|India: Politics of
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - At least 40 tribals, most of them
children, are said to have starved to death over a span
of a month in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. It
is a situation of the cruelest irony for even as the
death toll from starvation mounts and hundreds waste
away without food to eat, India’s granaries overflow.
It was a probe by the People’s Union for Civil
Liberties that uncovered the horrifying details of the
starvation deaths in the Baran district of Rajasthan.
Cultivation has ceased here for the area is reeling
under its fifth successive year of acute drought. The
local tribals have been reduced to dire poverty.
Desperately short of food and driven by hunger, the
tribals have turned to eating a wild grass called
sama. This grass is hard for humans to digest. As
a result, the tribals, especially children, have
developed severe digestive ailments, resulting in death.
The starvation deaths in Rajasthan are a replay
of a similar tragic story that unfolded in
poverty-stricken Kashipur in the eastern state of Orissa
last year. There, tribals driven by poverty and unable
to buy even the subsidized rice provided through
government ration shops were forced to eat fungus-ridden
As the starvation deaths in
Kashipur hit the news, the Orissa government claimed
that those who died were victims not of starvation but
of their tradition of consuming mango kernel and boiled
grass even while grain is available. The truth was that
the tribals were forced to eat the poisonous kernel for
want of an affordable choice.
In Rajasthan, the
government is now claiming that the tribals prefer
eating wild grass and that the deaths were caused by
poor hygiene and disease. Government officials are busy
defining starvation to prove that these were not
starvation deaths. A starvation death is when there is
no food material in the stomach, and government
officials shamefully point out that the victims had
eaten grass. Whatever the spin, it is hard to deny that
the deaths were hunger-related.
deaths in Kashipur and Baran are just the tip of the
iceberg. Hunger is widespread in India. It is said that
at least 50 million Indians are on the brink of
starvation and over 200 million Indians are underfed.
This, when a 60-million-ton surplus of foodgrains is
rotting in various government warehouses in the country.
That so many are hungry despite overflowing
granaries is a damning indictment of the government’s
public distribution system (PDS). The PDS is a network
of about 460,000 ration shops across the country through
which grains, sugar, cooking oil and so on are sold at
However, most of India’s poor,
such as those who starved to death in Orissa and
Rajasthan, cannot afford to buy the grains even at these
subsidized rates. Many of them do not possess the Below
Poverty Line (BPL) cards that entitle them to purchase
at subsidized rates in ration shops. In several cases,
the desperately poor have mortgaged their BPL cards to
moneylenders or local traders.
process of identifying the poor is severely flawed. An
article in Outlook magazine points out that in Dharavi,
Asia’s largest slum, situated in Mumbai, just 151
families are identified as BPL. Millions of poor across
the country are categorized in government records as
Above Poverty Line (APL).
Food policy experts
say that the pricing of foodgrains for APL and BPL
categories is far too high. They have pointed out that
the price of grain is sometimes cheaper in mandis
(local markets). Consequently, the PDS grains have few
takers and state governments have been unwilling to lift
the grains they are allocated. This means that
foodgrains in government warehouses remain unutilized.
Because of poor quality and inadequate storage
facilities, millions of tons of foodgrains are eaten up
by rats or simply rot.
According to Planning
Commission statistics, a third of the surplus food
stocks (31 percent of the rice, 36 percent of the wheat
and 23 percent of the sugar) in the government
warehouses that is meant for the PDS is siphoned away by
a nexus of politicians, officials and traders into the
black market. One study indicates that 64 percent of
rice stocks in Bihar and Assam, and 44 percent and 100
percent of wheat stocks in Bihar and Nagaland
respectively "disappear" from the PDS.
several government relief schemes for the rural poor.
Reporting from Baran, Bhavdeep Kang writes in Outlook,
"Given the large number of central and state food aid
schemes, it is hard to understand why the Sahariyas [the
tribe that has been worst hit by hunger and starvation
in Rajasthan] are in the plight they’re in today. There
are special provisions for the old, infirm, pregnant and
lactating mothers, school-going children and infants.
There are food-for-work programs run by the village
panchayat [village-level government] to provide
employment. Even the World Bank sponsors a poverty
alleviation scheme in the district. On paper, no one
needs to go hungry. Ground reality is starkly
Many of the central and state
government aid programs are not being implemented, Kang
points out, adding that no effort is made to monitor
While the failure of the
PDS has often been attributed to corruption and poor
implementation, P Sainath, author of the book
Everybody loves a good drought writes that the
PDS has "wilted under policies aimed at dismantling it.
Part of the 'doing away with subsides' theme." He calls
for examining the issue of hunger-related deaths against
a larger canvas of the string of anti-poor steps taken
by the government post 1990.
Sainath argues that
while the government is cutting down on subsidies to the
poor in the country and denying grains to them at prices
they can afford, it is subsidizing the export of wheat
by over 50 percent. "The export price of wheat is even
less than the BPL rate of that item in many states.
India is exporting lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of tons
of rice at Rs 5.65 a kg. In Andhra, a government sells
rice to people in drought-hit regions at Rs 6.40 a kg,"
he points out.
It is not without significance
that hunger-related deaths and poverty-related suicides
in rural India have mounted dramatically since 1990,
when the Indian economy started liberalizing. Equally
telling is the fact that it is in the states of Andhra
Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra - the states where
World Bank policies have been implemented most
diligently - that the number of poverty-related suicides
have mounted most dramatically.
deaths at Kashipur prompted the Indian Supreme Court to
direct the government to "devise a scheme where no
person goes hungry when the granaries are full and lots
are being wasted due to non-availability of storage
space". The court had asked the government to open the
public distribution shops in the areas worst hit by
hunger in order to make food available to the poor and
A year on, the starvation deaths in
Rajasthan indicate that the government has done little
to address the problem - and now the issue has taken on
Opposition leader president
Sonia Gandhi said at the weekend that the central
government had not done enough for the state.
Criticizing the "insensitive attitude" of the
center toward extending help to states, Gandhi said "the
chief ministers of the states and myself had gone to the
prime minister [Atal Bihari Vajpayee] seeking central
assistance in August this year, but instead to acting
positively the government is playing politics.
"We had asked for special assistance for the
drought-hit states, but our pleas went unheeded. We
shall now take up the matter in parliament," she said,
adding that drought was a serious problem that needed
the greater attention of the government in New Delhi.
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