Tragic Tale of the deaths of Suddhu and Jiuti Devi
In Death they got liberated from hunger and indignity
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Often our law makers question the motives of the civil society activists for sensationalizing things. The paradox of democracy today is that even those who claims to hail from a very humble background want to be known as leader of ‘shining India’ when come to power. This antipathy of the leaders and their anger when reports of hunger deaths are brought into limelight, and to the authorities, is not only absolutely insensitive but anti people. I write this story of a family who I knew and tried to save and yet failed. This is not a day’s death. Death was waiting for both of them for many years as they had nothing to survive on.
It is difficult to say that the man died of hunger, say the authorities. They have their own criteria and accordingly none in India died of Hunger. The fact is that nobody dies of hunger even in Ethiopia; after all, nobody can remain without something in the stomach. Now, what is eatable and what could be termed as food, need to be defined clearly. If that is defined in pure medical terms then certainly Indian authorities will have more problems to hide their inefficiency as well as insincerity. It is this insincerity of approach that I want to discuss today, as how I saw a family dying in the past five year. If that is not a hunger deaths then what could be a hunger death.
This story is of a scavenger family in Pakhanpura village of Bhanwarkol block in Ghazipur district. About three years back when I was working on a film ‘Cry for Change’ on the condition of the scavenger families in Ghazipur. In fact, some of our friends and colleagues have been working to mobilize the community against this atrocious practice, a sin against humanity. We were mobilizing people against it and interviewed those who were involved in the practice of scavenging. Mostly, women were involved hence we went to their homes at the time when they felt free to speak to us. It was difficult to catch them as in the morning they were too busy to do their work and in the afternoon they would go to the village to collect the food which was offered by the ‘big’ people. One feel sorry as why these people are big who can not construct toilets for them and have no money to pay to the workers. It is worst then any other failed programme of government of India. Atleast for the NREGS, you get some work and get paid for it. It is work without payment. You do not even pay for their work but give them alms. It is the most crude and savage practice.
About three kilometer from Mohammdabad town is this village Pakhanpura, a village of Muslims. Passing through the dirty lanes of the localities with a camera in my hand, I finally arrived in the scavenger area. Surrounded by dirty stale water, I entered in the ‘house’ of Suddhu Rawat, a person of the age of 45. After usual questioning about his work (he was working on contract in the municipality) which used to give him about Rs 1100/- per month. He never received that too on time. Most of the Nagarpalikas have been paying the salaries to sweepers almost year later. Suddhu’s bare body was showing his physical condition. One could even count the total number of bones in his chest. He was barely living a life. What do you want your children to be, I asked? ‘I would like them to study and get a job’. He was optimistic. What you are suffering from, I asked. ‘ I am not well. I have a paralytic attack as well as doctor say that I have TB’, he said. ‘ I do not have the money to go to the doctor’. His wife Jiuti Devi, 40 had gone to collect her routine food from the local people. She was involved in manual scavenging. ‘ How much she gets for her work, I asked. ‘It’s nothing. We get left over food and 5 kg of rice at the year end. Some thing on Diwali and Holi’, he said. Then why don’t you leave this work. ‘ ‘What is the alternative’, said Suddhu. I do not have regular income. My wife works in the house of ‘big people’ and they help us time to time that is how we are surviving.’
Suddhu did not have a house. Later, we came to know that after paralytic attack, he was using his younger child to do the work of municipality so that the he does not lose his monthly salary. Some of us made effort to get him a house under Indira Awas Yojana. He got funds for it but unfortunately after the second installment, it seems, he used the money to pay the medical bill to the doctor. So the so called house could not be completed. Suddhu finally died about 1 year back in the absence of food and medication.
His wife Jiuti Devi’s condition was not good. One will have to be not only sensitive but realistic to see the situation of the community. How the people involved in scavenging and cleaning the narrow lanes and sewerage pipes develop different diseases including gastroenteritis. This apart, they normally have breathing problems and develop skin diseases also. Since there is no medication for them, they develop psychological problems also. The day meal depend on the alms of the local lords who are not even lords but at least they feel great over lording a community who is still enslaved to an old racist tradition. A tradition which degraded humanity and human lives in India and its ‘wonderful’ villages which still reverberate India’s notorious caste system.
