Cchoti, age three months and weighing only 4 pounds, is struggling between death and life. She belongs to the Birhor Tribal community. Her parents were working as daily wage laborers in Lucknow, which is about 715 k.m. from Jharkhand, her home state. Cchoti was born in Lucknow- in exile. When she was three months old her parents, Kamala and Somra, had to flee back to Jharkhand with little Cchoti and their two other children due to Corona ‘lock down’.

Upon returning, they found their hut razed to the ground and had to take shelter in the kitchen of a nearby abandoned one-room schoolhouse. There were no doors or windows, and it was covered with overgrown bushes and vines. One night, Cchoti’s father was found dead, apparently with no cause. By morning her mother was dead too, leaving malnourished Cchoti and her 7-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother to be cared for by their step-grandmother. What caused their sudden deaths? Snake bite? Food poison? Hunger? No one knows! No one cared.

After the incident, we came to know the family and made arrangements to place Cchoti in a shelter home until someone could adopt her. Cchoti is now at the Missionaries of Charity Center under close care by the medical team and supervision by the government Child Welfare Center. We are the immediate contact point for Cchoti. 

Let us now take a brief look at the ‘environmental justice’ meted out to Cchoti and her family. She belongs to the original dwellers on this earth – one of the Tribal Group. They are rightly the shareholders of Earth’s resources. Until recently, this community depended on nature for their food and shelter; there was a reciprocal give and take. They owned and were part of the forest, land, water, other natural resources, in fact the whole environment! All their needs were met by Mother Earth, and they helped preserve her.

Now where have all these resources gone? What happened to the forest that protected and preserved this community? Why did Cchoti’s parents have to abandon home and hearth and migrate to survive and finally return empty-handed with a dying Cchoti? After returning, where are all the development schemes that were promised? Where are the job opportunities, decent living conditions with adequate food, land ownership etc.? Why did Cchoti and her family have to suffer starvation and her parents an untimely death, and leave Cchoti in critical condition?  

Those Tribals who are in exile and abandoned by the system are asking questions through their silent suffering: Where are the forests in which we dwelt? Where are the flowing, glittering waters where we soothed our bodies from the scorching sun and quenched our thirst? Where are the bamboos with which we built our homes and made our utensils? Where are the birds that woke us to another day in the cool mornings and relaxed our weary bodies in the evenings? Where is our common ground where we danced late into the nights and rested on the same ground? Where are the butterflies, the wild flowers, and the berries that our children enjoyed? Where are the herbs with which we cured our sicknesses? The questions are endless.

We who have taken the responsibility of helping people build societies must look for answers to these silent questions coming out of painful, broken lives. The problems of little Cchoti, her family, and the numerous such other children and families are opportunities for us to look for solutions and not feel sorry and disheartened.  

Tomorrow we will reflect further on Sister Joel’s story.