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‘Animals here are better off than human beings in this cursed, holy region’

31 May 2011

Despite its economic successes, India is a place where some are still oppressed by the caste system, poverty, hunger and exploitative moneylending?

HUNGER is an everyday reality for Nanku Bhuyian, a Maha Dalit or lowest-caste widow from the remote and arid Jalhe Bhongia village in India’s eastern Bihar state, seemingly forgotten by the local authorities.

On a good day, the 50-year-old and her family of six survive on boiled roots and leaves from the native chakura tree – provided she can manage to scrounge some water and firewood and wild fruits foraged from the swiftly depleting forest 21km away – a 12-hour return journey.

It has been months since Bhuyian or her family ate either an onion or a potato. They simply cannot afford either.

On other days, they often go to sleep hungry and thirsty as the only pump in the village frequently runs dry and the trip to the nearest, fetid water pond over hard, sun-baked earth takes more than three hours to negotiate during the summer months.

Five years ago, Bhuyian’s only son, Heera Lal (30), and 13 famished villagers died after consuming the remains of a goat which they exhumed a week after it was buried on the outskirts of Jalhe, barely 150km south of the provincial capital, Patna.

“Animals here are better off than human beings in this cursed, holy region,” the illiterate Bhuyian said last week of her predominantly lowest-caste village, which is close to Bodh Gaya, the place where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment 2,555 years ago under a giant tree before going on to propagate Buddhism.

“At least they die with dignity; we don’t even have that luxury,” she added matter-of-factly, recounting in unsettling detail her son’s death as several of her grandchildren milled listlessly around her in searing temperatures of over 45 degrees.

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