Food for thought

With “Ash in the Belly”, Harsh Mander analyses hunger in a country where availability of food doesn’t always translate to accessibility. Shalini Shah speaks to the author

January 23, 2013 08:03 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:17 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

A child eats mid-day meal at a Hyderabad school.

A child eats mid-day meal at a Hyderabad school.

“When the wailing of infants gets too much, we lace our fingertips with tobacco or natural intoxicants and give our fingers to the babies to suck. We give them cannabis or khaina or cheap country liquor. It helps them sleep even with nothing in their stomachs. If they are small, we sometimes beat them until they sleep. But as they grow older, we try to teach them how to live with hunger… Because we know hunger will always be with them…”

The tale of a group of Musahar women in eastern Uttar Pradesh is one of many that Harsh Mander narrates in his new book Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle Against Hunger (Penguin Books). Member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), and Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, Mander, through the book, attempts to look at the concept of ‘hunger’, its causes, effects and possible solution — the Right to Food law that could deliver food to the most destitute and disadvantaged groups in the population.

Interspersed with the analysis are stories of people experiencing hunger on a daily basis, gathered by the Centre for Equity Studies through a study in eight villages in Odisha, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. Stories that, according to the author, “constantly challenged his detachment.”

While the first draft of the book was completed in June 2010 itself, it had to be revised to incorporate the implications of the convening of a working group of the NAC to draft a national food security law.

“I struggled a lot, I think, with the format of the book because I wanted to combine the analyses with the stories of people living with hunger. How to intersperse the two structurally, getting the balance right, took me a while…” says Mander over the phone.

Hunger is looked at from different perspectives — from the “impression of plenty” created despite the neglect of the agricultural sector, to the neo-liberal economists who see it as a problem of supply that can be bridged through imports should the need arise; the attitude of governments and NGOs that seek to provide nutrition to women solely based on the latter’s role as procreators; the interference of caste in mid-day meals in schools where upper-caste parents are opposed to Dalit cooks, and where Dalit children get inferior or inadequate food; the consumption of “pseudo-foods” like thol and kusum (wild fruits) and sama (a poisonous wild grass) that fill stomachs but have no nutritional value; outdated famine codes; economics, where powerful biscuit lobbies try to push for discontinuation of freshly prepared mid-day meals in schools (an effort scuttled, thankfully, by widespread outrage); and urban poverty, to name a few.

There is also an observation on the role of the media in covering hunger when the damage caused is not something as cataclysmic as mass starvation or as final or dramatic as death, what Mander describes as the “fickle arc lights of the national media”.

“When loss of life begins and when there are large food shortages, the media makes a noise and reports it. But somehow endemic hunger, ongoing hunger…does not capture the attention of the media. They’re generally exiled more and more from mainstream media reporting. Also, how they report it; the dignity of people who live with hunger and destitution, to see them as human beings, to see them as worthy individuals in their own right.” There is, he says, a certain degree of “normalization of hunger”, where it is not considered worthy of reporting or attention.

Also, the State has been largely let off the hook with its role changing from providing a better life to the disadvantaged to promoting growth and investment, he says. “That enormous change in our idea of what government is, is also something we need to pay attention to… It’s interesting to see that the government of Gujarat has moved one sort of people thinking it’s the best government in the country, to some people believing it’s the worst, and it is really because the parameters that we’re using are very different in both cases.”

The provisions to be included in, and left out of, the Right to Food Bill, have been looked at — the scope of the bill, the feasibility of a universal PDS, ensuring sustainable availability of food alongside State provisioning of food. And the author questions, “But how much can you load on to a single law?”

“Once the idea of the bill came into the public domain, the unpacking of the idea of the bill was extremely complex, diverse and interesting. I tried to capture some of that in the book because there are countries in the world which have included the Right to Food in the Constitution, like South Africa. It is not enough to say that every citizen has the right to food. What are the barriers to a man, a woman or a child or a person with disability? Therefore, one of the problems of the Bill is the complexity and the diversity…What the bill actually does is procure food for people who are without food, procure subsidised food grains through PDS, through the mid-day meal, or cash transfers. That’s one idea of the bill. Some are of the opinion that the bill should also talk of the production of food and its threats, that we should include farming, agriculture, etc. To that extent I felt the bill should restrict itself to the issue of distribution and the State’s duty,” explains Mander.

“The thing I’m arguing in the book is one has to understand the paradox in India. The paradox is that countries which do not have the kind of capacities that our government has, have actually done better than India in terms of reversing malnutrition and battling hunger. I see it as a failure of government and the product of economic policies. But I’ve also seen it as deeply related to India’s many inequalities, like gender, caste, communalism, disability, which are neglected. I think a lasting solution to hunger would require tackling all the groups.”

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