Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist Sanna Mattoo writes for Artefact on how drought has brought hunger, sickness and death to a marginalised community in East India.
Tulsi Manjhi, in his late 50s, is a labourer in Banwara, a village in the East Indian state of Bihar. In 2006, his family was devastated by a long spell of drought. They moved from one place to another in search of work, but their efforts went in vain. His wife, Gita Devi, his mother Sumita developed a fever and, because there was no money and no grain the family was unable to afford medical treatment and both women died.
To compound the tragedy, the couple’s six-day old child died of hunger. “There was no work and we had no food to eat. I saw them dying from a lack of food, but I was helpless. I couldn’t save their lives. I had nothing to offer,” he recalls.
Sadly, illness and death caused and compounded by hunger and malnutrition is common in Bihar, which has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any region of India. With more than 50% of the population identified as “multidimensionally poor”, a measure which takes into account health, education, and standard of living, Bihar also has the highest number of malnourished people in India.
India itself ranks 107th out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index, which has assigned India a score of 29.1 and considers the level of hunger in India to be “serious” on a scale of 50, with a score of 50 indicating “extremely serious” hunger.
Bihar has, for years, faced declining rainfall which has led to regular droughts which have harmed rice production and jeopardised the livelihoods of people who work on the land. The village has 42 households, each has 8-9 persons. There are about 350-400 people who live there. As a water source, a single tube-well serves the entire village. They don’t have proper road connectivity. In case of emergency they have to travel miles on foot.
Tulsi Manjhi is a part of the Bhuyia community; this low-caste group of Dalits, also known as “untouchables” has historically been marginalised from society. They are recognised as among the poorest people in the state of Bihar.
Dalits face violence, discrimination and abuse on a daily basis, are isolated in their villages and have been denied basic rights. They lack basic services. They are socially and economically excluded in society. They are not allowed to marry people from other castes. Although these are the violations of Indian law, discrimination against the low-caste community is common.
Men of this community in the Banwara village work as labourers for local farmers. They themselves are landless and rely on their work to provide for the basic needs such as shelter, food, and a means of subsistence.
Manjhi, another member of the Bhuyia community, lives in a joint family Banwara and works as a daily-waged labourer. Even after all these years, nothing has changed for people like Manjhi, while others in the village, earn a day’s meal after working long hours as daily-wage labourers in fields, construction sites, and brick kilns.
“There are days when we have nothing to eat because there is no work,” Manihi says.
Featured image by Sanna Mattoo.