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Heat Wave, Poverty, No MGNREGA Funds: What's Plaguing West Bengal's Sabar Tribe?

Since February this year, at least 12 people of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal's Sakhari Danga village have died.

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Seated outside her modest thatched hut in Sakhari Danga village in West Bengal’s West Medinipur district on a hot June afternoon, 48-year-old Kabita Bhakta was inconsolable.   

On 23 March, she lost her daughter Tumpa, and since then grief has engulfed her. “She had high fever and cough for three months. We took her to a hathuri doctor (quack) who assured us that she will get better but...,” recalled Kabita.    

Since February this year, at least 12 people of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal's Sakhari Danga village have died.

Kabita Bhakta, Tumpa's mother. 

(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

As Tumpa’s condition worsened, she was rushed to the closest hospital five km away from the village. She succumbed to her illness two days later. “Doctors told us she had last-stage tuberculosis (TB),” said Kabita, as she broke down.    

The Bhaktas are a part of the Sabar tribe, who are mostly settled in West Bengal and Odisha. Since February, at least 12 deaths have rocked the Sakhari Danga village, where 70 Sabar families live. Most deaths, like Tumpa’s, have been attributed to TB by doctors at the local hospital.  

Residents of the village told The Quint that heat wave, extreme poverty, and loss of livelihood ever since the suspension of MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) funds in West Bengal, have wreaked havoc on their community.  

This is the story of the neglect that the Sabar tribe is facing in the Sakhari Danga village.

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But First, Who are the Sabars? 

The Sabar tribe has a population of 1.8 lakh as per the 2011 Census. It is one of the most economically backward tribes of Bengal. The community lives in abject poverty with scanty livelihood opportunities and limited healthcare facilities.  

In fact, the closest hospital to the Sakhari Danga village is five km away – a distance they often cover on foot, even in case of emergencies. The Sabars live in mud houses with thatched roofs and bamboo fencing. While they do have power supply, they face rampant power cuts for hours at a stretch during heavy rains.

Since February this year, at least 12 people of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal's Sakhari Danga village have died.

Sakhari Danga village in West Bengal's West Medinipur district. 

(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

The community predominantly relies on forest produce, hunting, and government ration to sustain itself. 

They were classified as a criminal tribe by the erstwhile British rulers under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, and faced ostracism in those days and continue to be looked down upon.

Sujit Choudhury, who runs a school for tribal children in Amlasole, another Sabar habitat in West Medinipur district, told The Quint, “The community traditionally hunts and is dependent on forest. It's not an agrarian community... But the massive deforestation has resulted in depletion of forests and that has affected their livelihood. The restrictions imposed on the activities in forest have added to their woes.”

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MGNREGA Funds Worth Rs 7,500 Crore to West Bengal Withheld

An already impoverished community, the Sabars were dealt another blow after the suspension of MGNREGA funds in West Bengal, which was prompted by corruption allegations against the state government.  

In December 2021, the Centre stopped the release of funds for West Bengal under MGNREGA, and since then more than Rs 7,500 crore worth of MGNREGA funds to the state have been withheld, as per media reports. Of this, the workers’ pending wages amount to Rs 2,744 crore. The last wage instalment to workers in the state had been disbursed on 26 December 2021. Around 75,000 card holders lost their livelihood.

Meanwhile, in January this year, a war of words broke out between the state government and Centre after the freezing of funds. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused the Centre of denying the rightful dues to the state while BJP President JP Nadda alleged that there was corruption in implementation of the PM Awas Yojana, construction of toilets, and rural employment guarantee (MGNREGA) scheme that forced the Centre to stop the release of funds.

Till 26 December 2021, villagers of Sakhari Danga received at least 100 days of work annually through the employment guarantee scheme, providing them a source of income. Now, the villagers claim that they can only find employment in the fields during the paddy harvesting season while their hunting endeavours remain unpredictable and unreliable.  

Since February this year, at least 12 people of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal's Sakhari Danga village have died.

A Sabar family in the village. 

