Nandurbar 2

9,000 Kids Starve to Death in Shining, India

“There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men.” —Proverb 30:14 by Balakrishnan

The Times of India, Monday 5 July 2004, by S. Balakrishnan

MUMBAI: One of India’s most prosperous states has revealed a horrifying underbelly. More than 9,000 tribal children below the age of six have died of mal nourishment-related causes in 15 districts of Maharashtra in about a year.

Government statistics released on Monday acknowledged the deaths in these areas, some close to the country’s ritziest metropolis, Mumbai, occurred between April 2003 and May this year. Between April and May this year alone, 1,041 children have died. The toll until April was 7,970. The state’s top health official said, however, all the deaths were not related to malnutrition. “There are a variety of factors, including low birth weight, jaundice, convulsions, hypothermia and premature delivery,” said state’s director, health services, Dr Subhash Salunke.

These figures have emerged out of a survey conducted by the government to map the extent of the problem. In April-May ’04, 807 children have died in the five districts of Thane, Nasik, Amravati, Nandurbar and Gadchiroli alone. Dr Salunke sought to downplay the shocking statistics by observing the number who has died from less than 2% of the tribal child population. He said the government was tackling the “socio-economic component” of the problem by treating adolescent anemia and other factors. According to UNICEF figures, about 2.3 million children under the age of five die annually in India, half of these deaths due to malnutrition. A rough calculation shows Dr Salunke’s figure for Maharashtra’s tribal children is roughly seventeen times the national average.

The president of the Association for Consumer Action on Safety and Health, Dr Arun Bal, squarely blamed the government. “There is enough evidence to prove these deaths are because of malnutrition. But the government is attributing the deaths to the effects of malnutrition, not to malnutrition per set.

It is like saying a man has died of diabetes, whereas the real reason lies elsewhere. The situation is the same whichever party is in power,” Dr Bal told TNN. “The fact is the health bureaucracy is both apathetic and corrupt. Crores of rupees meant for tribal uplift are pocketed by the bureaucracy. Health activist Dr Abhay Bang (of tribal-dominated Gadchiroli district) has proved how these deaths can be prevented in a cost-effective manner. The government simply lacks the will to tackle the problem,” Dr BAL observed. “It is sheer nonsense on the part of the government to say it is sending doctors to tribal hamlets. The problem is one of accessibility to food and affordability. But no party is interested in addressing this core issue,” he said. SOURCE: The Times of India, Monday, July 05, 2004.

Why India remains a land of starving millions in 2018! 

BEFORE sitting down to write this I spent some time watching what was happening in the Lok Sabha on the second day of the monsoon session. The first day ended up in disorder and adjournments because the opposition wanted a discussion on prices under a rule that allows an adjournment motion. The Speaker refused to suspend Question Hour so the opposition MPs continued making a racket and both houses ended up adjourned. Usually, it appalls me to see any kind of ‘hungama’ in Parliament because as the country’s highest law making body I think our MPs should be discussing matters of vital national importance in calm and measured tones instead of shouting and screaming and walking out. This time I sympathize with the opposition parties and very much hope that they succeed in forcing the government to answer why prices of food grain continue to rise when millions of tons of food grain are rotting in the monsoon rain.

Food grains rotting

This probably happens every year and has probably happened for many years but those were years without private news channels and Doordarshan would never dream of doing anything that would incur the disapproval of government. Things have changed and this year almost every news channel has carried pictures of grain rotting in the flooded fields of Punjab and Haryana.

According to an official of the Punjab government 49,000 tons of wheat, bought three years ago, have rotted because it has been stored in the open under tarpaulins instead of in proper warehouses. And, this is not the whole horrible story. Another 17.8 million tons of grain could rot before the Monsoon is over because it is being stored in the open. Last week the Supreme Court said, ‘In a country where people are starving, wastage of a single grain is a crime. It has come out in official records that food stock is lying wasted… wheat is rotting. Why not come out with a proposal to immediately distribute food commodities, lying in godowns riddling with lack of storage space, to the Below Poverty Line families?’

Why not is an excellent question that the Prime Minister has failed to answer along with many others relating to the appalling record of those who have been given charge of India’s food security. When Sushma Swaraj and Mulayam Singh Yadav linked this criminal wastage to price rise in the Lok Sabha, I found myself hoping from the bottom of my heart that they would expand the debate beyond scoring political points on price rise. If they restrict themselves to shedding crocodile tears for the ‘aam aadmi’ because he has to pay more for wheat, rice and kerosene, they would have lost an extraordinary opportunity to bring vital changes in India’s food policy that should have been made decades ago.

Ever since my reporting career began in the seventies there have been complaints about ration cards and the public distribution system. In those bad old times the situation was so grim that Bollywood films routinely showed as their biggest villains, the hoarders of food when times were hard. After the economic reforms in the nineties things improved marginally because healthy competition made hoarding difficult and food grain more available despite the fact that there have been no reforms in the agricultural sector. But, private enterprise has not been allowed into agriculture except in a limited way, so there are no private warehouses or private grain markets. If there were, then it can be said with certainty that food grain would not be rotting in the rain because the owner of a private warehouse would make sure that his grain was not being eaten by rodents. His business would collapse since rats do not pay for their food. But, the mighty and criminally wasteful Food Corporation of India could not care less if food grain was eaten by rats because as a government agency this makes no difference at all. The officials who run our state controlled food chain get paid their salaries even if they allow millions of tons of grain to rot in the rain.

The opposition parties need to use their newly found unity to demand that private investment be allowed in the agricultural sector. At the very least they must demand that if the Prime Minister cannot do this on account of the ‘socialist’ nature of his government, then he must ensure that grain does not rot in the open. Why are there not enough warehouses? If three years ago there was more food grain procured than government warehouses could store, why were they not built? And, if there was not enough money to build them then why was the grain not transported to villages in which half of India’s children starve? In my view, the most shameful statistic about India, one that never fails to make me cringe, is that 45 per cent of Indian children are malnourished. In a country in which millions of tons of grain rot.

Child malnutrition

The most heartrending stories I have covered in more than thirty years of journalism have been about children starving during a drought. Nobody who has looked into the eyes of a child dying slowly of hunger can forget the horror of it. Only our officials have hearts so hardened by greed that they can even steal from funds meant to prevent child malnutrition.

A few years ago in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district, I did a TV programme on children dying of malnutrition in Adivasi villages. More than 9,000 children died that year. They were starving not just because their parents were too poor to give them more than one meal of watery gruel a day, but because of government policies. Under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), starving children were entitled to Rs.40 worth of food a day. But, their parents could only get the money when they were on the verge of starving to death. The starving children would then spend a few days in the hospital in Akkalkuva, eating four healthy meals a day and when they recovered their health would go home to starve again.

Think of the insanity of such a policy. If the money had been invested instead in free kitchens in the villages the children would not have starved in the first place. But, those who make grandiose plans for the ‘aam aadmi’ sitting in distant Delhi have little idea of ground realities. This is why half of India’s children are malnourished. This is why millions of tons of food grain rot in the open and this is why India remains a land of starving millions in 2010.