Notes from the field: Jennifer Liang, 2nd – 5th July 2016 (Deosri)
3rd July 2016, Deosri
It was raining incessantly for past few days in Deosri. For two day’s now, everyone’s mobile batteries have been drained off. The electricity came for an hour yesterday afternoon while we were having the cluster meeting in the ant office but the voltage had see-sawed so much that no one could charge any of their gadgets. I further learnt that even if you had charge in your phone, there was no mobile signal because it is a very Deosri phenomenon that when current goes off, the mobile signal also goes off! The only battery set with inverter in Deosri market which charged mobiles for a cost was also spoilt and so everyone was left staring at their blank mobile screens every now and then as if hoping for a miracle for it to come alive!
The rains also left the road from Deosri to Koraibari very soggy …. So soggy that our cycle tyres sliced into the muddy sand path like a sharp knife into soft pastry! While Rabindra managed to use every muscle in his body and peddle on in the mud, I had to get off at particularly nasty soft patches and push the cycle. Pasang’s father had warned us to look out for elephants as they had been spotted that morning in Raipur village. I wondered how (in this soft and muddy road), one would cycle and get away if attacked by elephants…. The piles of fresh elephant dung on the road, the uprooted and damaged plants made by their stampeding and the signs of huge elephant footprints did not do much to assuage my trepidation. People in Deosri market had already expressed their vocal disbelief and fear when they learnt we were planning to go and spend the night in Koraibari. If something were to happen to us, then it would vindicate them and look foolish on our part. Bu I was keen to spend time in talking to people in the evenings and also experience the vulnerabilities of living in a forest village with conflict displaced Adivasi populations– even if for a night.
Anyway, luckily the elephants (perhaps resting after busy nightly raids) kept away and we reached Koraibari a bit wet, but otherwise quite well. The forest was much, much denser and a much longer patch when I had cycled the similar path when we started visiting here 3-4 years ago. I had even come across Golden Langurs then. But now there are a handful of big trees left and chopped tree stumps dot the cultivated fields of the settlers in the forest. As I cycle, I wonder about the dilemma of development activists – whose survival do we advocate for? Survival of forests and animals or survival of people displaced by conflict not of their own accord?
But I am glad we made the trip. For one, it broke my mental barrier of staying the night in a place like Koraibari and secondly, got a taste of vulnerabilities and also strengths of people living there. We could not go to the Northern part of the village – where the maximum malaria deaths had happened 6 months ago – as it was not possible to cycle at all in the muddy path. Will be making a trip there later and hopefully spend some time there.
Koraibari Village : A Profile It takes around 1 hour to cycle from Deosri to Koraibari – it is around 8-10 km from Deosri Bazaar. Just 6 kms from Gelengphu (the Bhutan border where there is a manned gate to enter Bhutan), Koraibari is a FE (forest encroached) village which is not recognized by the government. The people have voter’s cards and they vote but there are no regular Government services like schools or health centres in the area. One has to pass two patches of forests to reach the village. There are only mud paths which lead to the village and it is difficult to even travel by motorcycle in the rains. Most villagers either walk or cycle and there is only one person in the village who has recently bought a motorcycle. Koraibari has a total of 160 households with 768 population. It is divided into 2 parts – the main village is 1 No. Koraibari (Southern part) with 116 households and the Northern part deeper in the forest with 44 households is a half an hour cycle ride away. There are no schools in the this area and it is less than a year ago that the ant started a single teacher “school” there where 115 children study from Classes 1-5. The middle school is 5-6 kms away in Deosri and some of the children of more well-off families cycle there and the rest walk or simply do not go to school. No one has managed to complete their Class 10 from this village as yet and the headman’ daughter who has completed her Class 9 is the highest educated and she has been taken as the school teacher. Recently she too has gotten married and gone away to another village and the school was closed for some months till the NGO got managed to get a person from a neighbouring village and train him to be a teacher for Koraibari.
