India: Politics of Starvation
By Sudha Ramachandran
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
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
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
Original article: Global Policy.org
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