(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

“There has been no work for the past two years and our payment from earlier is also pending. It has made our situation worse as there is no source of income. We get work in the fields twice a year during the harvesting season of paddy. We catch googly (snails) from water and small animals that we sell for livelihood. But hunting is like a lottery. We win only sometimes,” said Banamali Naik, 43, an unemployed villager. 

He claimed that he is yet to be paid Rs 3,000 under the MGNREGA scheme from two years ago.  

Since February this year, at least 12 people of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal's Sakhari Danga village have died.

Local boys of the Sabar tribe.

(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

“It is difficult to earn even Rs 2,000 per month and begging becomes the only source of survival to feed our families,” he said. 

Banamali Pramanik, 43, a resident of the village, told The Quint that livelihood opportunities are very scarce for Sabars, “We work as labourers in the fields during the paddy harvesting season for livelihood. But the work is available only twice a year during harvesting season. There is hardly any work available for the rest of the year and often our community members resort to begging. In such a condition, how can we think of having healthy food?”  

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'Forced To Beg To Run Our Household'

Villagers in Sakhari Danga village believe that inadequate intake of quality food has taken a toll over their health.

Since February this year, at least 12 people of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal's Sakhari Danga village have died.

Sakhari Danga village.

(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

“Our breakfast comprises panta bhaat which is basically leftover cooked rice soaked in water and left overnight to ferment. We take red tea for lunch and rice and a vegetable for dinner. The leftover rice is eaten as panta bhaat the next morning. Fruits and non-vegetarian items are a luxury for us that we can hardly afford even once in a fortnight,” added Nabin.  

On condition of anonymity, a doctor at a hospital a few km away told The Quint, "The Sabars prefer going to quacks for treatment, and that often causes more health problems. They come to hospitals at the last minute, when it's often too late."

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Heat Wave-Related Ailments Or 'Witchcraft'? 

Apart from scanty livelihood opportunities, the Sabars also blame the harsh summer and severe heat wave for the deaths in the village. “The heat wave has been intense this year and it’s difficult to live without healthy food. We often sleep after drinking just water when there is nothing to eat in the house. How can we survive in such conditions with just water and an empty stomach? We cook our food using wood collected from the forest as we cannot afford to buy LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas) cylinders,” pointed out Kajol Pramanik, who lives in the Sakhari Danga village.   

Tuhin Subhra Mandal, a Kolkata-based environmentalist told The Quint, that the temperature usually remains around 36 degree Celsius in May and June in West Medinipur district but this year it hovered 5.1 degree Celsius above normal. The minimum temperature was 1.6 to 3 degree Celsius above normal in first week of June this year.  

“Massive deforestation has been leading to the change in climatic conditions that has made life difficult for the tribes depended on nature to survive. We must stop the mindless destruction of the nature to help such vulnerable tribes survive,” said Mandal.  
Since February this year, at least 12 people of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal's Sakhari Danga village have died.

Sakhari Danga village. 

(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

“We suspect the deaths to be the result of witchcraft and occult practices as my wife, who was in her early 50s, was resting outside the house after returning from the field and suddenly she fainted and died. She had no ailments. A wrath has fallen on our village,” said Biren Pramanik, 63. His wife Mangali died around a fortnight ago.  

'Ration From State Government Not Enough'

Chandan Chakroborty, a local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader, said that blood samples have been collected for examination.    

“The health team has collected around 100 blood samples of villagers to examine if they are suffering from any severe diseases. It is true that they are too poor and do not get proper food. We are waiting for the results of the blood samples to know more about the exact cause of deaths,” he said.   

Since February this year, at least 12 people of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal's Sakhari Danga village have died.

Residents of the Sakhari Danga village. 

(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

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State government officials, on the other hand, asserted that efforts have been made to improve the Sabar tribe's condition. They claimed that all the tribe members have been included in the Public Distribution System (PDS) to receive ration supplies for the last two years. “The loss of livelihood in the centre’s scheme has obviously affected them financially. They are being provided with five kilo ration per head by the state government every month for their survival,” said Abhijit Maity, inspector, Backward Class Welfare (BCW) department. 

But villagers claimed that the ration is hardly enough for them, “The government offers five kg ration including wheat and rice per head for one month which is not enough to run the family,” added Kajal.

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