India: Politics of Starvation

By Sudha Ramachandran

Asia Times
November 12, 2002

At least 40 tribals, most of them children, are said to have starved to death over a span of a month in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. It is a situation of the cruelest irony for even as the death toll from starvation mounts and hundreds waste away without food to eat, India’s granaries overflow.

It was a probe by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties that uncovered the horrifying details of the starvation deaths in the Baran district of Rajasthan. Cultivation has ceased here for the area is reeling under its fifth successive year of acute drought. The local tribals have been reduced to dire poverty. Desperately short of food and driven by hunger, the tribals have turned to eating a wild grass called sama. This grass is hard for humans to digest. As a result, the tribals, especially children, have developed severe digestive ailments, resulting in death.

The starvation deaths in Rajasthan are a replay of a similar tragic story that unfolded in poverty-stricken Kashipur in the eastern state of Orissa last year. There, tribals driven by poverty and unable to buy even the subsidized rice provided through government ration shops were forced to eat fungus-ridden mango kernel.

As the starvation deaths in Kashipur hit the news, the Orissa government claimed that those who died were victims not of starvation but of their tradition of consuming mango kernel and boiled grass even while grain is available. The truth was that the tribals were forced to eat the poisonous kernel for want of an affordable choice.

In Rajasthan, the government is now claiming that the tribals prefer eating wild grass and that the deaths were caused by poor hygiene and disease. Government officials are busy defining starvation to prove that these were not starvation deaths. A starvation death is when there is no food material in the stomach, and government officials shamefully point out that the victims had eaten grass. Whatever the spin, it is hard to deny that the deaths were hunger-related.

The starvation deaths in Kashipur and Baran are just the tip of the iceberg. Hunger is widespread in India. It is said that at least 50 million Indians are on the brink of starvation and over 200 million Indians are underfed. This, when a 60-million-ton surplus of foodgrains is rotting in various government warehouses in the country.

That so many are hungry despite overflowing granaries is a damning indictment of the government’s public distribution system (PDS). The PDS is a network of about 460,000 ration shops across the country through which grains, sugar, cooking oil and so on are sold at subsidized rates.

However, most of India’s poor, such as those who starved to death in Orissa and Rajasthan, cannot afford to buy the grains even at these subsidized rates. Many of them do not possess the Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards that entitle them to purchase at subsidized rates in ration shops. In several cases, the desperately poor have mortgaged their BPL cards to moneylenders or local traders.

Besides, the process of identifying the poor is severely flawed. An article in Outlook magazine points out that in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, situated in Mumbai, just 151 families are identified as BPL. Millions of poor across the country are categorized in government records as Above Poverty Line (APL).

Food policy experts say that the pricing of foodgrains for APL and BPL categories is far too high. They have pointed out that the price of grain is sometimes cheaper in mandis (local markets). Consequently, the PDS grains have few takers and state governments have been unwilling to lift the grains they are allocated. This means that foodgrains in government warehouses remain unutilized. Because of poor quality and inadequate storage facilities, millions of tons of foodgrains are eaten up by rats or simply rot.

According to Planning Commission statistics, a third of the surplus food stocks (31 percent of the rice, 36 percent of the wheat and 23 percent of the sugar) in the government warehouses that is meant for the PDS is siphoned away by a nexus of politicians, officials and traders into the black market. One study indicates that 64 percent of rice stocks in Bihar and Assam, and 44 percent and 100 percent of wheat stocks in Bihar and Nagaland respectively "disappear" from the PDS.

There are several government relief schemes for the rural poor. Reporting from Baran, Bhavdeep Kang writes in Outlook, "Given the large number of central and state food aid schemes, it is hard to understand why the Sahariyas [the tribe that has been worst hit by hunger and starvation in Rajasthan] are in the plight they’re in today. There are special provisions for the old, infirm, pregnant and lactating mothers, school-going children and infants. There are food-for-work programs run by the village panchayat [village-level government] to provide employment. Even the World Bank sponsors a poverty alleviation scheme in the district. On paper, no one needs to go hungry. Ground reality is starkly different."

Many of the central and state government aid programs are not being implemented, Kang points out, adding that no effort is made to monitor their implementation.

While the failure of the PDS has often been attributed to corruption and poor implementation, P Sainath, author of the book Everybody loves a good drought writes that the PDS has "wilted under policies aimed at dismantling it. Part of the 'doing away with subsides' theme." He calls for examining the issue of hunger-related deaths against a larger canvas of the string of anti-poor steps taken by the government post 1990.

Sainath argues that while the government is cutting down on subsidies to the poor in the country and denying grains to them at prices they can afford, it is subsidizing the export of wheat by over 50 percent. "The export price of wheat is even less than the BPL rate of that item in many states. India is exporting lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of tons of rice at Rs 5.65 a kg. In Andhra, a government sells rice to people in drought-hit regions at Rs 6.40 a kg," he points out.

It is not without significance that hunger-related deaths and poverty-related suicides in rural India have mounted dramatically since 1990, when the Indian economy started liberalizing. Equally telling is the fact that it is in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra - the states where World Bank policies have been implemented most diligently - that the number of poverty-related suicides have mounted most dramatically.

The starvation deaths at Kashipur prompted the Indian Supreme Court to direct the government to "devise a scheme where no person goes hungry when the granaries are full and lots are being wasted due to non-availability of storage space". The court had asked the government to open the public distribution shops in the areas worst hit by hunger in order to make food available to the poor and hungry.

A year on, the starvation deaths in Rajasthan indicate that the government has done little to address the problem - and now the issue has taken on political overtones.

Opposition leader president Sonia Gandhi said at the weekend that the central government had not done enough for the state.

Criticizing the "insensitive attitude" of the center toward extending help to states, Gandhi said "the chief ministers of the states and myself had gone to the prime minister [Atal Bihari Vajpayee] seeking central assistance in August this year, but instead to acting positively the government is playing politics.

"We had asked for special assistance for the drought-hit states, but our pleas went unheeded. We shall now take up the matter in parliament," she said, adding that drought was a serious problem that needed the greater attention of the government in New Delhi.

Original article: Global
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