Burning Issue

Burning Issue

Despite years of robust economic growth, famine, insurgency and greed have pushed millions of people in India to the brink of starvation, especially in Jharkhand where famished children are ‘cured’ by branding

Gethin Chamberlain in Mirgitand, India, for the South China Morning Post, 27 June 2010

The poker is glowing red hot, flames from a small pile of burning wood lick around it and leap into the air. Suklal Hembrom holds a leaf against his stomach and warily eyes the man sitting on the other side of the fire. Suddenly, Thakur Das leans forward, takes hold of the poker and lunges towards the boy’s stomach.

Everyone in the village knows what should happen next. The child will scream loudly as the flesh begins to blister. Held down, he’ll writhe in agony. Again and again, the poker will be jabbed at his belly. The more the child screams, the happier everyone will be, because the villagers of Mirgitand, in the East Singhbhum district of India’s Jharkhand state, believe the distended stomachs of their famished children can be cured by branding them with red-hot pokers.

This time, however, Das does not make contact. With a reporter present, he dare not harm the child. Still, he comes worryingly close. He’s smiling throughout, seeing nothing wrong with this procedure. Most villagers have scars, some faded patches of darker skin, others deep welts. Suklal sports a small circle of tiny white scars: today he has been spared but eight years ago he wasn’t so lucky.

Tribal villager Thakur Das demonstrates how children are branded in Mirgitand in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand state, India.  The villagers are convinced that the distended bellies of their hungry children are full of worms and that the use of the red hot poker will "cure" them.  They also think it combats a range of ailments, including malaria.  The leaf prevents the poker sticking to the skin but many of the children are badly scarred: some have died.  Suklal Hembrom, 12, pictured left, was branded when he was a small boy and has a series of scars on the left side of his stomach.  He was not injured in this demonstration and the re was no contact wth the poker.

Tribal villager Thakur Das demonstrates how children are branded in Mirgitand in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand state, India. The villagers are convinced that the distended bellies of their hungry children are full of worms and that the use of the red hot poker will “cure” them. They also think it combats a range of ailments, including malaria. The leaf prevents the poker sticking to the skin but many of the children are badly scarred: some have died. Suklal Hembrom, 12, pictured left, was branded when he was a small boy and has a series of scars on the left side of his stomach. He was not injured in this demonstration and the re was no contact wth the poker.

Mirgitand’s solution to endemic malnutrition may seem extreme but it is by no means an isolated case. Other villages in the area have adopted the technique, although they are not so open about it. Even though some children have died, unable to cope with the shock or the infections that take hold of their wounds, the villagers persist. The alternative – providing enough nutritious food to sustain their children – is simply not an option. In common with millions of others in the world’s 11th-largest economy, they face a daily battle to put even the most basic meals on the table.

India has worse rates of malnutrition than sub-Saharan Africa: 43.5 per cent of children under five are underweight and India ranks below Zimbabwe and Sudan in the Global Hunger Index. Even before last year’s drought and ensuing crop failures, hunger was on the rise. A good monsoon this year may provide some respite but the reality is a country desperate to take its place at the world’s top table is incapable of feeding its population.

Around the country, startling stories are emerging. In a village in Uttar Pradesh, investigators found children eating soil to stave off hunger. In Jharkhand, children have been found eating ants (pounded in a mortar and made into a paste with a little water).

Mirgitand lies in hills 195 kilometres east of the state capital, Ranchi, at the end of a stony track accessible only on foot or by a perilous motorbike ascent.

It is part of India but at the same time not part of it: it’s in the hands of Maoist Naxalite guerillas, who hold government security forces at bay, despite the launch of a paramilitary campaign last year – Operation Green Hunt – designed to wrest back control.

Nothing better demonstrates Mirgitand’s isolation than the memorial that stands in the village of Galudih, 25 kilometres away. Galudih marks the boundary between state and Naxal territory. In the past three years, seven people have died in attacks along the road that leads from the village towards the hills .

To travel along it is to place one’s life in the hands of the guerillas, as politician Sunil Mahato, a powerful member of the federal parliament, learned the hard way in 2007, when he accepted an invitation to a football match. It’s Mahato who is commemorated on the memorial. Forty-five minutes into the match, gunmen opened fire. Four people, including Mahato, were killed. Now the area is largely a no-go zone, cut off from whatever help the state might otherwise have provided.

At the point where it becomes necessary to transfer to a motorbike, the road to Mirgitand crosses a large, but empty, canal, which wends across the countryside. Funded by the World Bank, it was intended to bring much-needed irrigation to this impoverished area but after 20 years it remains incomplete.