The nearest government health centre is Shantipur Bazaar which is another 5 kms from Deosri i.e. a total of 15 kms away from Koraibari. Villagers go to Deosri for treatment by the “pharmacists” (untrained medicine shop keepers who also treat for malaria and many other diseases). They also use herbal medicines which they get from the nearby jungles. They also have kobiraj/ ojha (traditional healers) in their villages and people also go to them. In 2015, within 3 months i.e. October and December, there were 9 malaria deaths in the village (only in the Northern part of the village) due to malaria. Most families had at least 2-3 members suffering from malaria during that time. Most of the people who died were children and only 2 of the 9 were adult women, one of them pregnant in her 9th month. The government came and did blood tests and gave malaria medicines to everyone following the deaths but does not come now.
People live by 3 main occupations – farming the forest cleared lands, going to Bhutan for daily wage labour and selling firewood. Some families also have cattle with the richest ones among them having almost 15-20 heads of cattle. With no irrigation facilities and with elephants eating up their crops, farming is not a really viable option and families – with more male members - supplement it with “Bhutan labour” or selling firewood. The poorest families have plastic sheets for walls and roofs while some better off families have tin sheets (largely given by NGOs as part of relief materials post 2014 conflict) as roof. There are no IAY house in the village (though people are hopeful their names will be included in the list sometime in the future) and not a single sanitary latrine.
Access to drinking water is a serious issue in the village – currently, there are two clean water points in the area – one of them, the diesel pump set with overhead tanks left behind by the Border Security Forces a couple of months ago supplies water to many families is already spoilt. People – largely women – now fetch water from a well near the river outside the village around 45 minutes’ walk away. This well is a huge boon to people and it has been repaired and enhanced with a concrete platform by Oxfam as part of their Post-Conflict relief work. This structure has been highly appreciated by the village people as earlier dirty water which collects around the well, used to seep in. Otherwise, the people wash, bathe etc. in the nearby rivulet from where toxic waste from factories in Bhutan gets mixed with the water. When the wells dry up in some Winter months, some people drink the toxic water from this rivulet and some are said to have even fallen sick and even died.
3rd July 2016, Koraibari
Village Meeting of men to select Village President/ Secretary
Malaria because of gas released in jungle
When we arrived in the village before noon, people were getting ready for a village meeting to select a new village President and Secretary.
I got 10 – 15 minutes to speak to a large group of men in the village who had gathered for selecting a new village secretary / president. Even though it was high noon, some of the men were already high on alcohol and it was difficult to carry out a long conversation. But addressing the group, I asked them what they thought was the reason for the severe malaria epidemic last year – it caused 9 deaths in their village 8 months ago in October & November. They said they were not sure but one reason they believe it could be because they heard that “some kind of gas” was released by “bad people” (though they did not say it, they seemed to mean by the “Bodos”) to drive them out of the area. Hence, this killed their children. The villagers mentioned two things which they need help with:
- School – only 1 of our “extra” teachers is there for giving education to 85 children who are enrolled. It is not enough and they requested for one more teacher and also help to regularise the school.
- Malaria – the Fever Treatment Depot was a big help in the village the last time. Request to the ant to again help establish it. They are willing to even contribute a small amount for the medicines so that it is not thrown away. Also need to create awareness regarding eating the full course as most people did not stick to the given doses and course.
- Knowledge about scientific causes of malaria very low though worry is there because of the recent severity of malaria in the village
- The Santhali men in Koraibari village are still suspicious about the Bodos and seem fearful of attacks
- They are grateful to the ant for giving them a teacher and hence their children can get some schooling
- Due to prevailing suspicion and hostility after 2014 conflict, the people of Koraibari seems ready to believe the worst about the other communities; they have no one to allay their fears or rebuild broken trust
3/7/2016 : Koraibari Village
Leaving the meeting, I walked to the house of one Phulmoni Tudu nearby and started talking to them. She lives with her husband and 2 grown sons + 1 daughter –in-law and a two year old granddaughter in Koraibari. She says that it is really difficult living in relief camps – she was in Deosri camp in 1996 till 2007 and recently they fled to the camp in the 2014 violence again. This time they moved back because the rations stopped and they had to leave to get back home and start cultivation. Both she and her son who was mending the fishing net then were emphatic that next time something happens again with the Bodos, “we have decided that we will fight but not leave. Here also we will have to die and there also we will die. So, we would rather die fighting than go to the relief camp”.
