"...these people are dying because they cannot afford two square meals a day. And their number is multiplying following the globalisation process." - Devinder Sharma (item below)
“These deaths were completely avoidable and there is no excuse at all... there is no political, economic, technological, social or resource excuse for this situation at all. It is totally poor implementation and failure of governance and administration..." - M.S. Swaminathan (item below)
"If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not... To feed the world takes political and financial will" - Steve Smith, head of Syngenta UK, Norfolk 29th March 2000
GIVE US DIGNITY, NOT CHARITY
From: Hindu Business Line, Chennai/New Delhi, Sept 26, 2001
IN 1987 when the young Prime minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, on a visit to the United States was asked by scribes about starvation deaths in Orissa, he was stunned. Here he was full of talk about taking India into the 21st century on the wings of technology and integrating it with the rest of the developed world through computerisation. In the midst of that, to be questioned about as shameful a thing as starvation deaths, really hurt his pride.
The deaths referred to were, of course, in the infamous Kalahandi belt of Western Orissa. After coming to India he planned a visit to the region, met the dark-skinned, emaciated and abjectly poor tribals and adivasis in this belt of Orissa and announced the Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million) Orissa State Tribal Development Project.
``That is why you see a decent road connecting these villages. Rajiv Gandhi did visit Kashipur when he was the Prime Minister. But don't ask me what happened to the Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million). Like the money meant for so many development schemes, 90 per cent of it was swallowed by the local politicians and bureaucrats'', says Rabindranath Tagore, a former Assistant Registrar in the State's Co-operative Department.
As though to corroborate his statement, our car speeding down the relatively good road from Rayagada, the district headquarters to the cluster of villages in Kashipur, where a couple of dozen hunger deaths have taken place, whizzes past a broken and disfigured plank announcing the OTDS. The deaths which are taking place in Kashipur block today are not new to Orissa and have their links to Kalahandi, which used to surface in media headlines in the 1980s and early 1990s with terrible regularity.
While doing some background reading on the Kalahandi starvation deaths after my return from Kashipur, it was shocking to look at the pictures and find that pictorially at least nothing has changed for the poorest of poor tribals in more than a decade. The dark and gloomy mud huts, the atrocious sanitation, and shallow baskets of millets left to dry in the sun. The semi-clad tribals and the despair in their eyes... those pictures could have been taken today. The only element missing is the mango kernel, which has become such a hotbed of discussion with the local bureaucrats saying that the tribals love to eat mango kernel and when they consume fungus infected kernel, it kills them, so the deaths can't be classified as starvation deaths.
The people on the other hand say that if they had enough rice or other food-grains to eat, why on earth would they consume rotten mango kernel or mushrooms which can be poisonous and lethal. For the media, researchers and bureaucrats, the debate can be an academic one, pertaining as it does to people's food habits. It gives scope for research into tribal lifestyle and provides material for articles. But for the tribals the dilemma is much more immediate and urgent. They do not need discussion, nor do they understand it. Food is their immediate need.
The story of seven-year-old Loki Majhi, the girl who has lost her father (he died after a severe bout of dysentry) last month in Dikaral village, has been related in these columns. In the same village more deaths have taken place. Sixty-five-year old Ekadasi Bagh lost his 19-year-old son Magic Bagh only three days ago, we are told. He died of dysentry. ``There was no food in the house for three days. A gruel was prepared from mango kernel which he consumed, got dysentery and died,'' says the father, without any hint of emotion.
In village after village the story is repeated. In the last two months the rains have been copious and merciless, giving the people little scope to venture out in search of food. Some people ate mango kernel, others mushrooms and some even grass. When those with weaker stomachs succumbed to dysentery and then death, luckily for the local officials, their stomachs had some traces of food. So how can these deaths be classified as `starvation deaths', is the question local bureaucrats throw at your face.
Devinder Sharma, food and trade policy analyst and author of the book In the Famine Trap defines them as `hunger-related' deaths, adding, ``I know some people bring up the definition of `starvation' to prove that these are not starvation deaths. But the fact remains that these people are dying because they cannot afford two square meals a day. And their number is multiplying following the globalisation process. More and more people are being pushed below the poverty line despite the Planning Commission reducing the number below the poverty line.''
