Friday, Jul 12, 2002
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EVERY NOW AND then India is brutally reminded that its citizens can still die of starvation. A year after starvation deaths were reported from Kashipur in Orissa, come reports of similar deaths from Palamau district of Jharkhand. Now as then, the poor in the area had been surviving by consuming herbs and leaves collected from the wild before their wretched lives were finally brought to an end by starvation. This is a complete failure of governance in the most fundamental sense. If the past is any guide, then the final outcome of this episode will be that a period of political and public anger will end once again with governance returning to its normal state of inadequacy and public concern returning to its usual insensitivity. The ebb and flow of the agenda on the most basic of rights, the right to food, has been demonstrated so clearly in the past year. The Government's food mountain of 60 million tonnes was the focus of public discourse after the Kashipur deaths in August 2001, but the issue quickly faded from the public consciousness even as grain continued to accumulate in godowns. The crime of allowing even one death due to starvation is as serious today as it was a year ago, perhaps more, considering that Government food stocks on June 1 were as much as 65 million tonnes compared to 61 million tonnes at the same time last year.
The country can claim that there is no mass starvation, though it does not need mentioning that malnutrition remains a major problem. Starvation, however, is a constant threat in parts of eastern and central India as also in remote pockets in other States. That deaths due to starvation occur only in a few areas and that too not regularly is hardly defensible on moral or administrative grounds. It is precisely the remote, the poorly-endowed, the backward and the regions where work is scarce that should be the focus of (Central and State) Government attention. In Manatu block of Palamau district, where starvation deaths have been reported, citizens' groups have through a detailed survey brought out that the public distribution system (PDS) is more absent than present. The Supreme Court may have directed in November 2001 that all States should institute the national mid-day meal programme in schools by January 2002, but the scheme is non-operational in this area. In Kusumatand village where three people died of starvation, no resident had received any grain under the below the poverty line scheme of the PDS. And allocation through the Antyodaya programme, which provides grain at highly subsidised prices to the poorest of the poor, was lower than the norm and those lucky to hold these cards were paying much more than they should have. Clearly, while the Central and State Governments may announce any number of welfare programmes, these either do not exist on the ground or are a source of corruption in the very areas that they are needed the most.
A number of attempts have been made over the past year to tinker with the PDS. This has taken the form of either formulating new schemes (such as Antyodaya) or rolling back some of the more extreme decisions of the past (such as raising prices for the non-poor to open market levels). From the narrow point of containing the bloating of food stocks, some of these measures have helped at the margin. But for these and other steps such as the sale of grain at subsidised prices to exporters, stocks would today have been closer to 75 million tonnes. While the financial costs of ever-increasing food stocks do have to be dealt with, there is a larger social responsibility as well. This is where both the Centre and the Government of Jharkhand have exhibited a colossal failure by having access to millions of tonnes of food and yet being unable to provide grain to people for whom this is a matter of life and death.
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