Sonia anguished over starvation deaths in Rajasthan

MOUNT ABU (RAJASTHAN) NOV. 9. The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, today expressed anguish over the death of children in the Congress-ruled Rajasthan State, reportedly due to starvation. "It is a matter of anguish that these deaths have taken place,'' she said, stating that " the State Chief Minister has set up a high-level commission to enquire what exactly had happened."

Ms. Sonia Gandhi, however, partially shifted the onus for the poor nutritional levels in certain parts of Rajasthan, experiencing the fifth consecutive year of drought, on the Centre. "Rajasthan asked the Centre for 56 lakh tonnes of grains under drought relief but it was given only two lakh tonnes, which is a pittance considering the requirement."

``How insensitive the Centre can be,'' she asked? While pointing out that she had gone to meet the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, in August along with the Chief Ministers of the drought-affected States. The party would take up the issue in the next session of Parliament.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the media interaction Ms. Gandhi had today, at the end of the two-day conclave of the party Chief Ministers here, was the barrage of questions on the recent reported starvation deaths in the Shahbad-Kishenganj Adivasi belt in Baran district of the host State, Rajasthan. From her response it was obvious that she had been briefed adequately on the issue.

"Rajasthan has been facing serious problems after four successive years of drought. The reports said the children had consumed certain poisonous seeds, which had led to the deaths. However, it has been found now that these seeds — a variety of millet — are eaten by the Saharia tribal community and also by people of the cities on certain religious occasions. The seeds are sold in the market also,'' Ms. Gandhi said.

It was obvious that the detailed explanation on `Sama', the seeds of which, were the issue of contention, was to counter the charge that the poor had resorted to eating "grass".

Unlike in her opening address the previous day, Ms. Gandhi, today came down heavily on the Centre, blaming it for discriminating the Congress-ruled States. "The Centre is indulging in this sort of politics,'' she charged. Andhra Pradesh, like Punjab in the past, got a better deal from the Centre, when it came to relief assistance. "The sufferings of the people are the same everywhere whether it is Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan or Punjab," she said.

At the end, it looked as if the harried Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, came out rather unscathed in the two-day conclave on the issue of the starvation deaths.

The catchword seemed to be cooperation among the Congress -ruled States in sharing resources to help their brethren in crisis. Ms. Gandhi's opening address the previous day also had an appeal to all the Congress Chief Ministers, as well as a pat on the back for the Punjab Chief Minister, Amrinder Singh, for his early assistance of grains and fodder to neighbouring Rajasthan.

Interestingly, the defiant stance taken by the Congress president coincided with a directive from the Rajasthan Governor, Anshuman Singh, after his rather unusual step of visiting some villages in Tonk and Jaipur districts today, to inspect drought relief. The Governor had asked officials to take immediate steps to provide succour to the affected people.

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