Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Famished Franchise

What is a vote to a starving man? What does the world’s largest election mean to the world’s largest group of forsaken people? HNN finds out.

A VOTE IS often a product of mixed motives — the result of generations of unshakeable loyalty, or the last-minute epiphany of a frustrated finger hovering over multiple EVM buttons. A vote sometimes rewards jobs provided, children schooled, identities recognised. Other times, it punishes pleas unheard, bulbs unlit, bruised faiths. It is a bargaining chip that negotiates a better life for you.

But what if you were forgotten? Even in the shower of attention that elections bring, what if the convoy drove past your village for the nth time? What is a vote to you, if for the third time, a child in your family was dying of hunger, and you had no hospital to take her to, and no earnings to buy her food with? From places that governments have long ignored come shocking stories of the complete failure of government and unbelievable deprivation. Not a morsel to eat, not a drop safe to drink. What does the world’s biggest election mean to the largest group of forsaken people in that country? What is a vote to a starving man?

It takes a stinging swarm of mosquitoes to wake little Maya from her tired sleep. Immediately, she bursts into tears. She thrashes her bony legs; her ribs visible under her skin. There are angry rashes and bleeding sores all over her body. Exhausted from crying, Maya’s eyes shut again. The wailing is now soundless, the tears flow quietly.

Maya looks about one year old, but is actually three. “She doesn’t seem to grow,” says Rasali, her mother. “She hasn’t been able to walk or crawl and most of the time, just lies in an unconscious sleep.” Maya has Grade-4 malnutrition, the severest degree, which means that she has only a few months left to live. She is from Nichikhori village in Madhya Pradesh’s Sheopur district, where locals recognise villages not by name, but by the number of children that have starved to death there in the past few months. Nichikhori is known by the number 6. Not one of the children here who stare at us shyly from behind walls and trees looks well, let alone well-fed. Without exception, they are underweight and have distended abdomens, reed-thin limbs, bulging eyes. Almost all have had a sibling starve to death.

Every four minutes, a child is born dead in Madhya Pradesh. Of those that survive, over 14 per cent die before they turn six. In the seven months from July 2008 to January 2009, 676 children died here of malnourishment. That’s three a day. Empty kitchens, leafless trees and ration shops that are as barren as the landscape are visible proof that there is precious little to eat in northern MP. A chronic, pervasive hunger that lay hidden till a few years ago now screams for attention in newspaper headlines. It is not surprising that, in December 2008, the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chauhan became Chief Minister against a poll promise of subsidised rice. With no actual food to be had, the mere hope of food is what people subsist on. Lok Sabha aspirants have realised that here, the promise of food security is a profitable one to make and a convenient one to break.

RN Rawat, a Congress MLA from Shivpuri is contesting the Morena Lok Sabha seat, with “eradicating starvation deaths” as his primary agenda. When asked why he did not raise the issue in the years he was an MLA, Rawat says, “I may be raising this just before elections, but someone has to do it sometime.” The MP administration denied reports of malnutrition until 2007, when a wave of hungerrelated deaths brought criticism from across the world. Today, Central and state governments recognise the problem, but underplay its scale. Nutrition and Rehabilitation Centres (NRCs) were started to treat malnourished children in remote villages, but they admit only severely malnourished children, who are already too sick to respond to treatment. The other hungry children are left to the Centre’s anganwadis, which are supposed to provide a daily meal to children under six. In Shivpuri district, however, women say these meals come only once a week.

“Why do these people depend on the government for everything?” asks Ganesh Singh, the BJP parliamentarian from Satna, who is contesting the seat again this year. “The government helps those who help themselves,” he declares.

In Singh’s constituency, long years of drought have forced many families to mortgage their land to moneylenders for food. Non-agricultural jobs are scarce and pay poorly. Entire villages bear insurmountable debts but still have no food. It is at this point that people look to the government. And when even children die of starvation, it is usually a sign of the most abysmal hunger.

Hari Singh, a labourer in Sheopur, lost his one-year-old son three weeks ago. “Sonu was always very weak,” says Singh. “When he was just over 14 months, he suddenly got boils all over his body and his skin started peeling. He became sookha (dry). He couldn’t even digest breast milk and then got diarrhoea. Towards the end, a rotting smell came from his body. That’s when I knew it was over.” The experience left Hari blaming himself. But what it reveals is an absolute breakdown of government welfare schemes.

IF THERE is food from anywhere, the child is sure to be fed. Universally, parents feed their child first,” says Sachin Jain, a member of the Right to Food campaign in Madhya Pradesh. “If children are starving, it means the entire community is on the brink.”

Starvation deaths are often downplayed by governments as transient aberrations, ones that might merit a cure but never prevention; aberrations that can be dealt with after they occur. The Mizoram government, for instance, has camouflaged chronic hunger among its other anti-famine measures. The state witnesses a unique phenomenon called mautam, literally, ‘bamboo death’. Every 48 years, a particular species of tropical bamboo flowers. A temporary surfeit of rich bamboo seeds leads to an explosion in the population of rats, which soon overrun paddy fields, causing a famine. The last famine was in 1959, and it took on political colour as it became the genesis for the militant Mizoram National Famine Front.

