A Famished Franchise

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IF THERE is food from anywhere, the child is sure to be fed. Universally, parents feed their child first,” says Sachin Jain, a member of the Right to Food campaign in Madhya Pradesh. “If children are starving, it means the entire community is on the brink.”

Starvation deaths are often downplayed by governments as transient aberrations, ones that might merit a cure but never prevention; aberrations that can be dealt with after they occur. The Mizoram government, for instance, has camouflaged chronic hunger among its other anti-famine measures. The state witnesses a unique phenomenon called mautam,literally, ‘bamboo death’. Every 48 years, a particular species of tropical bamboo flowers. A temporary surfeit of rich bamboo seeds leads to an explosion in the population of rats, which soon overrun paddy fields, causing a famine. The last famine was in 1959, and it took on political colour as it became the genesis for the militant Mizoram National Famine Front.

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 Madhya Pradesh

Since late 2004, Mizoram has been going through another devastating famine. There are clear manifestations of the onset of famine in eight districts. It seems bizarre that an entire people live perennially on the verge of starvation, but mautam remains a non-issue this election. CL Ruala, the Congress candidate says that the famine does not feature in the party manifesto because its repercussions are limited. C Rokhuma, founder of the Anti-Famine Campaign Organization, believes that Mizoram is a victim of politicised and badly tackled hunger. “The 2007 mautam was manipulated by politicians,” he says. “They let people starve and then brought rice for them from outside, so as to be seen as solving their problem.”

The snag in approaching hunger as a famine-like phenomenon is that the solution is often short-sighted. The Central government accumulates an emergency stock of food grains by buying directly from farmers, a cache meant for famine relief. It has been hoarding this for so long that it now has four times the required stock. As development economist Jean Dréze puts it, if these sacks of grain were lined up in a row, that array of futile, wasted food would stretch for more than a million kilometres, to the moon and back. Grotesquely, though India has the largest unused stocks of food in the world, it also has more people suffering from hunger than any other country.

Grim vigil 10-year-old Ravi in MP waits for his mother to return with his meal: a fistful of rice from the moneylender
Grim vigil 10-year-old Ravi in MP waits for his mother to return with his meal: a fistful of rice from the moneylender

A LOOK AT the states that have lost the most people to starvation — Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Orissa — reveals a more silent and misunderstood killer: chronic hunger, the kind that is caused by an utter disability to buy any food. With no land to grow food on and no earnings to buy even subsidised food, families grow hungrier by the generation.

Kalahandi in Orissa has become an icon of Indian poverty. Visited repeatedly by Congress bigwigs and development journalists, the district still remains an unfortunate, living stereotype. A rice surplus district, yet a district with one of the highest mortality rates (140 per thousand) in the country. The poorest state, yet one voting for 27 crorepati candidates, seven of them from the hungriest Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region.

Orissa, one of the poorest states in the country, is voting for 27 Crorepati candidates. seven of them are from the hungriest Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput area

When the residents of Pengdusi village in Kalahandi are asked what they do for a living, one man bursts out laughing, “We’re boatmakers, fishermen or farmers. At least until we become patients.” In September 2007, 16 people died of diarrhoea here in just 15 days, most of them adults. No one was taken to the hospital because it is 45km away, and there was no bus, no ambulance, and no road. “If you fell sick in this village, you died,” says 30-year-old Madan Nayak, who lost his wife and, one day later, his one-month-old daughter. Diarrhoea is the most common symptom of hunger death — a body’s final rejection of any food or water, an inability to digest anything because of being unfed for too long. Even today, the Primary Health sub-Centre set up 5km from the village following media and NGO pressure, lies locked, with no doctor or health worker appointed. Two years after people died of neglect, no lessons have been learnt.

Yet, instead of despondence, there is still talk of political change. “We all campaigned for Pushpendra Singh of the BJD in the 2004 assembly elections, because we thought he would help us get our BPL cards,” says Haladar Majhi, “But after he won, when we went to remind him of his promise, he asked us who we were.” This year, the popular parliamentary candidate seems to be the Congress’ Bhakta Charan Das, the first politician to visit the village at its worst time in 2007. “He came on a motorcycle, with a doctor riding pillion,” says Haladar, “He ensured that the road is paved. He responds to us, at least for now.”

NEARBY, PREDOMINANTLY tribal Kashipur has been facing the wrath of failed crops. Everyone seems to be at work in lush paddy fields for most of the day, but in their homes, there is commonly just half a pot of dilute rice gruel for a family of five for three days. It is a simple difference between the haves and the have nots. In the last 50 years in Orissa, big farmers have been buying fertile land and cheap labour for throwaway prices. Adivasis work for foodgrains on lands they once owned. When there is no harvest in the rainy season between May and October, they find themselves jobless and too poor to buy even the Rs 2 rice from ration shops. Those with a few acres of land manage for a month or two before hunger strikes them too. Everyone seems to have an NREGA card, but instead of a guaranteed 100 days a year, people in Kashipur get an average of 20 days’ work. Most of that is unpaid.

The staple diet is mango kernels, which lie drying in front of every house. They will be ground and eaten, even though it was these very poisonous fungus- ridden kernels that caused rampant diarrhoea a year ago. “We know this isn’t very good for us,” admits Kaluna, who now raises four children belonging to her sister who died of starvation last year in Kashipur. “But there’s not enough farm produce,” she says. “We need something to quieten the growling stomach.”

