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India: Starvation in West Bengal

India: Government Of West Bengal Must Act To Prevent Further Starvation Deaths

E.M. Parvati died yesterday. Parvati was a resident of Belgachhia Bhagar, a municipal dumping ground of Howrah in West Bengal. The doctor who examined Parvati's body certified that the cause of death was pulmonary tuberculosis aggravated by severe malnourishment and anaemia.

Parvati is not the first person in her family to die in this manner. Her daughter E.M. Lachhmi, died of starvation at the age of five on 11 March 2005. Her two sons, E.M. Shiva, died in December 2003 and E.M. Gaddama alias Chhottu, died in November 2004. Shiva was three years old and Gaddama was about a month old.

Parvati's death is further proof to the despicable apathy of the West Bengal state government and that of the government of India to the plight of the poor and marginalised in the country. It is also part of the continuing saga of an estimated 7000 Dalits who were evicted from Bellilious Park on 2 February 2003 by the Howrah Municipal Corporation (HMC).

The HMC carried out the eviction with police threatening and assaulting those who tried to protest. HMC evicted the residents from Bellilious Park with the support of an order obtained from the Kolkata High Court. The court issued the eviction order without hearing the residents when a person approached the court as an environmentalist. It is alleged that this person was acting in connivance with interested persons within the state government, HMC and a businessman engaged in property development. They argued in court that the HMC wanted to develop Bellilious Park into a public park, which the court believed and issued an order in favour of eviction.

Having no other place to go, many of the evictees had to settle down in Belgachhia Bhagar and some others in open lands beside the railway track. Living in a dumping ground and having had their lives' earnings and assets lost in the eviction, the evictees fell prey to diseases contracted from poor living conditions, in particular, toxic wastes and fumes. None of them received any assistance from the government.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) have issued several urgent appeals seeking assistance for the families evicted from Bellilious Park. Most of the evicted families are engaged in manual scavenging in Kolkata and Howrah. The Dalit identity of the evictees prevented them from leading a decent life. It also makes it difficult for them to find any other job other than what is often 'marked up' for Dalits in India -- cleaning filth.

Frustrated by the neglect of the local administration and that of the state government, MASUM held a protest meet in front of the UNICEF Kolkata office and the state legislative assembly on 23 March 2005, in which Parvati participated and at which she spoke. Parvati also spoke to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Mr. Jean Zeigler when he visited India on 31 August 2005.

Neither UNICEF nor the state government did anything to ameliorate the living conditions of the evictees. The only humane consideration Parvati received was from the State Governor, Mr. Gopal Krishna Gandhi. Gandhi ordered the payment of 100,000 Rupees for the family as emergency assistance. Other than this gesture none of the 7000 evictees received any support from the state administration or UNICEF. MASUM however through its continued effort was able to persuade the District Magistrate of Howrah to issue an Antyodaya Card (ration card that allows the card holder to obtain rations at subsidised price) to Parvati.

As of today, most of the families that were evicted from Bellilious Park continue to live at Belgachhia Bhagar. They continue to live and die in this abandoned part of the city, scavenging in the garbage with pigs and dogs. The state administration that has ruled West Bengal for the past 32 years in the name of the downtrodden and the labouring class has abandoned them.

The HMC meanwhile developed Bellilious Park into a commercial property. As of today it is no public park as was claimed in the High Court to obtain the eviction order. Today, Bellilious Park houses upper middle class shopping malls and an entertainment park for the children of the rich and privileged.

On 14 January 2009 a similar eviction of 5000 people from Belgachia Bhagar was proposed. The High Court sanctioned this eviction too. The eviction was suspended after a concerted effort by civil society organisations and the residents. The risk of further eviction is still high for the residents of Belgachhia Bhagar. While it is mandatory for the administration to provide adequate measures for rehabilitation of the evictees, the AHRC and MASUM are concerned that the administration will repeat what it did in Bellilious Park in 2003.

E.M. Parvati's death will not be an eye-opener for the state administration, since the evictees of Bellilious Park have no clout to move the corrupt and neglectful state administration or those who run it. Today the evictees do not live with the belief that one day the place they called home for several generations will be returned to them. Yet they have not forfeited their right to demand and to anticipate the minimum assistance the poor in India must expect from the state government.

The former residents of Bellilious Park need a decent place nearby to resettle than continue living with pigs and dogs, scavenging for food in a dumping ground. Many of them require documents like a ration card that would entitle them to get subsidised or free rations from the public food distribution shops. They need the state government to set up regular health camps where they can get medical treatment. If these minimal requirements are not met urgently, many more will perish, like Parvati and her children. Neither the state government nor the government of India have any excuse to ignore the plight of these 7000 or so persons, living in appalling conditions for the past six years. At very least, the government cannot plead ignorance.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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