ill, “disregarding the advice of witch doctors”.
Rout says there aren’t too many like Gura in Lahanda Mundasahi. “We have been trying in vain to make villagers understand the futility of consulting witch doctors. They just don’t listen,” he says.
Of the 1,200-odd tribals scattered around the Lahanda hills, there are barely three to four matriculates. Most such as Dambaru have never set foot inside a school. The Lahanda Mundasahi primary school came up only five years ago, with 32 students. Now it has 162. But at least 70 per cent of the children still don’t go to school.
Beyond the primary school, educational facilities are limited. An upper primary school, a high school and a government women’s college are all about 5 km away.
Police in Joda have held nine people so far for the murders of the Gura Munda family. “No one was willing to even touch their bodies after the murders. The tribals believe that the devil persists even after death,” says Joda sub-divisional police officer Ajay Pratap Swain, who is investigating the case.
While Joda, the nearest town, is just 4 km away, most homes in Lahanda Mundasahi are difficult to access. They are spread acoss a hilly terrain, in scattered groups, and electricity, that arrived a couple of years ago, is skeletal. There are no streetlights and most homes just have a bulb.
Then there is the train line that cuts off the village from other areas. “Ambulance drivers refuse to come this side as their vehicle axle brushes against the rails. We have to take patients across,” says Mangal Munda, who works as a helper in a local transport company.
Modern medicine has made some difference, with ASHA workers regularly coming to the village for vaccination and routine check-ups. The results are beginning to show — only two brain malaria deaths were reported last year. Before that, the deaths always used to be in double digits.
However, the tribals’ first port of call during an ailment remains the local witch doctor and quack. “The quacks administer useless medicines and injections, and the witch doctors delay treatment. By the time the patient comes to us, it becomes a tough job for us,” says Dr Manas Ranjan Biswal, medical officer at the Basudevpur Community Health Centre, 10 km away.
And yet, at Lahanda Mundasahi’s doorstep, lies another world. The village is ringed by some of the biggest iron ore-bearing mines of Joda, which is also known as the Bellary of Odisha.
Gura worked at a railway siding in Joda, where millions of tonnes of iron ore and manganese are loaded onto trains to carry them to steel plants in the state.
The tribal families, however, don’t earn more than Rs 5,000 a month on an average for working in iron ore mines, at construction sites, railway sidings or pit-head plants in the region. The Justice M B Shah Commission that probed the mining scam in Keonjhar and Sundargarh two years ago had said that if the value of the iron ore and manganese mined in the two districts for one year alone was passed on to the tribal families, each would be richer by Rs 9.45 lakh.
Pana Munda, who is separated from her husband and earns Rs 130 a day for masonry works, laughs hearing about the amount. “If we ask for the minimum wage, the contractor would just throw us out. There would be many like me ready to work for less money,” says Pana, who does odd jobs to bring up her two children.
With poverty a constant burden, belief is an easier recourse. Even for Gura’s mother Jingi. “Without a puja and a sacrifice of roosters, no one in the village would go to hospital,” she asserts. “The gods would not