Beneath a tree near the canal, Kartic Budhan is entertaining a crowd. He performs a few magic tricks and then, when he has everyone’s attention, tells them how his prayers at a temple in Orissa saved his sick mother when doctors had given her up for dead. Since then, he has toured the country telling people about the “miracle”. The crowd laps up the story: when reality has so little to offer, there is a ready market for miracles.

Farther up the track, a group of women are making their way through the trees. In their hands are bundles of tendu leaves, which will be rolled into the traditional beedis (cigarettes). They can earn 55 rupees (HK$10) for 100 leaves but it’s hard work and only perfect leaves are acceptable. They are often out for days in an area where the danger from elephants and bears is ever-present.

Mirgitand appears at the foot of a short incline. Most of the houses have thatched roofs, though there are a few with tiles. Chickens and goats wander among the houses. A few children appear, curious. Saranti Tuddu, a boy of four, and Solma Mandi, a girl of the same age, pull up their tops to reveal pale scars on the lower part of their stomachs. Molilal Kisku is five, with a large, distended belly. There are dark circles on his skin where the poker was applied. He can’t remember it happening, he says: he was only a few weeks old when it was done.

Manoranjan Mahta sits on a log, watching the children. He works for the post office, he says. He lost his son, Hemanth, three years ago.

“My son had a protruding belly,” he says. “We went to many doctors but they didn’t cure it. The doctor said his liver was badly affected and needed a transplant but that would cost 700,000 rupees. I wrote to the president stating that we were unable to cure my son.

“When no one helped, we got some local wood and burned it. In this village, when a child has a big pot belly, we put a piece of banana leaf on the skin and then we put burning charcoal or a burning rod on the leaf. If the child is writhing in pain, the notion is that the germs are dying.

“We put the charcoal on his belly. This is done with many children but they don’t die.”

But Hemanth did. After the burning his wound became infected. He was seven years old.

“There was no alternative,” Mahta says. “I had to follow the suggestions of the village leaders. But I wouldn’t do it again.”

There are 33 families in the village. On some of the older children the scars have faded but Sunil Kisko, 20, undoes his shirt to show a large patch of scar tissue that has healed badly. He was four when it was done, he says, but he can’t remember the pain.

“If [the children] don’t cry much when they do it at the front then they do it from behind, too,” he says.

Mirgitand is only 60 kilometres from the city of Jamshedpur, heart of the Tata Steel empire. The city is clean and pleasant, a world away from the lives of the villagers. It represents the new and thriving India, the middle-class India that’s on course to overtake Britain as the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2015. But it is not representative of the state as a whole. In Jharkhand, 17 out of 24 districts are classified by the government as “food insecure”. It may be no coincidence they are also marked “highly affected” by Maoists.

Jharkhand’s doctors are among the most poorly paid in India, earning barely half of what their contemporaries in Delhi make. This may explain why 2,200 of the 2,468 doctors recruited by the state five years ago have moved on. The state is said to need more than 800 primary health centres. It has just 330.

A study of 20 villages conducted last year recorded 13 deaths from starvation and 1,000 families suffering from chronic-hunger syndrome. It is estimated nearly 50,000 children in the state die every year before their first birthday. Various reports have criticised the state for failing to support its most needy citizens. But this is not just a problem in Jharkhand.

A study released last month warned 66 per cent of children under the age of six in the slums of the national capital were malnourished. The report noted that the most vulnerable sections of society were not covered by government schemes supposed to support them.

In Madhya Pradesh, the situation is, if anything, worse than in Jharkhand. More than half a million children below the age of five have died in the past five years and 60 per cent of its children are categorised as malnourished. Meanwhile, last month, television and newspapers showed 100,000 tonnes of wheat stocks rotting in the open. State officials blamed a shortage of storage space.

In Ganne, Uttar Pradesh, children have been found eating mud and silica. When the reports began to surface, officials allegedly sent food and told the villagers to keep quiet.

When last year’s Global Hunger Index was published, India was placed in the “alarming” category, ranked 65 out of 84 countries, below even North Korea.

The problem, essentially, is millions of people are living on the absolute edge of survival, threatened by the slightest changes in situation, any one of which could tip them into a position where malnutrition takes hold. At the same time, the big international market for Indian food products pushes up prices, leaving much of the country’s population struggling to afford the basics.

The poor monsoon last year was a crunch point. The ensuing drought, the worst since 1972, meant crop yields were severely affected and prices consequently rose. Farmers couldn’t sow seeds because there wasn’t enough water to irrigate them. Entire harvests were lost.