She informed that out of 10 deliveries in Koraibari, almost 8-9 are home births. Only women in difficult or prolonged labour are taken to the hospital – it is really difficult to get to the hospital as the 108 or the emergency vehicle does not come to their village as there are no proper roads. Even the private vehicles refuses to drop till the village as they are scared being a “dangerous” and jungle area. Women in their village give birth attended by elderly women (above 50 years). She mentioned that there is even a younger woman in their area who is somehow very skilled and people prefer her too. But most births happen in the village though people take their children for immunisation to either Deosri or Shantipur.
In emergencies, because there are no vehicles, a stretcher is made out of bamboo poles and cloth and two men have to carry the woman all the way to the hospital in Shantipur – which could take almost 3 hours. The Rs. 1400 (JSY money) given by the government for giving birth in hospitals is not attractive because they end up spending much more to hire a vehicle to take to the hospital and there is no way to come back home. Also, in the hospital there are expenses and they cannot afford that. It is a lot of trouble to go to the hospital and hence they prefer home births. Last November 2015, one pregnant woman who was about to deliver had malaria but did not get treated till it was too late and she had to be rushed to Kokrajhar hospital (some 60 km away). Both the woman and the child died.
Santhal practice of Drinking Hot Water
Another health practice of the Santhals was the drinking of hot water. All Santhal families drink boiled water – which they say they boil for 10 minutes. They drink the water hot (around 30-40 degrees) even in Summer believing it keeps away cold and cough and illnesses. They say they have always seen hot water being drunk from their fathers’ and grandfather’s time. In fact one of the reasons Phulmoni feels why they had “stomach diseases” and so many deaths in the relief camps was because people did not have hot water to drink as they had no firewood.
- Home-birth is a prevalent practice (over 90%) for women
- Most people have settled back into the village after returning from the relief camp in May 2015; they are managing to cultivate
- Remoteness and Inaccessibility of hospitals seems to be a major cause of preferring home-births
- Consuming hot water is an interesting cultural practice affected by conflict, need to further probe its linkages with diseases after the conflict
Dasharath Murmu of Koraibari Village on 3/7/2016
Dasharath Murmu is the husband of Phulmoni Tudu. He returned from the meeting they were holding to select the new village representatives and I could talk to him at length. Dasharath Murmu describes himself as a hard-working man. He hardly ever takes rest and for 6 days a week, either he does labour work in Bhutan or cuts firewood and sells in the market. He also says that he is one of the rare breed in his community of Santhalis (1 or 2 out of 10 persons) who does not drink or smoke. Since 1996, he has been a follower of “Ram-Hanuman” religion and hence stopped drinking. He used to drink earlier on. Dasharath is very concerned as for the life of him he is unable to fathom why he is unable to save despite earning quite decently and having no particular “vices” to spend on. In fact, he does not own a single head of cattle and has to hire bullocks from others to plough his fields. They also have only one hut in which the 6 of them live – the family is genuinely puzzled about where their earnings go!
Labour In Bhutan & Food Security
Both he and one of his sons go to Bhutan for daily wage labour and each one earns anything from Rs.250- Rs.400 a day depending on the type of work. He described the waiting in the big bus stand shed. All those offering their labour stand in the shed and people who need labour come and pick and choose and negotiate their price. Some Bhutanese “maalik” (owners) treat them well and give them tea and even food at times. But some are not nice and keep harassing and scolding for every small thing. But they have no choice. They have to do labour or else they cannot meet the expenses of the family - “we lost a lot of our grains in the 2014 conflict. Then, elephants eat up the maize, paddy, potatoes or whatever we grow”. He feels that if the conflicts and also the elephants did not disturb them, they would have enough food and not need to sell firewood or do labour in Bhutan.