A Famished Franchise

Threadbare Sadan Nayak wanted to sit up to receive his guests, only to tearfully tell us he was too weak. Kashipur, Orissa
Threadbare Sadan Nayak wanted to sit up to receive his guests, only to tearfully tell us he was too weak. Kashipur, Orissa

A VOTE IS often a product of mixed motives — the result of generations of unshakeable loyalty, or the last-minute epiphany of a frustrated finger hovering over multiple EVM buttons. A vote sometimes rewards jobs provided, children schooled, identities recognised. Other times, it punishes pleas unheard, bulbs unlit, bruised faiths. It is a bargaining chip that negotiates a better life for you.

But what if you were forgotten? Even in the shower of attention that elections bring, what if the convoy drove past your village for the nth time? What is a vote to you, if for the third time, a child in your family was dying of hunger, and you had no hospital to take her to, and no earnings to buy her food with? From places that governments have long ignored come shocking stories of the complete failure of government and unbelievable deprivation. Not a morsel to eat, not a drop safe to drink. What does the world’s biggest election mean to the largest group of forsaken people in that country? What is a vote to a starving man?

It takes a stinging swarm of mosquitoes to wake little Maya from her tired sleep. Immediately, she bursts into tears. She thrashes her bony legs; her ribs visible under her skin. There are angry rashes and bleeding sores all over her body. Exhausted from crying, Maya’s eyes shut again. The wailing is now soundless, the tears flow quietly.

Maya looks about one year old, but is actually three. “She doesn’t seem to grow,” says Rasali, her mother. “She hasn’t been able to walk or crawl and most of the time, just lies in an unconscious sleep.” Maya has Grade-4 malnutrition, the severest degree, which means that she has only a few months left to live. She is from Nichikhori village in Madhya Pradesh’s Sheopur district, where locals recognise villages not by name, but by the number of children that have starved to death there in the past few months. Nichikhori is known by the number 6. Not one of the children here who stare at us shyly from behind walls and trees looks well, let alone well-fed. Without exception, they are underweight and have distended abdomens, reed-thin limbs, bulging eyes. Almost all have had a sibling starve to death.


‘Five people in my family have died of starvation. The only thing I have left is the privilege of a vote’

Dhiru Kaka
Kottali village, Kashipur, Orissa. His wife, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren died of starvation in 2008. He stays with his two-yearold grandson, the only surviving family member

‘I’ve lost three children. Nothing will bring them back. I still vote. If I don’t, the government will pay even less attention to my only child that is alive’

Kaluna Singh
Radep village, Sheopur, MP Lost three children in five days. They were six months, two years, and five years old. All were malnourished

‘Why? Why shouldn’t I vote? I don’t get anything in return, but I must do my duty as a citizen. I must vote out the netas who let my mother die’ 

Haladar Majhi
Pengdusi village, Kalahandi, Orissa 20 people died of diarrhoea in his village in 15 days. His mother and sister were among them. After a week of no food, dire hunger drove them to eat poisonous leaves from the jungle


Every four minutes, a child is born dead in Madhya Pradesh. Of those that survive, over 14 per cent die before they turn six. In the seven months from July 2008 to January 2009, 676 children died here of malnourishment. That’s three a day. Empty kitchens, leafless trees and ration shops that are as barren as the landscape are visible proof that there is precious little to eat in northern MP. A chronic, pervasive hunger that lay hidden till a few years ago now screams for attention in newspaper headlines. It is not surprising that, in December 2008, the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chauhan became Chief Minister against a poll promise of subsidised rice. With no actual food to be had, the mere hope of food is what people subsist on. Lok Sabha aspirants have realised that here, the promise of food security is a profitable one to make and a convenient one to break.

RN Rawat, a Congress MLA from Shivpuri is contesting the Morena Lok Sabha seat, with “eradicating starvation deaths” as his primary agenda. When asked why he did not raise the issue in the years he was an MLA, Rawat says, “I may be raising this just before elections, but someone has to do it sometime.” The MP administration denied reports of malnutrition until 2007, when a wave of hunger related deaths brought criticism from across the world. Today, Central and state governments recognise the problem, but underplay its scale. Nutrition and Rehabilitation Centres (NRCs) were started to treat malnourished children in remote villages, but they admit only severely malnourished children, who are already too sick to respond to treatment. The other hungry children are left to the Centre’s anganwadis, which are supposed to provide a daily meal to children under six. In Shivpuri district, however, women say these meals come only once a week.

With no actual food to be had, Lok Sabha aspirants have realised that the promise of food security is a profitable one to make, and an easy one to break

“Why do these people depend on the government for everything?” asks Ganesh Singh, the BJP parliamentarian from Satna, who is contesting the seat again this year. “The government helps those who help themselves,” he declares.

In Singh’s constituency, long years of drought have forced many families to mortgage their land to moneylenders for food. Non-agricultural jobs are scarce and pay poorly. Entire villages bear insurmountable debts but still have no food. It is at this point that people look to the government. And when even children die of starvation, it is usually a sign of the most abysmal hunger.

Cry for help In Chaitan’s village in Orissa, every second child is underweight
Cry for help In Chaitan’s village in Orissa, every second child is underweight

Hari Singh, a labourer in Sheopur, lost his one-year-old son three weeks ago. “Sonu was always very weak,” says Singh. “When he was just over 14 months, he suddenly got boils all over his body and his skin started peeling. He became sookha (dry). He couldn’t even digest breast milk and then got diarrhoea. Towards the end, a rotting smell came from his body. That’s when I knew it was over.” The experience left Hari blaming himself. But what it reveals is an absolute breakdown of government welfare schemes.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.