Poverty In the Midst of Plenty
Dying of hunger in a land of surplus: Caste and corruption connive to keep food from India's poor
India has for many years been one of the world's largest net exporters of food. Common sense, or common decency, would tell you that the citizens of a major net exporter of food must have enough food to survive. But no!
This report appeared recently in The Guardian (UK).
by Luke Harding in Baran, Rajasthan
When the crops failed and there was no work, the villagers of Mundiar began searching for food in the jungle.
They didn't find any. Instead, they found grass. And so for most of the summer, the village's 60 households got by eating sama - a fodder normally given to cattle.
But humans are not supposed to eat grass and soon, the villagers, their cheeks increasingly sunken, got weaker. They complained of constipation and lethargy. Finally, they started dying.
One villager, Murari, watched his entire family slowly succumb. First his father, Ganpat, died, followed by his wife Bordi. Four days later, he lost his daughter.
"My daughter was lying on the floor of my hut. Her body suddenly started shaking. The shaking stopped. I tried to wake her up. But she was dead. I buried her in the jungle," Murari, a 25-year-old labourer, whose mother died next, said.
Across this remote part of north India - once covered in dense green forest but now made barren by drought - it is the same story.
Over the past two months more than 40 members of the tribal Sahariya community have starved to death. Their deaths could be explained if 21st century India was more like southern Africa - a place prone to famine. But it isn't.
Some 60 million surplus tonnes of grain are currently sitting in government warehouses. This is, by any standards, a large food mountain.
Campaigners point out that stacked on top of each other, the sacks of wheat would stretch to the moon. Unfortunately, none of them reached Mundiar or any of the other more remote interior villages in south-eastern Rajasthan.
In the village of Bhoyal, three hours' drive from Baran, the nearest big town, across a shimmering landscape of green eucalyptus trees and red-brown earth, the evidence of chronic malnutrition is not hard to spot.
When we arrived, the Sahariyas were preparing a meal of cherata - wild leaves boiled up with oil and salt. There was nothing else to eat. Their children had swollen bellies. The adults were skeletal.
They were also fed up. "We went to the sarpanch [the village head] and asked him for some grain. But he didn't give us any," one villager Prem, 45, complained. He had been eating grass since July, he said. Several children have died. "My baby died 16 days ago," one woman, Sukan, 25, said. "I didn't have any milk. But then, I didn't have anything to eat."
Officially, nobody starves in India. Under a public distribution system, villagers who sink below the poverty line are entitled to ration cards, which allow them to buy subsidised grain from government shops.
But in Bhoyal, as elsewhere, the system has collapsed. The local sarpanch handed out all the ration cards to cronies and members of his own caste, the villagers said.
He also scratched out the names of widows entitled to government pensions. The government shop-owners, meanwhile, refuse to sell the cheap grain to the untouchable Sahariyas.
Instead, they get rid of it on the black market. When the Sahariyas started dying, the shop-owners filled in their ration cards in an attempt to try to conceal their scam.
Officials who are supposed to monitor the system rarely stir from their offices. It is a scene as bleak as any devised by the doleful Indian novelist Rohinton Mistry: millions of people are hungry in India not through lack of food but because of massive official corruption, bureaucratic apathy and political indifference.
It is a depressing paradox. Last month's starvation deaths are not the first of their kind in India; dozens of tribal villagers died in the eastern state of Orissa last year. But they have provoked a furious political reaction.
The authorities in Rajasthan have angrily denied that anybody has starved to death and have accused Sankalp, the Indian non-governmental organisation which raised the alarm of spreading "false rumours".
The victims merely succumbed to disease, the state's Congress party administration has claimed, implausibly.
But the reality is that few political leaders in India have shown much interest in preventing hunger -- especially among downtrodden lower caste communities like the Sahariyas.
"The government can't get away with large-scale famine but it can get away with chronic hunger," Jean Drèze, an academic and campaigner on food rights said last night. "It has become an accepted part of life in India."
The deaths were perverse, he added. "I don't think in history there has been so much food as there is in India today."
The levels of malnutrition in India - a country of 1 billion plus people -- are among the highest in the world. About one half of all Indian children are malnourished, while nearly 50% of Indian women suffer from anaemia. And yet most of the grain on India's vast food mountain is either thrown away or eaten by rats.
It is those at the bottom of India's hierarchical caste system that suffer most.
The tribal communities, who account for 30% of Baran district's population, are also the victims of historical injustice. Before independence in 1947, the Sahariyas eked out a living by hunting and growing a few crops.
After independence, officials drove them out of the jungle and confiscated their land. The Sahariyas were forced to seek jobs as agricultural labourers.
When the crops failed this summer, they had no work, and therefore nothing to eat.
"Politicians are not interested in us," one woman, Nabbo, 50, said, as she prepared her evening meal of chapattis made from sama -- wild grass seed.
Each year, the world produces plenty of food for everyone, yet millions starve to death. What policies do we most need for a future free from poverty and hunger? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
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