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September 21, 1999


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The Rediff Election Specials/The Lambadas of Telangana

Will votes get their children back?

J S Sai in Nalgonda and Hyderabad

I **** my wife, and the girl was born. I have the right to sell the girl, kill her. Who are you to question me?''

J Mangta makes violent, vulgar gestures. Tempers flare. Tribal spit flies around.

Mangta continues to scream. His village folks try to drown his voice. More spit flies.

His mother comes to his rescue, and she joins the tribals in making more vulgar gestures. I crouch on the Lambadas' cot wondering what to do. Summoning all my courage, I scream at the top of my voice, ''Stop fighting, stop fighting.'' No one seems to pay any attention. The argument continues.

''No, sir. Mangta is scolding his younger brother,'' assures one of the Lambadas. ''You have nothing to worry.''

But I have my fears. I seem to be ages and ages away from civilisation, though I know I am in Janareddy Thanda, just a stone's throw away from the Nagarjuna Sagar dam, about 70 kilometres from Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh.

''Why do I feel scared when a group of tribals fight?'' you may ask.

Mangta has been accused of selling his new-born girl child. Several of his folks in the district face similar charges. And rumours have it that, if no one comes forward to buy their baby girls, the Lambadas do not hesitate to kill them.

I clutch my bag containing all the cash I have for the trip to Andhra. Now the nauseating smell of cheap liquor reaches my nostrils. Grappling with fear, I manage to scream again. The verbal joust seems tireless.

Helplessly I survey the village. Several Congress flags are fluttering over the haphazard dwellings. ''Does election mean anything to these tribals? If they can sell their kids, will they hesitate to do the same with their votes?'' I wonder. (''We will vote for the Congress,'' says sarpanch Jatawat Pitla later, implying that former Union information and broadcasting minister S Jaipal Reddy who is contesting from the Miryalaguda Lok Sabha constituency, would get their vote.)

An elderly man comes to my rescue this time. ''Stop fighting. Talk to him (referring to me). He has come all the way from Bombay,'' he says in Telugu while rolling a wild plant's leaf into a bidi.

'' Saab, will you put us in jail again?'' asks Mangta. ''Please write a good report to the government, and see that we would get something.''

He looks so innocent that you curse yourself for being scared of him and his folks. ''Sir why should these people (referring to his relatives) interfere in my affairs?'' he says. His mother now wears an empty expression.

''So why did you sell the child?'' I ask Mangta. His younger brother starts screaming again. Mangta shouts back.

His brother looks at me, makes more violent gestures, and screams again. ''Sir he doesn't know Telugu. I will tell you what has happened,'' he says. The brothers argue for a while, and then Mangta turns to me. ''Sir write only good things,'' he urges me. ''If there is trouble we won't spare you,'' his brother warns me.

Why did you sell her? ''Saab we were struggling to make both ends meet, when this lady from Hyderabad approached us. She said she had no kids, and that she would bring up the girl very well. She even said she would send her to a good school. I shooed her away... But, after she had left, my father said, 'You won't be able to take care of the girl. Why don't you give the child to her? The girl will get good food, good clothes and good education. Moreover, the baby's brain might be damaged as your wife had tried for an abortion. Give her away, give her away,' he said.''

Safawat Kiree, a Lambada who had liaised with Hyderabad-based Margaret Sanyogitha, called the latter... Sanyogitha then took away the 40-day-old baby in a car. Mangta says he was paid Rs 2,000.

Did they cry when the girl was being taken away? ''No. Even her mother did not cry,'' says Mangta. ''In fact my father was very happy that she is going to have a good lifestyle.''

A month later, Kiree, who became Mangta's eldest brother Hamu's second wife after her husband passed away recently, ''fell out with Sanyogitha over commission, and tipped off the police.''

The cops arrested her in March last along with Sanyogitha, who was working with a Non-Governmental Organisation called Bud Blossom. Mangta and Hamu, who too had sold his daughter, were also arrested. And a major racket in smuggling of infants to foreign countries was busted by the police following a raid on a creche at the posh Mahendra Hill area of Hyderabad.

The case is pending in the Mirayalaguda sessions court. ''No chargesheet has been filed as the case is still under investigation,'' says sub-inspector Iqbal of the Haliya police station which is investigating the case.

''If we had known this, we would not have given the girl away,'' says Mangta.

Did they try to bring her back? ''Yes, but we did not find her,'' he answers.

Do they feel bad? ''What can I do saab? It was because of my father that all this happened... Even he died soon after the girl left us...''

Mangta now has one daughter (10 years) and two sons (eight and four).

''If we are well off, why will we sell them?'' asks Bunglee of the same village. ''They prefer our children as they have sharp features, and we cannot help selling them because of our poverty,'' he adds.

