She speaks to us in the local dialect, “Maribu boli janichu maa tathapi pet purbo boli aamba takua, tentli manji khauchu (We know that we will die eating these mango kernels and tamarind seeds to satiate our hunger).” Then she goes on to underline a stark reality, “There is no work available, government subsidised rice is distributed once in two or three months and even then we have no money to buy it. Tell me, do we have a choice but to eat these mango kernels?”
This is Chaita Majhi, 55, of Bahadulki village of Orissa’s Kashipur block. Her husband had died 10 years ago after he had complained of acute stomach pain. It was clear that his miserable diet of mango kernels had taken its toll. Yet, today, knowing full well that her husband had died of food poisoning after consuming toxic mango kernels, Chaita herself has little option but to eat them when she finds herself without food or money.
Yes, Chaita does have a card from the local administration indicating that she is entitled to subsidised rice. But the food grain is often not available, and when the rice is available, she finds herself without the money to buy it, even at the subsided rate at which it is sold. It is also difficult for her to go to the Siripai panchayat office to get the rice, because it is situated about 15 kilometres from where she stays and there is no transport available to ferry her there.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), about one billion people in the world are hungry. In India they number over 350 million, and some areas like this tribal region of Orissa are among the worst off, with over 80 per cent of the population living below poverty line.
There are several women like Chaita in this region who have similar stories to relate. Sarasmati Majhi puts it this way, “Here everybody is forced to prepare these mango kernels in unhygienic conditions, especially during the monsoon, and end up dying of diarrhoea, or even cholera. Officials come and tell us not to eat them and that they are harmful for us. They even distribute rice during these visits. But a few days later, they go back and we are faced with the same problems. So we fall back on mango kernels.” In fact, almost every household in these parts have their stock of mango kernels as their only source of food security.
The tribals in the region prepare for the difficult period of the rains by collecting mango kernel and tamarind seeds. These are then washed in the local rivulets and left out to dry. The dried seeds are then ground and stored. The mango gruel – often the staple diet here – is made by adding water to the stored mixture and cooking it.
According to Badal Tab, a local resident, that deaths are very common during the monsoon because the stock of food grain in the household gets exhausted and people manage with starvation fare like mango kernels, the bark of salap tree, tamarind seeds, jackfruit seeds, and roots, fruits and shoots from the jungle like bamboo and mushroom.
The severe food shortage is accompanied during the rains with the shortage of firewood. So people take to cooking large quantities of food for four to five days. It is this fare that ultimately kills them.
According to Dr S. Kar, Director of the Regional Medical Science and Research Centre (RMRC), Bhubaneswar, mango kernels, mushrooms, and tamarind seeds are rich in carbohydrates and other nutrients. However, they are stored and cooked in unhygienic conditions, leading to fatalities.
Orissa’s tribal belt has long been the focus of concern. The government has introduced several welfare measures to address the endemic poverty in the region.
So why do people continue to die after imbibing toxic starvation foods? Explains Rajkishore Mishra, state advisor to Commissioner Supreme Court (right to food), “Government schemes are designed to fail and the gap between supply and demand is never filled. Most people here don’t have documents that protect their entitlements to government subsidised rations. And while there is food grain supplied to the public distribution system, the tribals don’t have the purchasing power. To make matter worse, these adivasis (tribals) have no rights to either agricultural land or the forests that had once provided them with food and shelter in times of distress.”
The National Advisory Council (NAC) convened under Congress President Sonia Gandhi has recommended food security cover for roughly eighty crore people, beginning in phases from the next financial year. This will soon be written into a food security law. The question is whether the measure will make a meaningful difference to the lives of women like Chaita Majhi and Geeta Naik, who have had to live on the edge of starvation all their lives.