Jiuti Devi was still running the family with three children. In all she and Suddhu had six children. The elderly two namely Jitendra, 21 and Dharmendra, 19 had migrated to Mumbai in search of better profession. The other three Virendra, 17, Neha, 13 and Surendra 10 were with her. Since Suddhu was not even a permanent employee of Nagarpalika, there was not much money left for the children after his death. Jiuti Devi continued with her work of cleaning latrines every day in nearly 15 families. She would go early morning at around 6 am without having anything. Breakfast is a luxury. Leaving her younger children at home. The single 20 X 20 ft long thatched hut was not enough to have separate cooking. Moreover, there was virtually nothing at home to cook. The family was totally devoid of any support. Moreover, with Suddhu’s illness, the family even used the Indira Awas money.
Jiuti’s life became a hell. She was already ailing and now she had to survive for the family. The two elder children who migrated to Mumbai just never thought of asking their mother about her condition. She always complained but the thing is that even those two children in Mumbai, what would they earn? Who knows in what conditions they might be living there. With more rhetorical and insensitive political class in Mumbai getting nasty, it is the poor who is paying a price of her honesty. Nagarpalika never thought of giving her a job. She was not in a position to even ask for it. She might have gone several times but as usual women ‘sacrifice’ for their husbands. It is actually the Nagarpalika which sacrifice women for their husbands.
It was in July 2007 that her condition started deteriorating, about six month later from her husband’s death. She went to the municipality even when her condition was not stable. My friend Raj Kapur Rawat, who hails from the community, went along with her to the municipality to her get the dues of her husband. She was suffering from breathlessness. She has gas problem and lack of blood. After the death of her husband, when the family’s condition worsened, she kept on working. But human body has limitations. Working on a ‘tired’ body resulted in severe ailment of Jiuti Devi.
In such a time, she decided to transfer her ‘work’ to her ‘sister in law’ Runia Devi under the condition that the food received from the 15 families would be given to her and her children. Runia Devi agreed to this. Unfortunately, Runia Devi could not fulfill her promise to Jiuti Devi and stopped providing them the day’s meal. Hence the condition of the family deteriorated further. The children had no food to eat.
On August 15th, 2007, I was in Mohammdabad, to meet some of the family members of the scavenger community we work with. Jiuti Devi was expected to visit us as we were helping her in her treatment. Amidst our meeting, I got a call from friends that Jiuti Devi has passed away. It was a great shock to me. Now her two children who were minor became orphan with this sudden death.
Jiuti Devi’s death, as well as that of Suddhu in early 40s, indicates the problems of the scavenger community. This hell’s work is predominant in Uttar-Pradesh which claims to be having all kind of government in the past 15 years. Social Justice, Socialisits, Ambedkarite, Hindutvavadi and what not but the scavenging and its crude practice is still common. Most atrocious thing is that the authorities are not ready to accept that this practice is there and that people suffer from malnutrition. One does not know whether this government has any specific agenda for the liberation of the scavenging community. Community’s elder sit silently and wait for some miracles while community continuously suffer from humiliation and indignity.
Though these two younger children are being taken care of some relatives of Jiuti and Siddhu in Ghazipur, these are the stories of hunger that we come across directly working. Some time even minor help from us does not do justice. It is shocking. It is shameful that our eyes do not catch how people are surviving here in India. How a civilization has degraded people and do not even allow them to fetch and how the successive governments after independence have shamelessly failed in providing honor, dignity and certainty to the lives of millions of scavengers in the country. How long will people suffer. This is one story of a case where a family died of hunger. There are many. We fear people feel it is repetition. But then what is the alternative. What can we do for such people? I do not want to end this in a question mark since some of us are still trying to look beyond. Definitely, a people’s response would be welcome. This is not an isolated incident. There are hundreds of cases. The need is to be sensitive and act. In the end, death liberated both Suddhu and Jiuti from hunger and indignity.