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  • Winter of death

    More than 1000 people died due to the unprecedented cold that enveloped the northern region of the country this year. Those died were so poor that they could not afford either warm clothes or a shelter. Experts now tell us that the cold is only a precipitating factor. The real reason for the deaths is hunger and long-term malnutrition that deplete the body of all but the minimal strength to survive. Exposure to extreme cold or heat is the last straw and the malnourished body can no longer hold out.

    The daily wage-earners are over-worked and undernourished with the result that their bodies do not have the reserves of fat to serve as a shield against extreme weather conditions. In the event these deaths are categorised as ‘hunger deaths’ they will be a continuation of the starvation deaths in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Jharkhand of the past few years.

    That so many people are dying for lack of food when the nation’s godowns are overflowing with grain is not only a national shame but a searing indictment of the country’s rulers. Indeed, it is an indictment of all of us who can pressurise the policymakers to take the right decisions, but have not as we have become morally so lazy that we refuse to get involved in matters of national importance. On the one hand, we have the politics of hunger preventing food reach-ing the poor.

    On the other, we have a famine of commitment among those who can lend their voice to the mute demand made by millions of hungry people across the country to enable them to earn so that they can buy food for their family and themselves. The facts of the global food situation tell a tragic story.

    According to the UN, 800 million people across the globe suffer from chronic hunger. Half of them are in South Asia, the largest number being in India. Hunger stalks particularly the most vulnerable of the people, namely women and children. Statistics tell us that three-fourths of all starvation deaths are those of children (the other one fourth being of the old and the infirm). Hunger is a more dangerous and relentless killer than any war or conflict: one person dies of hunger every 3.6 seconds in some part of the globe.

    Hunger amidst plenty

    India has the largest percentage of hungry people in the world. Twenty-two per cent of Indians, that is 220 million, do not have enough to eat. As many as 40-60 per cent of Indian children are under-nourished. Some 60 per cent women are anaemic and victims of diseases arising from it. Mothers and sisters, wives and daugh-ters give up their share of food to the men in the house due to the social conditioning that males are indispensable.

    As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen points out, the paradox is that there is hunger amidst plenty. As much as 59 million tonnes of foodgrain is rotting in godowns, draining the State exchequer of resources for storing the grain stocks for the past five years while the poor are dying for lack of one meal a day. It is not out of place here to compare the poor in India with the poor in the US.

    It is not out of place here to compare the poor in India with the poor in America, a land of plenty. The US grows 40 per cent more food than it needs and yet 31 million Americans live off the State. As many as eight million of these are children. According to an estimate, the world has never before produced so much and ironically enough, never before has there been such widespread poverty, so many famines (especially in sub-Saharan African countries), so many people dying of hunger and thousands others suffering from pangs of hunger as they do not have enough to eat.

    As the campaign for Right to Food, taken up for the first time in India by the voluntary organisations in Rajasthan, gained momentum, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court that was partly responsible for the Supreme Court’s landmark directive to the Central Government to lower the PDS prices and to the State Governments to implement the mid-day meal scheme for school children to protect them against hunger and disease.

    The programme has begun to be implemented almost unwillingly, especially in Andhra Pradesh, the latest one to begin school meal programme. Despite implementing the scheme on a trial basis in a handful districts, the scheme was ridden with problems when it was launched across the State in January 2003, after postponing it several times. Hundreds of children had to be hospitalised with food poisoning as the conditions in which the food was cooked, stored and served were insanitary and the already malnutritioned children did not have the capability to fight the infection.

    Food was served in insufficient quantity and a few days after the programme began the State Government appealed to the people for contributions as it did not have enough funds to continue with the programme.

    Priority displacement

    And yet the Government is spending a few thousand crores to make the State a tourist destination in co-operation with various international airlines and the hospitality industry. Clearly, the priority of the Government is not the weak and the hungry, as mandated by the Constitution, but the rich and the powerful.

    As part of the campaign, several public hearings were held to highlight the citizens' right to food, to expose the corruption in the administration and to pressurise the Govern-ment to act to do its constitutional duties. The culmination of this campaign of public hearings was in Delhi to which Amartya Sen was invited. Fully supporting this method of focussing attention of people’s issues, Prof Sen said public action should not only pressurise the Government into doing its duty but also the citizens into helping themselves in giving themselves an accountable Government.

    In the case of the media, starvation deaths attract instant attention but once they cease, they disappear from the TV screens and the front pages of newspapers. The tragedy of millions of people going to bed without having eaten a meal, millions suffering pangs of hunger or millions wasting away slowly, is not either stark enough or explosive as a happening and so is not news. The wide prevalence of malnutrition remains invisible and its insidious ill-effects on women and children remain unrecognised. It is time the Govern-ment included fighting malnutrition as an objective of its food policy.

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