FOR 22 years, 32,000 Bru refugees from Mizoram have been living in camps in Kanchanpur and Panisagar divisions of North Tripura district, resisting attempts to repatriate them, including the latest deadline of October 1, following which government-granted rations to them were stopped.
While the measure has been taken thrice earlier, it is the first time since the initial arrivals that there have been claims of starvation deaths.
The migrants are entitled to sustenance allowance of Rs 5 daily for adults and Rs 2.5 for minors, 600 gm rice per adult per day and half that amount for minors, plus salt — distributed on the basis of their relief ration cards, which not all have, nor do the cards list all members of a family.
While Tripura continues to deny the starvation deaths, it has announced resumption of rations till November 30. Kanchanpur Sub-Divisional Magistrate Abhedananda Baidya says he is waiting for the post-mortem reports and contends only four casualties could be confirmed.
The Centre has also acknowledged only four deaths due to alleged starvation. While it has ruled out resumption of rations, it offered to credit Rs 25,000 into bank accounts of those who returned to Mizoram. No one took up the offer.
John Chongprengh, 2, reported dead on Oct 31
John lived in the Naisingpara Bru relief camp, with parents and three siblings, and was the first of the alleged starvation deaths. Says father Molendro Chongprengh, “After the government stopped rations, we shared food to survive. But two-three weeks later, all our food stocks ran out. My son fell ill. We rushed him to hospital, where he died.”
Chongprengh, who has a relief ration card, says he took his child first to the Gachirampara PHC, from where he was referred to the Dasda PHC, 7 km from the relief camp. The doctors at the Dasda PHC couldn’t say what ailed John, and after the child passed away, told his parents he succumbed to an ‘unknown disease’.
No one at the PHC was willing to talk.
Of the six relief camps, only two, Naisingpara and Ashapara, are near PHCs (of Dasda, Anandabazaar and Gachirampara). Like most PHCs, the three are without requisite infrastructure and often without medical personnel on duty.
About why none of the other five was taken to hospital, Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum president Apeto Sawibunga says, “Most of us are very poor. How can we take our relatives to hospitals kilometres away?”
Chongprengh, meanwhile, fears for his wife. “She is not well. She is constantly tired due to lack of food.”
Maloti Reang, 60, reported dead on Oct 31
Reang’s family says the 60-year-old resident of Naisingpara camp was already ailing by the time the government cut supplies. The absence of food and money only worsened her condition, says son Zirthansanga. “She neither ate properly, nor could we give her medicines,” he adds.
The family of four members is scraping by these days on whatever Zirthansanga can gather from the forest. “We collect vegetables, bamboo shoots, clams,” says the 42-year-old.
In the absence of any employment opportunties, most Brus live on products collected from the jungle. Rice is their staple food, apart from dry fish.
Bistirung Reang, 65, reported dead on Oct 31
The oldest among the dead, Bistirung was among the first few Brus to come to Tripura, and lived in Naisingpara camp. Says son Molsoma, “My mother started developing health problems after a few days without food… Aren’t we Indian citizens? We came to Tripura out of compulsion.”
Bistirung’s body was exhumed on the District Magistrate’s orders, for a post-mortem at the Kanchanpur Sub-Divisional Hospital. With the findings still pending, sources said she might have been suffering from chronic chest disease.
The DM refused to comment.
Akosha Molshoy, 1, reported dead on Nov 3
Father Moniram Molshoy says lack of nutrition had left his wife Zoremi too weak to breastfeed. “My child suffered from lack of food and died,” he cries. The youngest to die, Akosha’s death sparked panic in the camps over ailing children.
The couple have another child, while there is an elderly person too who is part of the family.
Akosha was the second death to have seen a post-mortem, also at the Kanchanpur hospital. Officials said they couldn’t make any comment on the reason of death as the post-mortem report was awaited. A source told The Indian Express Akosha might have died of septicaemia. Ojitrai Reang, 3 months, reported dead on Nov 3
The youngest of the Bru migrants to die, Ojitrai lived with his father Mergoram Reang, mother and siblings in Naisingpara camp. Mergoram too claims that Ojitrai died “because his mother could not feed him enough milk”. “She was ill after food supplies were stopped,” he says, adding his wife remains weak and is unable to walk around.
With rations stopped, Ojitrai’s family fell back on rice and grains donated by NGOs. While rations have resumed, Mergoram worries about the new deadline of November 30, and asks what would change by then.
Pigili Reang, 4 months, reported dead on Nov 3
A resident of Hamsapara, the infant has been the only alleged starvation death outside Naisingpara camp. The conditions are worse in Hamsapara compared to Naisingpara, which is the largest camp with a small part of it electrified.
Says father Khagendra, “My baby starved to death. My wife became weak and ill after food was stopped. She didn’t have enough milk to breastfeed Pigili.”