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Stop The Rot

by Devinder Sharma
New Delhi, India

Devinder Sharma.
Devinder Sharma. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In the mid-Eighties, the sale of Banita, a minor girl from Kalahandi in Orissa, had shocked the nation. Two decades later, we once again refused to heed to the cries of a one-month-old baby who was sold by her mother for a mere Rs 10. For Sumitra Behera, 35, a resident of Badibahal village in Angul district of Orissa, selling her one-month-old daughter was perhaps the only way to feed her two other daughters -- Urbashi, 10, and Banbasi, 2. In the month of December 2003, three other families grappling with hunger in Angul, Puri and Keonjhar in Orissa had reportedly sold their children.

Two decades earlier, the nation felt outraged when a leading daily bought a woman for Rs 2,000. The intrepid reporter, who risked his life to investigate the shoddy and inhuman trade, wrote that even a pair of shoes costs more. It doesn’t require the investigating skills of an Ashwini Sarin any longer to lift the veil behind the hidden face of India Shining. You can now purchase a child for less than the price of a bottle of mineral water.

As abject poverty remains buried behind the façade of the feel good factor, there is excitement in the air. The German luxury car-maker, Daimler Chrysler, has announced the launch of the most luxurious car in the world, in India. At Rs 5 crore a piece, the upwardly mobile have begun to queue up. This comes at a time when Sachin Tendulkar has regained his form. Also, when Amitabh Bachchan has been named as the brand ambassador for UP. Selling dreams is no longer the prerogative of Bollywood.

Despite the Planning Commission managing to pull down the percentage of the poor and the poverty stricken from its unread documents, the magic trick of playing with numbers hasn’t made any difference to the growing disparities. Amidst recurring political elections, and the brazen marketing hype to sell images of growth and development, the shameful paradox of hunger in the time of plenty has been quietly buried under heaps of grain that continue to rot in the open. That 75 lakh people -- more than the population of Switzerland -- had applied for a mere 38,000 lowly-paid jobs in the Indian Railways is no longer a matter of concern at a time when the country is on a fast track information highway. This is not to discount the achievements of the information technology sector: but the fact remains that IT has provided only five lakh job opportunities.

Meanwhile, hunger continues to grow in India, which alone has one-third of the world’s estimated 860 million people who go to bed hungry, and that too in times of plenty. In fact, hunger and poverty have proved to be robustly sustainable. Directly related to growing unemployment, reports of gnawing hunger and starvation deaths in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa have hit the national headlines time and again. In 2002, reports of hunger and starvation deaths have also regularly poured in from the country’s progressive and economically fast-growing cyber states -- Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

At the same time, India continues to make room for exporting surplus foodgrain. An estimated 320 million people desperately need food, despite more than 60 million tonnes stocked in the open at the turn of the century. But this has failed to evoke any political expediency. In fact, 17 million tonnes of the surplus food meant for the hungry was exported in 2002 at below-poverty line prices. No political leader, including the distinguished members to the Rajya Sabha, even thought of bringing this shameful paradox to the attention of Parliament.

While people die of hunger, the government sits atop a mountain of foodgrain. In 2001, starvation deaths were reported in over 13 states while the storage facilities of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) -- were full of grain, some of it rotting and rat-infested. When export markets could not be found for this surplus, there was a proposal to dump it in the sea to make storage space for the next crop. So large was the quantity of food kept in the open, that if each bag was stacked one on top of the other, there was no need to launch a scientific expedition to put a man on the moon: You could simply walk there and back.

The same year, a case was filed by some NGOs in the Supreme Court of India asking for directions to ensure the fundamental right to food of every citizen. A bench comprising Justice B.N. Kripal and Justice K.G. Balakrishnan had directed the government to: “Devise a scheme where no person goes hungry when the granaries are full and lots being wasted due to non-availability of storage space.” To the attorney general’s plea that devising such a scheme would require at least two weeks, the court had allowed for enough time. It had also sought affidavits from the state governments of Orissa, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh detailing their response to meet the unprecedented situation of ‘scarcity among plenty’.

That was in 2001. Two years later, Sumitra Behera sold her one-month-old child to feed her other two children. A damning survey conducted sometime back in Madhya Pradesh found 6,785 children in 43 blocks of Shivpuri district severely malnourished -- an average of 160 per block. The situation is equally hopeless in several other states. Malnutrition continues to multiply, more so among children and women. The extent of malnutrition that exists in the country remains hidden. It doesn’t make for shocking news any longer. Hunger makes news only when someone dies.

The ground realities are far removed from the rhetoric and the statistics that have bred immunity against compassion. We are all part of a global system which perpetuates poverty and deprivation. We make tall claims of feeling good by hiding the stark reality of growing poverty and hunger from the public glare. We are, therefore, in reality, the cause behind the hunger. Behaving like an ostrich is surely not going to eclipse hunger from the politico-economic radar screens. It requires determination and will.

Is there a solution? To start we could consider:

Zero hunger: Firstly, it requires the political leadership to accept the extent of crisis -- to accept that hunger exists in the country -- and launch a time-bound programme to eradicate it. If Brazil can launch a programme for ‘zero hunger’, there is no reason why India cannot demonstrate the political maturity to combat this national shame.

Task force: If a ministry can be set up for disinvestment, another for information technology and yet another for food processing, there is no reason why a high-ranking task force cannot be constituted with the clear cut mandate to remove hunger. This task force should be directly under the supervision of the prime minister.

Public policy: The task force should oversee the economic policies to ensure that there is no contradiction in the government’s resolve. Zero hunger should not be construed as a mass mid-day meal project but directed towards building sustainable livelihoods that help build the capacity of the poor to emerge out of poverty and hunger.

Hunger is not a curse that some among us have to live with. Hunger is a reflection of our misplaced emphasis on growth for a select few. The hungry do not need our sympathies. They need a helping hand.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 8, 2004

About the author: Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his works are GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap.

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