Despite the pretence of its ‘prized’ location, Bhuda village in Purulia continues to be held hostage by a toxic stream and an administration that has thrown its hands up in despair, writes soma basu
NESTLED in the famous tourist circuit of the Ayodhya Hills and Sirkabad, Bhuda village in Purulia presents a picture of desperation. Its inhabitants do not know whether to curse or be thankful for the stream that quite often cuts them off completely from the mainland. Such is their despair that they have refused to name this stretch of water that quite literally decides their fate. Indeed, it is their sole source of water because there isn’t a single tubewell in the village. There hasn’t been once since Independence.
The increasing use of fertilisers in the fields through which the stream flows has turned its water toxic and yet there is no alternative. Diarrhoea and allied stomach ailments represent the resultant resident evil. The mid-day meal at the primary school, which caters to about 54 children, is cooked with water from this stream that also caters to the village cattle. The teachers – they come here every day from villages that have access to clean water — plead helplessness as they, too, are compelled to eat the same food.
Sirkabad in Purulia is a tourist destination. At about 304 metres above sea level, it is the main halt for tourists on their way to the Ayodhya Hills, about 12 km away. Covered by forests, Sirkabad is known for its enchanting view of nature. The surrounding towns are Baghmundi (17 km) in the west, Sindri (15 km) in the north, Suklara (18 km) in the east and Balarampur (17 km) in the south. By road, Sirkabad is 26 km from Purulia. And yet Bhuda, despite the pretence of its “prized” location, remains starved of clean water.
Visits by several politicians and irrigation department officials have yielded precious little. They have given up on this village, more so because it is often rendered inaccessible by this stream. But a visitor would be surprised at the excuses offered for not installing tubewells here. Again, with the stream being about 12 metres wide and about eight feet deep when it rains heavily, why has no thought been given to constructing a bridge?
Meals in the village are cooked with polluted water, as a result of which at least six children of the 54 in the school are absent every day because of diarrhoea and other stomach infections. The villagers, mainly forest produce-collecting tribals, are alien to the concept of chlorine treatment and their children get to eat meat and eggs only at school. The daily menu for the mid-day meal consists of rice, dal and vegetables.
Eggs feature twice a week and chicken once a week. The children have been instructed to carry water bottles from their homes because the school has no facility.
“The children deliberately drop their water bottles on the way to school so that they get an excuse to go home during class hours. Again, whenever they need to go to the toilet, they have to be sent home,” says Amulya Das, a teacher who comes in every day from Jhunjka village, 18 km away. The first thing he does every day when he arrives is go around the village calling out names of students so that they attend school regularly. But all to often children bunk classes, he says. “How do we stop them? They are children and it is obvious they will do such things. A school should have proper toilets and drinking water facilities. Look at what we have here!” he adds in despair.
Another teacher, Nupur Mahato, comes from Sirkabad, her six-month-old baby in tow. Every day she gives the child to a woman in the village to look after while she takes classes. “If I stop coming, it will become even more difficult to run the school,” she explains.
Das keeps writing letters to district administration and says he received a reply only once. “Two years ago, officials from the Public Health Engineering Department visited the school and kept two big drums here. They employed a man to fill these drums every day with clean water from a spring uphill. His salary was fixed at Rs 100. For the first three months, the man worked and we were running the school comfortably. But after that, his salary was stopped all of a sudden and he left. I wrote several letters to the officials but they all went unanswered,” he says.
The primary school apart, the village has no Integrated Child Development Services centre and the nearest primary healthcare unit is nine or 10 km away. Most of the women in Bhuda seem they grow slow but age faster. The school has children up to the age of 12 but all almost all of them have stunted growth, brittle nails and an weak immune system. Worse, they have a reduced appetite.
According to the World Health Organisation, the most commonly used indicators of malnutrition among children are stunted growth (low height for age), wasting (low weight for height) and underweight (low weight for age). Stunting is the result of prolonged food deprivation and disease or illness; wasting denotes acute malnutrition as a result of food deprivation or illness; and underweight is indicative of both acute and chronic malnutrition. Most of Bhuda’s children suffer from malnutrition, stunting, underweight and wasting.
According to a report — Prevalence of Undernutrition in Santhal Children of Purulia District, West Bengal – by Sutanu Dutta Chowdhury, Tarun Chakraborty and Tusharkanti Ghosh of the Department of Human Physiology with Community Health, Vidyasagar University, West Midnapore, the prevalence of moderate stunting among students of this community was found to be higher in girls (15.9 per cent) than boys (9.7 per cent). The percentage values of severe stunting in both the sexes are similar — 4.17 in boys and 5.76 in girls.
The prevalence of malnutrition among tribal children in India has not been sufficiently investigated. Widespread malnutrition (60 per cent underweight) has been reported among pre-school children of the Gond tribe of Madhya Pradesh. In West Bengal, 54 per cent children (six-12 years of age) of the Oraon tribe suffer from severe malnutrition. However, malnutrition among Santhal children of Purulia district is as severe and stunting among them study is less than in the Gond tribe, which showed that 30.1 per cent children were severely stunted compared to 4.98 per cent of Purulia’s Santhal children.
Though there is no remarkable difference between boys and girls in severe stunting and underweight cases, the problem seems to be more acute in girls compared to boys. As is the case in wasting. The results probably indicate that the prevalence of malnutrition is higher in Santhal girls than boys. The lower socio-economic status of these children indicates that factors such as education, occupation and economic status of parents may be related to malnutrition.
A study to this effect was carried out to determine the prevalence of malnutrition among Santhal children of Purulia and 216 boys and 226 girls aged between five and 12 years were taken from randomly selected schools in the Balarampur and Baghmundi areas of Purulia.
Considering the plight of Bhuda village’s inhabitants, the level of malnourishment among their children can only be feared to be higher. Bhuda is a classic example of the implementation flaws of development policies. And even at the government continues to turn a blind eye to the villages hidden in the wilderness, children continue to wither away.