July 25, 2021

In the Indian countryside, the impossible survival of the “poor among the poor”

Par Ravi Pinto

Posted today at 19:34

At sunset, a small metal bowl quivers on the fire, on the ground. In this home, no one has swallowed anything since breakfast. And for lack of anything better, this evening again, Reshmi Devi and her four children will have to be satisfied with so little. “Rice and some boiled potatoes”, indicates the young woman of 24, six months pregnant. She lives not far from the village of Sikandarpur, in the state of Bihar, the poorest in India, stuck in Nepal.

In this month of July, the atmosphere of the family hut, made of odds and ends, is stifling, barely bearable. The fumes from the wood irritate her throat and nose, and Reshmi Devi scrambles outside as her mixture continues to boil. Her tired sari reveals a frail figure with a rounded belly. In the surroundings, the waterlogged rice fields stretch as far as the eye can see, plump pigs take advantage of the muddy soil and the buffaloes ruminate peacefully. But behind the bucolic appearances of these country roads, in the villages, lies a terrible misery.

Reshmi Devi and her children, near Sikandarpur, in Patna district (Bihar), July 6, 2021.

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, already, the survival of the families settled here depended on little. The Musahar community, literally “Rat eaters”, to which they belong, is one of the most disadvantaged on the subcontinent. The community owes its name to the work that once went hand in hand with its caste: catching rats. The caste system still weighs heavily on these Dalits, formerly called “untouchables”, at the bottom of the social ladder.

“Part of the social assistance does not reach the beneficiaries”

“The Musahars suffer from discrimination, do not own land and in normal times, they barely manage to work four to five months a year in the fields or on construction sites”, explains Sudha Varghese, a nun who has worked alongside these populations for more than twenty years. “They have suffered from hunger since birth, it can be read on the faces of children and women, who are the most affected”, continues this activist with the sweet voice, that everyone greets on her way.

Sudha Varghese, nun, in Danapur, in the district of Batna (Bihar), on July 6, 2021.

The Musahars are “Poor among the poor”, in a Bihar plagued by malnutrition. More than 63% of pregnant women are anemic there, around 43% of children under 5 are stunted and 41% are underweight, according to figures from the Ministry of Health published in 2020. When the national confinement has imposed in March 2020, Reshmi Devi’s family sank deeper into distress.

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