Jaanvi Phuphaney rubs her rheumy eyes with gnarled fingers.
Tears well up as the trembling 75-year-old Warli tribal struggles to ease her emaciated body out of her hut in Ghivanda-Pimpalpada, 14km from the Jawhar tehsil town in Thane district. “My husband Sohni and I have not eaten in two days,” she says with folded hands.
Both her daughters are settled in neighbouring Mokhada tehsil.
But son Pandu, 38, lives barely a stone’s throw away with his wife, Muli, 32 and daughter Poonam, 9.
“When he can afford it, he feeds us. Other times he has to think of his family,” says Sohni, 78.
Pandu says the nearly Rs5,000 per year he earns as a labourer on a sand-dredging boat is hardly enough to make ends meet for himself. “We are landless. I grow some paddy on an encroached forest plot but that and my earnings hardly suffice. We ourselves go hungry so often,” he says.
Jaanvi and Sohni are not alone. At least 29 of the 82 families in the village have built separate huts for the elderly, many of who are undernourished. A better part of these huts is barely tall enough for a person to stand.
Kamlibai Phuphaney, 68, is all skin and bones. Diagnosed with protein-energy malnutrition and weighing 27kg, she was taken to the rural hospital at Jawhar, 20km away, on a motorcycle. “I felt my end is near. I came back because I wanted to be with my own people,” she says, gasping for breath.
Nearly 14 km across the valley in Winwal village, Harbya Bhore, 85, stares vacantly. Villagers say he’s been in shock since his wife Devaki collapsed from hunger and died in front of his eyes a year ago. “I couldn’t afford to keep them with me and built them this hut for their stay. I’d feed them whenever I could,” says Harbya’s son, Yash, 65.
Ironically, a year since his mother’s death, Yash’s son and daughter-in-law threw him and his wife, Siti, out of the house. “We live with my father. We work on farms when we get work,” he says.
His BPL ration card helps him buy foodgrains at a cheaper price.
His neighbour Dhavalibai Sutar, 70, is not as lucky. Her daughter died of malnutrition when she was barely two, her son of sickness when he was nine. She lost her husband last year. “He used to keep vomiting bile. I could only lay him down and watch him die.”
She got her small home dismantled and sold off the wood to raise money for her husband’s last rites. “All I could then do was build this,” she says, pointing to the small hut in which she has to crawl in. She walks for over three hours through the forest to Jawhar town to beg at the Thursday weekly market. “I have no BPL ration card and I’m forced to buy expensive grains with whatever money people give me.”
The two schemes Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Plan and the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Anudan Yojana (destitute beneficiary will get Rs600 a month and family with more than one beneficiary will get Rs900 a month) supposed to take care of exactly this demographic don’t seem to have reached here.
Jaanvi and Kamlibai have little more than pass-books to show for the pension scheme. “They expect me to go to Jawhar and queue up for the money. How can I do that in my condition?” asks Jaanvi.
As for Kamlibai whose hair is still jet black, the doctors at Jawhar kept certifying her as 55 for three years till she was helped by activists to get a pension started two years ago. Till last year, it came irregularly and, now, has stopped.
Ashok Shingare, the Jawhar addition collector, says he’s unaware of the issue. “I will ask the local tehsildar to inquire and see what we can do.” He, however, insists: “The tribals’ illiteracy and backwardness is equally to blame for the situation.”
Shiraz Balsara of the adivasi advocacy group Kashtakari Sanghatna says the vicious cycle the tribals find themselves in is a result of the government’s faulty approach. “The elderly who die of hunger are passed off as age- or sickness-related. Unless the district administration makes an effort to revitalise the schemes, the deaths and their acceptance will continue to be seen as normal.”