The still-robust will to vote among the most neglected is striking. “In the absence of food, land, work, and good health, my vote is the only privilege I have left,” says the 67-year-old Dhiru Kaka, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and wife to starvation last year in Kashipur, Orissa. Playing with his voter ID card is his 2-year-old grandson, the only family he has left. When Dhiru Kaka made the trip to the polling booth on April 16, it was to cast his vote for the 17th time. “At least for a few months after the election, the winning politician will bring us food,” he says, hugging his grandson. “That is the best we can ever expect.”

With Teresa Rehman in Mizoram

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Uneasy Irony

Orissa’s BPL families cannot even afford to buy the Rs 2 subsidised rice, finds Rohini Mohan

Little or nothing A family in Kalahandi lays out all its possessions
Little or nothing A family in Kalahandi lays out all its possessions

BAREFACED DENIAL is the most difficult stance to argue with. No surprise, then, that it is the response of choice of the Orissa Government. When uncomfortable facts about the almost 540 people who died of miserable hunger over the last decade are brought up, Chief Minister M Naveen Patnaik simply says, “no starvation deaths have taken place”.

Kashipur block of Rayagada district is infamous for hunger-related deaths. In 2001, 20 people, almost all tribals, died here when food scarcity drove them to eat fungus-ridden mango kernels. In 2007, a cholera epidemic killed at least 52 people. Both times, it happened in the rainy season, when no farming takes place.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik: ‘No starvation deaths have taken place in Orissa’

Like most men of Paiksapel village, Dhaniram Gond leaves home between May and October every year, migrating to different parts of India in search of a job. “70 percent of the money I earn is spent there itself,” he says, “But I go anyway because at least there I get one meal a day.”

Those left behind are the most vulnerable. The harvest of paddy, ragi, and vegetables does not last for more than two months, especially after the debts incurred the previous year to buy food are repaid. Sulochana Jhodia from Jhorakholi village shows us her kitchen. A pot of soaked rice, half a kilo of potatoes bought from the market for Rs 10, a tomato, a packet of chilli powder, a handful of dried fish, and a little tin of salt. “This is a week’s food for my family of eight,” says Sulochana.

Kashipur and the notorious Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput regions suffer from problems of accessibility and entitlement to food. The number of small farmers with less than one acre has tripled. They are usually forced into distress sale of crops. Adivasis and dalits are nearly half of the population, but the lowlands — which have the highest productivity — are owned by less than 10 per cent of the population.

Sudarshan Nayak from Kebidi village illustrates another facet of food insecurity. He holds his BPL card in one hand, and his sleeping son with the other. “Would I not feed him if I could buy the Rs 2 rice this card entitles me to?” he asks, “But look in my pocket. I have Rs 3. That is the bus fare to the ration shop.” It may be one of the poorest states in India, but Orissa is rich in uneasy irony.

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A Bitter Diet

State-run nutrition centres in MP cannot be the sole answer to infant hunger, reports Rohini Mohan

Shortchanged Sumli and her daughter hope for a cure, for the second time
Shortchanged Sumli and her daughter hope for a cure, for the second time

A DULL wailing fills the phenylsmelling halls of the Nutrition and Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) in Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh. At the end of the hall is a large room with 20 beds, every one of them taken by a young mother holding a frail, tearful child. “We’re sick of hearing babies cry,” a caretaker says cheerily, as she turns up the volume on the Bollywood music video playing on television.

MP has the highest number of hungry people in the country. Following media reports of acute malnutrition in the state, the MP Government started NRCs in 2005 to treat malnourished children. Led by growing worry and a vague belief in the “government doctor”, mothers bring their sick children to the NRC.

The NRCs, however, admit only children with Grade 3 and 4 malnutrition, the severest levels. Just 135 NRCs in the state cater to around 13 lakh children.

NRCs also work on a rigid 14-day cycle. During this, the child is provided high-protein food worth Rs 15 every day to ensure weight gain. The mother is paid Rs 100 as transport allowance and Rs 35 a day to stay with the child. Shanti is lucky to have made it to the NRC on time. “They do not admit the child if we arrive even a day late, however critical it may be,” she says. The child is also discharged after 14 days, whether it is well or not.

Like Shanti, most of the women in the NRC are Sahariya tribals, one of the poorest communities in the state. Sahariyas often cannot afford even one meal a day, which explains why 72 percent of their children are malnourished. In the last six months, 17 children under the age of six have died of malnutrition in Sheopur.

B Tiwari, health Officer:‘tribals don’t care about their children. If one dies, they just have another’

Sumli is a Sahariya who has brought her three-year-old girl, Bhoori, to the NRC for the second time. “Nothing gives a mother more joy than seeing her baby healthy and happy. So I come again and again,” she says. As Bhoori hides her face under her mother’s sari, Sumli smiles sadly, “Imagine, she’s just three, and she may die any day now. I’ve brought her here so that she has a chance to live a longer life.”

There is, however, a pernicious bias among the largely upper caste authorities of this NRC that is the downfall of an otherwise well-intentioned government programme. “We can say these Sahariyas are poor and all that, but adivasiyon ko apne bachchon se lagaav nahi hai (tribals don’t care about their children),” says Bharat Tiwari, Director of the Sheopur NRC. “If one dies, they’ll just have another.”

rohini@tehelka.com

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