“It is the only good thing that happened this year. We got food which lasted for a while… We didn’t go hungry. The ration helped us survive this (pandemic),” says Meena Devi over the phone from Musahari tola in Badbilla village in Bhagalpur district.
Back in July, the 35-year-old was irate, fighting every day for her family. The lockdown had left her community, among the poorest in Bihar, without food or income. With schools shut, her three children, Guddu, Kesar and Mamata, did not have the security of mid-day meals either.
So, like everyone in the community, the family was forced to beg every day, or collect garbage, eating whatever they could find. However, hours after an Indian Express report, the Bihar government announced that government schools across Bihar would distribute ration to children for two months, which meant a supply of eight kilos of ration for students of Classes 1 to 5, and 12 kilos of ration for students of Classes 1 to 8. Meena Devi’s family was one of the first beneficiaries of the scheme.
“Before we got the ration in July, all the children of the tola would go out to collect scrap. I did too. We would sell what we could, and eat anything we found, including frogs. Even now, we have to work because there is very little money. But there is still some food in the house,” says Guddu Manjhi, 12, Meena Devi’s eldest son. A student of Class 5, he studies at the primary school in Shahabad that caters to the Musahari tola of Badbilla. He has not been going to school since March, when the first phase of the lockdown was imposed.
As per the government order passed in July after the Express report on the struggles of the community, cognizance of which was also taken by the NHRC and the Chief Justice of the Bihar High Court, two months worth of ration was distributed immediately, and since, rations have also been distributed till November, says Deevendra Singh, Principal of the Shahabad Primary school.
“The lack of food supply was definitely a big problem in the area. The children all come from poor families, and the mid-day meal was the one guaranteed meal in the day for them. In the pandemic, we couldn’t open schools and so we also couldn’t manage the logistics for cooking the meals. But the distribution of ration has helped a lot. By next year, we are hopeful of things returning to normal. But till then, at least there is some food,” he adds.
For the Musahars of Badbilla, like for everyone else, the lockdown has meant loss of employment and a drastic fall in income. The village is situated on the outskirts of the temple town of Sultanganj, and its economy is largely dependent on the month-long Shravani Mela, one of the area’s most popular pilgrimages from Sultanganj to Deoghar in Jharkhand. With lockdown restrictions in place, that month-long yatra that fuelled the local economy, from shops to hostels, was stalled and dealt a huge blow to the locals.
“During the mela, we would be hired for odd jobs, people would also pay higher than usual, charity was higher, and even when they called us to collect garbage, we earned money. This year there was nothing,” says Nazuk Manjhi, Meena Devi’s husband and Guddu’s father.
“We hope the new year is better for us. All we want from the government is that they give us some employment, some business to do… Some way to keep our children from going hungry again,” he adds.
Total Cases in Bhagalpur : 9,369
Total Deaths: 76
Active cases: 129
Data as on December 30
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