Mangta accompanies me wherever I go in the village. '' Saab, I hope you will write a good report. Will I get something?'' he keeps asking me.

''We are still scared. We are unable to sleep at night...''


''Because we are afraid of thieves.''

But you say you have nothing?

''They will kill us,'' he says.

Sarpanch Jatawat Pitla says he would have dissuaded Mangta from selling his baby if he had known what he was up to. He says his villagers are not so poor that they have to sell their babies.

Most of the villagers including Mangta have two or three acres. They grow cotton and millet in their fields, and work as labourers, earning Rs 30 to Rs 50 a day. Several houses in the village have fans and gadgets like radio.

However, G Shyam Sunder Reddy, who works as Eenadu reporter at Haliya, says, ''The tribals live below the poverty line, and family planning is alien to them. They celebrate the birth of a boy as he will soon support them. But a girl child brings only sorrow as they are in no position to pay dowry... Moreover she does not bring any income.''

Professor K Narasimha Reddy of the sociology department of Osmania University also feels that poverty drives them into a desperate situation.

Shyam Sunder Reddy says, ''There seems to be no solution to the decade-old problem. Ten years ago I broke a story on how just-born girl children were being killed in the area. Nobody took notice.''

Surely only poverty could not be blamed for such barbarity. ''Many of these tribals do not care for family ties,'' says Shyam Sunder Reddy. ''Maybe liquor and hard work has taken a heavy toll on them. Sometimes they seem indifferent even if their own people are dying...''

''I think they love their children,'' says Professor Narasimha Reddy. ''Maybe they are deeply indebted.''

But the bias against the girl child seems to be taking a heavy toll. ''Most of the tribals warn their pregnant wives against coming back from the maternity homes with daughters,'' says Shyam Sunder Reddy. ''So the women might be forced to get rid of the babies at the hospital itself.''

''If they cannot sell them, they will kill the children,'' says A Raju, joint director, Women Development and Children Welfare, Andhra Pradesh government. ''Several factors seem to have contributed to the sad state of affairs. First they are ruffians and have not been exposed to civilisation. Living below the poverty line, they find it hard to give up their tribal lifestyle and join the mainstream. To add to their woes, they do not plan their families and find it burdensome when children, especially girls, arrive.''

''The problem is much more acute in Telangana,'' says Raju. ''Nearly 90 per cent of the cases originate from Telangana. The Andhra region accounts for just 10 per cent of the cases.''

So are they still selling more girl children? ''I think they are willing to sell their children, but there are no takers now,'' says Shyam Sunder Reddy.

Perhaps the fact that none of the 228 children (only 10 of them are boys) has been taken back by the tribals even after the busting of the smuggling racket lends credence to this.

''Several police and government officials and NGOs have been visiting the villages to convince them to take back their children,'' says Raju. ''Refusing to do so, the tribals ask, 'Why don't you leave us alone? We have no means to rear them.' ''

''Of the rescued children, 13 died before we had stepped in on June 13 last,'' says V N Ajit Kumar, director, SOS Children's Village which is taking care of the children at its Hyderabad centre. ''Two kids had been sent for adoption before June 13 last... We had sent 30 children to our Vishakapatnam village where we have better infrastructure to take care of those grown-up kids.''

At the SOS centre in Hyderabad's Yousufguda, several kids, with radiant smiles, started crawling towards me the moment I opened the door of their room. A couple of them were crying. One or two were sleeping despite the cries, chatter, laughter... At the next room, several children were still being cradled with their name tags pinned on the cradles...

The children are now virtually in the lap of luxury with air-conditioners, good food, excellent medicare...

But of what use are all these facilities when the children cannot cuddle up to their mothers... when mummy and daddy are not around to applaud their small great achievements... when they are amidst an ocean of caring humanity but nothing is their own... when so many staff members care for them but they do not belong anywhere....

I wonder how these little ones would grapple with the thought of being discarded, when grown-ups break down even at the slightest thought of being let down. The children cannot even cry as they are not sure if someone would understand an orphan's -- sorry, discarded child's -- feelings. Will they ever see their parents who are just 150 kilometres away? Will they ever be adopted by any Indian household?

A good Indian leader may punch holes in the poverty cycle of their parents, but will anyone be able to heal the scars on these tender psyches?

Considering that several Lambadas are sceptical of a better future -- Lakshmi, Mangta's relative, says, ''We will vote for those whom you vote... But does it make any difference? Unless we work hard, it is difficult to eke out a living'' -- will these children with sharp features ever find a ray of hope in a wretched country which thinks of politics and votes even to reciprocate the irresistible smile of a baby?

The Rediff Election Specials

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