Bundelkhand tribal Shakun Raikwar’s belly is hard as stone
With nothing to eat, she has been surviving by feeding on mud for the last 12 years
The people of her Saharia community are in no position to help her
Shakun doesn’t have any card that’ll let her avail state-run welfare schemes
This Chhattisgarhi folk song, immortalised in the movie Peepli Live, is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of human existence.
But, the poet, Gangaram, would probably never have imagined that once the body is assimilated back into the earth, all one would find is mud in the stomach.
This is the story of Shakun Raikwar, a tribal women from Rajwara village of the Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region.
FEEDING ON MUD FOR 12 YEARS Shakun’s belly has turned as hard as stone, due to a lack of food. But somehow, she has survived till now.
The misery of parched fields and dried up water reservoirs seems to find an expression in her groans. The wrinkles on her face bear witness to the fact that hunger is a much bigger problem than drought in the region.
Shakun has stayed alive for 12 years feeding on mud. Her situation is an indelible blot on our society, democracy and the country as a whole.
Almost 60% of the Saharia community that Shakun belongs to has already migrated from Lalitpur. Scores of villages are deserted; a majority of houses are locked up. People who have stayed behind find no refuge in mother nature or the state.
This is the real plight of the sons and daughters of the soil – their scorched fields are no longer able to feed them. A mere roti is a luxury few can afford.
HARDLY ANY HELP FORTHCOMING Rajwara is a relatively large village, housing a distinct Tola, or community of Pandits. The backward class population is a mix of various castes.
The Saharia adivasi community lives in a separate settlement. Shakun lives in the same basti. Her husband died five years ago, leaving behind two children.
When we reached her shack, Shakun had gone to her neighbour’s house to drink water. When she arrived, she sat on the ground and showed us her stomach. It was like a bundle of stones.
Ashish Dikshit, one of the relatively well-off members of the village, tells us: “She occasionally gets food and water from other houses in the village. But, when there is nothing else to eat, she has no option but to satiate her hunger by eating mud.”
Shakun’s children are not around. But they are alive, and sustain on alms received from the villagers.
Nobody in the Saharia community is in a condition to help Shakun’s family. A young man points towards scratches on the walls of a nearby shanty, and affirms: “She has scraped all the mud and eaten it.”
Shakun has no card to make her a beneficiary of state-run welfare schemes.
“I am not able to fetch water or do any other work. There is a constant pain in my stomach. I have to go several times during the day to attend nature’s call. My body can’t digest a single roti,” she rues in her native dialect.
BEGGING FOR A WEDDING Rajwara is a place where every story is more heart-rending than the other. As we chat with the Dikshit family, Shakun’s benefactors, a veiled woman draped in red saree suddenly enters the room and starts touching everybody’s feet. She is apparently a complete stranger.
The woman’s name is Bhagwati. She had boarded a taxi to reach Rajwara from Jakhlaun, a small town situated about 30 kilometres away. Her granddaughter’s wedding is around the corner, and she was here to collect money to send ‘shagun‘ to the granddaughter’s in-laws-to be.
The tradition of offering ‘shagun’ during marriages is locally known as ‘Cheekat‘. It usually involves sending clothes and utensils as gifts for the bridegroom’s family. Both of Bhagwati’s sons work as labourers.
“There are 14 members in my family. Three kilograms of wheat and two kilograms of rice from the (government) quota is barely sufficient for us. Please help me,” she pleads.
Our hosts clarify that there is a custom among the poor people of the area to ask for alms during marriages. When asked how she came to Dikshit family’s house, she replies: “I saw this gathering in the room from the road and came here. Please give me some money or foodgrains.”
Shakun also asks us for money. She begins with a demand of Rs 500, but comes down to Rs 100 when we assure her of medical treatment.
“What will you do with the money?” we enquire.
“I will get my stomach treated,” she replies.
According to locals, Shakun has come into this dire situation after the death of her husband. She is no longer capable of working in the fields, while her children have grown accustomed to begging over a period of time. Like their mother, they too resort to eating mud when there is no other option to satisfy their hunger.
The three-year-long drought has ruined the farms of most Saharia Adivasis in Rajwara.
Meanwhile, Bhagwati is unyielding till the end. Finally, she gets some money and foodgrains. A family member asks her to at least reveal her face before departing.
“Bhaiya, badnami ho jayegi (brother, I will be dishonoured),” Bhagwati implores from behind the veil.
NO ONE AROUND TO DEEPEN THE POND People like Shakun and Bhagwati are a common sight in this region. But it barely moves the consciences of the impoverished locals. Everybody fears they might also face the same predicament sooner or later.
In Rajwara, a large pond is being deepened. Many members of Saharia community, young and old, can be seen digging mud at the site. A village panchayat member overseeing the work claims that around 388 villagers, including 277 women, are registered as labourers with the panchayat. However, not all of them possess job cards.
This figure is questionable, since the muster roll shows the names of only 335 people. Brijesh, a young member of the Dikshit family laments: “Yesterday, I saw only 174 people were registered in the muster roll. All of them have left the village. It is difficult to find men for this work.”
The number of men still remaining in Rajwara is negligible. Most of the women while away their time sitting idle or eating local fruits.
‘WHAT IF WE SOW SEEDS BUT THERE’S NO RAIN’? In the meantime, a government Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), Ranjana Namdev, reaches the village with Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker Shakuntala. They rebuke the village women for not coming to vaccinate their children.
“Vaccinate our children now, if we were not able to reach on time,” answers an old woman, Vimala.
“Can you expect wheat crop instantaneously after sowing? Everything should be done at the proper time,” says the ANM.
Vimala replies: “What if we sow the seeds on time, and yet there is no rain?”
The ANM is left speechless. All the other village women erupt into laughter.