Rising food prices have triggered protests this year in Hyderabad and Lucknow – where buses were burned on the street – and a mass strike in Calcutta. On the steps of the parliament building in Delhi, demonstrators unfurled posters demanding the government control “back-breaking price rises”.

On June 19, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the country needed to double its agricultural growth rate – which, at 0.2 per cent, is at its lowest level for five years – if it was to ensure food security. He said the country accounted for 2 per cent of the Earth’s land mass and about 4 per cent of its fresh water but needed to feed about 17 per cent of the world’s population.

“Farmers need to be provided with remunerative prices for their produce and better-quality seeds and inputs,” Singh said.

More than 70 per cent of Indians depend on agriculture for a living and two-thirds of the nation’s farms are dependent on the monsoon.

The government’s forecasters have predicted a normal monsoon this year, although they made the same prediction last year – and the early weeks of the wet season suggest it’s running late.

Crossing back out of Maoist territory, the road passes the Ghatshila centre for acutely malnourished children. It is one of several that have been set up to tackle the most severe cases of malnutrition.

At the entrance, a line of mothers with tiny emaciated children queue in front of a table laden with food. The women eye the bowls hungrily as the food is ladled out for them.

There are eight beds, says Dr Santosh Tundu, and they have been full since the centre opened in April last year.

“There is a problem with malnutrition in this area,” he says.

Poverty and illiteracy are the biggest problems, he says, along with rampant malaria.

Those who are admitted stay for an average of 15 days while the children are fed a formula-milk diet. The most severe cases are referred to hospitals, he says. The centre is proud of its 90 per cent survival rate.

Barsanti Hansda sits by a window with her nine-month-old son, Hoday, on her lap. He is crying.

“I brought him here because he was very weak,” she says. “We are daily labourers. We don’t have much to eat. Some rice and maybe a bit of onion and salt.”

Her husband works in a brick kiln. Hoday is their only child.

Outside, Samwari Munda is cradling her one-year-old daughter, Mamata. She and her husband are farm labourers, each earning 30 rupees a day.

“I work and so does my husband,” she says. “I don’t have time to worry about food. We have to leave the children to feed themselves.”

Mamata is their third child; the others are aged three and five.

Earlier this month, a decision on a food security bill – intended to feed the poor with subsidised food – promised by the Congress government in its election manifesto was postponed, because the agriculture minister pulled out of a meeting of ministers convened to discuss the matter. Those who did attend, however, noted food inflation was running at 16.74 per cent, outstripping India’s wholesale price inflation of 9.6 per cent.

The government has promised the bill will go ahead, although it has given no time frame for its introduction. Whenever it materialises, it is unlikely to make a great deal of difference to those living in Mirgitand.

Cut off from state aid, they have only their profound belief in their improbable cure for malnutrition. They seem resigned to their fate: even the deaths of those who couldn’t cope with the trauma of the red hot pokers isn’t enough to convince them that it’s not the solution. The reality is they have little else to fall back on.

Kisko looks down at the pale patch of disfigured skin on the left side of his stomach: he looks thoughtful and then demonstrates the scale of the problem facing anyone hoping to help the villagers help themselves.

“I’m not suffering from any disease,” he says, slowly, “so [being seared] must be a good thing.”

MacKeown is not nervous at the prospect of returning to India. “I was blown away by India,” she says. “My children talk very fondly about India, of the good times we had there. It is not a big black shadow that we don’t talk about. They talk about all sorts, the food, some of the creatures they found. They talk about Scarlett there a lot.”

She has been back three times since her daughter’s death. “I would visit where she was found if I thought it would be safe,” she says. “After she was found we stayed there for the first two weeks before it got really heavy. There was a strange sense of comfort about being there. I didn’t feel she was still there or anything, but she loved it in Anjuna.”

That seems at odds with Scarlett’s diaries, which become darker towards the end. The final entries featured a sketch of a gallows, with her lamenting that her boyfriend does not love her and thinks that she only wants him for sex and money. “I’m stuk [sic]” she wrote: “I want to go home.”

But MacKeown maintains that the teenager was struggling to decide what to do. “I don’t think she was unhappy, I think she was trying to reach a decision whether to come home with us or whether to travel. We had one argument, but it was nothing to do with her staying behind – it was about not doing her washing.”

Two years on, Scarlett’s body still lies in the mortuary in Exeter, the coroner unwilling to release it until the completion of the Indian legal process.

“I’m very busy getting on with our lives and trying to move forward,” MacKeown says. “But it is very difficult when she is still not buried. It makes it harder to move on, doesn’t it?”

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