He recalls that when Mr Pranab Mukherjee was the Planning Commission Deputy Chairman, ``he had brought down the poverty percentage to 19 per cent. Soon after he left, it was brought back to 37 per cent. If Mr Mukherjee had remained in the Planning Commission, poverty would have been eradicated from India by now!''
Eminent agricultural scientist Dr M.S. Swaminathan feels strongly that even in this day and age such deaths should take place. Talking to Business Line, he said, ``These deaths were completely avoidable and there is no excuse at all... there is no political, economic, technological, social or resource excuse for this situation at all. It is totally poor implementation and failure of governance and administration and our inability to effectively implement all the announced schemes. ``Unfortunately, these have not made any difference at all, as you yourself have seen in Kashipur. The solution we are suggesting is a much more decentralised system and community controlled nutrition security like grain banks.''
The Rayagada district Collector Mr Bishnupada Sethi is quick to admit that poverty is not only rampant ``but also visible. And people in this area have so many problems. Earlier the tribals used to dependent on the forests; but now the forest cover is not there.'' To this a local activist's wry response is that not only the forests on the plains but also the trees on the hills in this region have been removed so systematically that ``it looks that unka mundan (shaving) hua hei. But let me add that the forests have been degraded and the trees removed not by the poor tribals and adivasis who inhabit this region but our very own politicians, bureaucrats who are hand in glove with timber traders. Not only timber, but also the stone from this region, is taken out by truckloads,'' he says.
What puzzles people elsewhere in India about the Kashipur deaths is the question whether the tribals do not have land to cultivate. Some of them do, and the average landholding is a substantive 1.8 hectares of land. But as Mr Sethi points out ``About 80 per cent of the land is high land or of the medium category where you don't get much produce. Productivity is very, very low. Poverty is quite acute and people are suffering because of poverty. We have 31,000 families in Kashipur block, of which 15,000 have been given BPL cards. This entitles them to 16 kg of rice per month per at a cost of Rs. 4.75. Of course this is not sufficient for the whole family.''
After the visit to Kashipur of the Union Food Minister Mr Shanta Kumar and the Orissa Chief Minister Mr Naveen Patnaik on September 14, two schemes -- Antordaya and Annapoorna -- have been announced. Under these schemes BPL families will be give 25 kg of rice at Rs. 3 a kg. and under the other, senior citizens will be given a monthly dole.
But more than greater subsidies or bigger doles, the people require more permanent forms of help. Some of the adivasi and tribal families might have land but irrigation facilities are atrocious. The rain has been plenty and the foliage looks fresh and green but some of the paddy fields we passed on the way to the villages show tell tale signs of too much water. There is hardly any facility to drain out excess water and in many a fields the crop had turned yellow already.
Analysing this problem Mr Sharma says that the real problem stems from the fact that everybody looks for ``imported ideas and solutions. In Kalahandi, for instance, the answer to the lack of irrigation does not lie in promoting drip irrigation but strengthening the traditional water harvesting systems. Every one talks of agriculture development in the Kalahandi belt but I can tell you that nothing will work in this belt for the simple reason that first and foremost we must remove the biggest bottleneck to development -- lack of credit.''
Though in the villages we visited moneylenders were yet to make an entry, Mr Sharma says that many poor tribals in Orissa borrow money at ``a phenomenal interest rate of 460 per cent a year. If we in the cities were to pay such a high interest rate, could we ever get out of the hunger trap?'', he asks.
Dut Duriya, a panch member from the Bahujan Samaj Party, in a village near Tikiri, says the people in the area are so poor that one day's food, they set aside for three days. For the last two or three years there is hardly any work. Even when there is work, the villagers get hardly Rs. 20 or 25 and not Rs. 40. ``Agar kisiko khana nahi milta tau taku ya imli ka beeja bhi khate hei (those who don't get food eat mango kernel or tamarind seeds. Tribals like the sour taste of imli, but can they eat this instead of food?''
He dismisses the latest subsidies announced by Shanta Kumar as ``one big show. Now because of the hunger deaths, people are getting phokat ka khana (free food). For how many days can they give us free food. We want stability and dignity. Give us work and not charity,'' he says with all the josh of an opposition politician. #