Since late 2004, Mizoram has been going through another devastating famine. There are clear manifestations of the onset of famine in eight districts. It seems bizarre that an entire people live perennially on the verge of starvation, but mautam remains a non-issue this election. CL Ruala, the Congress candidate says that the famine does not feature in the party manifesto because its repercussions are limited. C Rokhuma, founder of the Anti-Famine Campaign Organization, believes that Mizoram is a victim of politicised and badly tackled hunger. “The 2007 mautam was manipulated by politicians,” he says. “They let people starve and then brought rice for them from outside, so as to be seen as solving their problem.”

The snag in approaching hunger as a famine-like phenomenon is that the solution is often short-sighted. The Central government accumulates an emergency stock of food grains by buying directly from farmers, a cache meant for famine relief. It has been hoarding this for so long that it now has four times the required stock. As development economist Jean Dréze puts it, if these sacks of grain were lined up in a row, that array of futile, wasted food would stretch for more than a million kilometres, to the moon and back. Grotesquely, though India has the largest unused stocks of food in the world, it also has more people suffering from hunger than any other country.

ALOOK AT the states that have lost the most people to starvation — Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Orissa — reveals a more silent and misunderstood killer: chronic hunger, the kind that is caused by an utter disability to buy any food. With no land to grow food on and no earnings to buy even subsidised food, families grow hungrier by the generation.

Kalahandi in Orissa has become an icon of Indian poverty. Visited repeatedly by Congress bigwigs and development journalists, the district still remains an unfortunate, living stereotype. A ricesurplus district, yet a district with one of the highest mortality rates (140 per thousand) in the country. The poorest state, yet one voting for 27 crorepati candidates, seven of them from the hungriest Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region.

When the residents of Pengdusi village in Kalahandi are asked what they do for a living, one man bursts out laughing, “We’re boatmakers, fishermen or farmers. At least until we become patients.” In September 2007, 16 people died of diarrhoea here in just 15 days, most of them adults. No one was taken to the hospital because it is 45km away, and there was no bus, no ambulance, and no road. “If you fell sick in this village, you died,” says 30-year-old Madan Nayak, who lost his wife and, one day later, his one-month-old daughter. Diarrhoea is the most common symptom of hunger death — a body’s final rejection of any food or water, an inability to digest anything because of being unfed for too long. Even today, the Primary Health sub-Centre set up 5km from the village following media and NGO pressure, lies locked, with no doctor or health worker appointed. Two years after people died of neglect, no lessons have been learnt.

Yet, instead of despondence, there is still talk of political change. “We all campaigned for Pushpendra Singh of the BJD in the 2004 assembly elections, because we thought he would help us get our BPL cards,” says Haladar Majhi, “But after he won, when we went to remind him of his promise, he asked us who we were.” This year, the popular parliamentary candidate seems to be the Congress’ Bhakta Charan Das, the first politician to visit the village at its worst time in 2007. “He came on a motorcycle, with a doctor riding pillion,” says Haladar, “He ensured that the road is paved. He responds to us, at least for now.”

NEARBY, PREDOMINANTLY tribal Kashipur has been facing the wrath of failed crops. Everyone seems to be at work in lush paddy fields for most of the day, but in their homes, there is commonly just half a pot of dilute rice gruel for a family of five for three days. It is a simple difference between the haves and the have nots. In the last 50 years in Orissa, big farmers have been buying fertile land and cheap labour for throwaway prices. Adivasis work for foodgrains on lands they once owned. When there is no harvest in the rainy season between May and October, they find themselves jobless and too poor to buy even the Rs 2 rice from ration shops. Those with a few acres of land manage for a month or two before hunger strikes them too. Everyone seems to have an NREGA card, but instead of a guaranteed 100 days a year, people in Kashipur get an average of 20 days’ work. Most of that is unpaid.

The staple diet is mango kernels, which lie drying in front of every house. They will be ground and eaten, even though it was these very poisonous fungus- ridden kernels that caused rampant diarrhoea a year ago. “We know this isn’t very good for us,” admits Kaluna, who now raises four children belonging to her sister who died of starvation last year in Kashipur. “But there’s not enough farm produce,” she says. “We need something to quieten the growling stomach.”

The still-robust will to vote among the most neglected is striking. “In the absence of food, land, work, and good health, my vote is the only privilege I have left,” says the 67-year-old Dhiru Kaka, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and wife to starvation last year in Kashipur, Orissa. Playing with his voter ID card is his 2-year-old grandson, the only family he has left. When Dhiru Kaka made the trip to the polling booth on April 16, it was to cast his vote for the 17th time. “At least for a few months after the election, the winning politician will bring us food,” he says, hugging his grandson. “That is the best we can ever expect.”
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