Hunger Stalks Rising India
It makes for poignant reading. At a time when newspapers are agog with reports of billions of dollars of foreign investment flowing in, and the daily projections of an unprecedented growth rate that will eclipse poverty, the cries of a 12-year-old Jabila in the Kalahandi belt of Orissa lies buried in the resulting din and euphoria.
In the first week of September, within a matter of five days, first her younger brother died from hunger related ailment, and the very next day her father succumbed to hunger. Unable to buy grains, he had been living on green leaves for the past few days. No sooner had the pyre cooled, Sonai, her mother too died unable to cope with hunger. Jabila now sits in front of her hut, empty-eyed and perhaps waiting for her turn.
This is not an isolated case. Writing in the web magazine Ravivar.com Neeraj says that as many as 20 people in the Telnagi hamlet in Rampur in Kalahandi have died from hunger or hunger-related ailment. Talk to any villager and he starts counting the names on his fingers. Parshuram Ray of the New Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security says that over 500 hunger deaths have occurred in Raigada, Kashipur, Kalahandi, and Koraput regions of western Orissa in the past few months.
Orissa is not the only state, which continues to downplay growing hunger and malnutrition and at the same time adopt lopsided polices in the name of development. The situation in Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in the cow belt is no better. Hunger stalks the entire northern parts of the country (and for that matter in the rest of the country but not as glaring as in north). The only cover up being that the respective governments continue to either ignore or deny or ward them as deaths from diseases like cholera and malaria.
An estimated 320 million people are languishing in hunger. My understanding is that this is an understatement. If the projections of National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector are correct, 836 million people are somehow surviving on less than Rs 20 or less than half-a-dollar a day. With Rs 20, it is not possible to manage two square meals a day. The number of hungry therefore is 836 million – almost equal to the 852 million hungry that the UN Millennium Development Goals (and the FAO) wrongly computes as the number of people living in hunger throughout world.
Shocking reports of hunger deaths pour in at a time when the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution estimates that 53.3 per cent of wheat and 39 per cent of rice worth Rs 31,500-crore (Rs 315,000 milion) that was meant for distribution to the poorest of the poor has been siphoned off in the past three years. For the past three decades, despite numerous studies and reports, the pilferage from the Public Distribution Scheme remains colossal. This is not a crime but treason.
Although the per capita availability of food has climbed down to a level that existed at the time of the Great Bengal Famine in 1943, the nation seems unperturbed. The need to make PDS effective has remained outside the gamut of political expediency.
Knowing that the food meant for the poor is not reaching them, and undeterred by reports of hunger and malnutrition that continue to pour in, the Department of Food and Public Distribution under the same Ministry is now planning another brave act. It plans to double the price of foodgrains meant for the mid-day meal programme for school children. In simple words, the Department is making it difficult for the states to provide mid-day meals for 12-crore (120 million) children. After all, resource crunch will ensure that the Ministry of Human Resources is unable to shell out in future Rs 12000-per metric tonne as against Rs 5,650 at present.
In a country where 5000 children die every day from malnutrition or its related ailments, and 46 per cent of children under the age of 3 years suffer from acute malnutrition, the importance of further expanding mid-day meal programme needs no emphasis. But by making it beyond the reach of the official machinery, the Ministry of Human Resources may now find it difficult to run the existing programme what to think of expanding it to reach additional 3-crore (30 million) children.
The paradox of plenty – acute and widespread hunger amidst abundant foodstocks – exists at a time when the country is poised towards a high-growth trajectory. Policy makers, planners and economists have been telling us that even if poverty increases in the short term, this is a price that has to be paid for long-term stability and growth. In other words, Jabila needs to accept that her parents paid for the growth the country is witnessing!
It is primarily for this reason that we feel satisfied at the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme that provides 100 days employment for the poor and vulnerable. We know that 100 days wages cannot keep the poor alive and kicking for the rest of the year. And yet, none of those who form part of the growing tribe of intellectuals are even willing to raise their voice against this glaring human inequality. After all, if we in the urban centres cannot survive if paid only for 100 days in a year how do we expect the poor to survive?
No wonder, even with the largest number of hungry in the world, hunger and starvation no longer evokes compassion and reaction. News of hunger and starvation no longer adorns the front pages of newspapers. Hunger is, in reality, a non-issue. It is something that we must despise, something that we must close our eyes to. So how does it matter if the PDS doesn’t work or the mid-day meal programme is eventually scrapped for want of adequate funds?
What we don’t realise is that an empty stomach cannot wait. With the passage of time it will lead to social upheavals and the repercussions can be more damaging to the society at large. What I fail to fathom is the growing indifference of the elite, the intelligentsia and the policy-makers and planners towards hunger and deprivation. What a tragedy.