By Devinder Sharma
10 February, 2004
the mid 1980, the sale of Banita, a minor girl from Kalahandi in Orissa,
had shocked the nation. Two decades later, the nation refused to even
notice 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 major newspaper bought a woman for Rs
2000. The intrepid reporter, who risked his life to investigate the
shoddy and inhuman trade, wrote in his columns that even a pair of shoes
would cost more. It doesn't require the investigating skills of Ashwini
Sarin anymore to lift the veil behind which remains the hidden face
of India Shining. You can now buy a child for less than what you pay
for 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 carmaker, DaimlerChrysler,
has announced the launch of the most luxurious car in the world, in
India. At Rs 5 crore a piece, the upwardly mobile have already 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 Uttar Pradesh.
Selling dreams is
no longer the prerogative of Bollywood.
Despite the Planning
Commission pulling down the percentage of poor and 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 at times 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 times when the country is on a fast track information
highway. Not to discount the achievements in information technology,
the fact remains that IT has provided only five lakh job opportunities.
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 at 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 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 cyberstates - Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
At the same time,
India continues to make room for exporting surplus foodgrains. That
an estimated 320 million people desperately need food, despite more
than 60 million tones stocked in the open at the turn of the century,
had failed to evoke any political expediency. In fact, 17 million tonnes
of the surplus food actually meant for the hungry, was exported in 2002
at below the poverty line prices. No political leader, including the
distinguished nominated members to the Rajya Sabha, even thought of
bringing the shameful paradox to the attention of Parliament.
While people die of hunger, the government sits atop a mountain of food
grains. In 2001, starvation deaths were reported in over 13 states while
the storage facilities of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) - were
full of grains, some of it rotting and rat-infested. There was a proposal
to dump it in the sea, to make storage space for the next crop, when
export markets could not be found for this surplus. Such was the quantity
of food kept in the open, that if each bag was stacked one upon the
other, there was no need to launch a scientific expedition to put a
man on the moon. You could simply walk to the moon and come back.
The same year, a
case was filed by some NGOs in the Supreme Court in 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 frame. It has also sought affidavits from
the State governments of Orissa, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra,
Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh detailing their response to meet the unprecedented
situation of "scarcity among plenty".
This was in 2001. Two years later, Sumitra Behera had to sell her one-month-old
child to feed her other two children. A damming survey conducted sometimes
back in Madhya Pradesh, in central India, found 6,785 children in 43
blocks of Shivpuri district severely malnourished -- an average of 160
per block. The situation is equally hopeless in 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 shocking news. Even 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 pushing stark realities of growing poverty and hunger from the
public glare. We are, therefore, in reality, the cause behind hunger.
Behaving like an Ostrich is surely not going to eclipse hunger from
the politico-economic radar screens. It requires determination and will.
Zero Hunger: First
and foremost, it requires the political leadership to accept the extent
of crisis, to accept that hunger exists in the country, and to then
launch a time bound programme towards eradicating hunger. If Brazil
can launch a programme for 'zero hunger', there is no reason why India
cannot demonstrate political maturity to combat the national shame.
Task Force: If a
ministry can be set up for disinvestments, another for information technology,
and still another for food processing, there is no reason why a high
ranking task force cannot be constituted with the clear cut mandate
of removing hunger. The 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 government's resolve. Zero hunger should not
be construed as a mass mid-day meal programme but be directed towards
building sustainable livelihoods that helps 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 towards growth for a few. The hungry do not need
our sympathies. They need a helping hand, and they can do the rest.
is a New Delhi-based food policy analyst. Courtesy, Znet