Empty Cups

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These photos were taken by Debasish yesterday, during his visit to a garden which has experienced more starvation deaths in the last two months than any other. The garden was closed in 2003, reopened last spring, then, a few months later, abandoned again when the manager left the workers without wages or rations.

Debasish and Sarmishtha went there with the head of our host-NGO, as well as a bigwig from the South Asia office of the Geneva-based IUF (International Union of Foodworkers), who had come to witness this situation, and also to check up on our nutrition survey’s progress. Tay and I were not permitted to go to this particular garden because of the ultra-sensitive nature of the situation, and also because I’ve been sick with a virus, riding out waves of fever and exhaustion (thus my lack of blog entries — I’m better now).

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But when our friends returned from this garden, saddened by what they had seen, telling us the stories they’d heard that day, my own “suffering” was put into perspective, to say the least. There I was, bedridden on my comfy memory foam mattress, under an electric fan, medicine to take when my fever went up, and most importantly, food to eat when my appetite returned. I tried to imagine experiencing the downward spiral of no-nourishment — the body slowly devours itself, immune system shot, other infections take hold, diarrhea drains whatever energy is left and, unable to replace these fluids, blood thickens, stops flowing. This is not a medical definition of “starvation death,” since there are so many scenarios that fit the bill, but they all have the same ending.

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A recent newspaper article reported 16 deaths in a month here, and Deba’s crew, in their quick-and-dirty survey, found 12, plus a number of dying or extremely sick people. One man had lost his daughter, granddaughter, and mother to diarrhea and vomiting in a few weeks. Other deaths were malarial and although a government-sponsored “mobile medical van” is there with quinine, the drugs are of no use without food. There was a meal being doled out to children, but it wasn’t regular or balanced, another inadequate government effort. JSK and IUF will be deciding what kind of formal complaints and actions they are going to take soon, based on this visit.

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This is only one garden where, for whatever reasons, the situation is abnormally acute. The scary part is the projected 50-70 gardens that will be closing over the next few months. Like I’ve said, it’s apparently a combination of poor management and global market forces that are to blame, and as always, it’s the disempowered workers who end up suffering the most. Who end up starving to death.

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