One morning in 2004, the headlines of newspapers of West Bengal informed of the death of 5 people from Amlashole in the district of West Midnapore district. The investigation team attributed the cause of deaths to causes like malaria, jaundice etc., however, the erstwhile Chief Minister admitted to situations leading to starvation being predominant in Amlashole and surrounding villages as a cause for these deaths. These people who lived here were one of the most marginalized groups of people in the Indian subcontinent – the Lodhas.
The Lodhas were originally semi-nomadic hunter gatherer people. Presently, they live in Midnapore district of West Bengal. Their traditional occupation is collection and sale of forest produce - mainly edible roots, tubers, and leaves are gathered, while wild reptiles, fish, tortoise, and such are hunted. They gather grass and leaves and make plates, collect cocoons, and also sell wood, honey and wax. The employed Lodhas work as labourers, others are unemployed.
The difference between Lodhas and other indigenous people is how the Lodhas have been treated as criminals historically. The myth of criminality has haunted the Lodhas over centuries. In the British period, the Criminal Tribes act 1924 was formulated. This act listed several communities as “habitually criminal”. The Lodhas were designated one such group. In 1952, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed. Post-independence, the Lodhas were first listed in the census 1951 as a Scheduled Caste, which was then changed to De-Notified Tribe in the sixties. In 1971, the Lodha tribe was denoted as a Primitive Tribal group. They are currently known as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group.
Quite a number of researchers have worked to unravel myths and facts associated with this community and their journey from ancient to current times. Some of this work has focused on nutrition. The government food distribution system is a major source of food for the community. A study conducted by Bisai, Bose and Ghosh (2008) among 165 Lodha children found out that 33.9 % of the children were underweight, 26.1% were stunted, and 19.4% of the children were wasted. Children below 6 months of age were found to be twice more likely than those above 6 months of age to be underweight and stunted. Also, kids below 6 months of age were four times more prone to suffer from severe underweight and severe stunting than those above 6 months of age. Prevalence of wasting was same in both groups.
M. Bepari et al (2015) found that the risk of under-nutrition among the Lodha women were approximately eleven times higher than women from other communities and they were five times more likely to suffer from anemia. Anemia was found in 91% of women and low Blood Pressure among 31% of women. Another study in 2015 conducted with 244 Lodhas found 36.5% people among Lodha population to be undernourished, 8.6% was pre-diabetic and 3.7% were diabetic.
A study conducted in 2016 in Amlashole among 398 households of the village with tribal and non-tribal residents found that 62.6% had diarrhea, while 94.7% had cough and cold, and 47.2% had malaria. Vaccination coverage was also found to be low. Most people availed health facilities from the mobile medical unit deployed at the area. The authors concluded that income of families decided health status, and increased income was associated with decreased expenditure for health reasons. The authors recommend the setting up of a hospital in the region for meeting the health needs of the people.
However, health status of the people cannot be increased by investing in health infrastructure alone. The 2016 study found 76% people having income less than that of the poverty line, i.e. annual income below Rs. 27000/-. Literacy is low. Female illiteracy is higher than male illiteracy. Lodha families were distributed cattle, goats, poultry and solar cells. However, they did not know animal rearing, and sold the solar cells at cheap prices. The region is infertile. The soil is arid with low water retention capacity. Improper irrigation facilities and lack of knowledge often leads to crop failure.
While food security has been achieved, economic capacity building and promoting education can help the improvement of the conditions of these people. For example, innovative experiements such as the Bidisa centre, that works to integrate Lodhas into the mainstream society and impart skill training for self-sustenance, are needed to truly empower this community.