Praying for food security

"IT IS because you did not pray fervently enough that the rains have failed." Thus spoke the District Collector of Palamau, according to the starving Bhuiyans of Bhakasi village in Jharkhand, when he visited them a few weeks ago. Leaving aside the relevance of prayers, one is entitled to ask why a short spell of dry weather should trigger a wave of extreme hunger and even starvation deaths. This aberration highlights the continued absence of any social arrangements for food security in large parts of the country.

The extreme vulnerability of the Bhuiyans and other marginalised communities in the area begins with the absence of agricultural land, which has been monopolised by the privileged castes. In Bhakasi, the Bhuiyans have been shoved on a sandy hillock, where their precariously perched huts overlook vast expanses of fertile land belonging to other people. Some of them officially received tiny amounts of land many years ago, but never managed to take possession of it.

The next cause of vulnerability is unemployment. In ordinary years, landless families in Bhakasi supplement their meagre earnings from agricultural labour with wage employment outside the village, as and when opportunities arise. With the stagnation of rural employment, however, the competition for urban employment is becoming more and more intense, and the frail Bhuiyans often return empty-handed from their seasonal wanderings. In Bhakasi itself, the kharif crop failed this year because of a local drought obliterating whatever little employment might have been available at this time. Even chakora, a local spinach on which many survive during the monsoon, is now exhausted.

Rajmatia Devi, a mother of five, quietly told me how she feeds the family in ordinary times. "We need one and half kilos of rice for a full meal," she said; "instead, I cook one kilo and save the rest for the lean season." In other words, she considers herself lucky when there is one kilo of rice in the pot for seven persons.

Because the Bhuiyans live from hand to mouth at the best of times, a brief spell of drought was enough to push them in a dark trap of starvation, indebtedness and further destitution. When I visited Bhakasi on October 12, late in the afternoon, many of them had not eaten anything that day. In lane after lane, the situation was much the same: bare houses, cold hearths, listless children. The plight of the elderly people, particularly widows, was pathetic. Bigni Kuar, an elderly widow who lives alone, was lying on the floor of her bare hut, tormented by hunger, unable to move.

A brief review of local food security schemes quickly revealed that the Bhuiyans of Bhakasi do not enjoy any state support worth the name. Here, as elsewhere in Jharkhand, the public distribution system (PDS) is more or less non-functional. According to a recent analysis of National Sample Survey data, only 20 per cent of the grain released through the PDS in Jharkhand reaches the intended households — the rest is sold on the black market. Only four out of about 100 Bhuiyan families have Antyodaya cards, and even they are routinely overcharged by the local dealer.

The performance of the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (SGRY), the main plank of employment generation in rural areas, is no better. The scheme was introduced with much fanfare in mid-2001 in response to growing public criticism of the Government's failure to make constructive use of its gigantic food stocks. It was supposed to generate 100 crore person-days of employment a year. On the ground, however, SGRY works are as conspicuous as a needle in a haystack. Recent field investigations shed some useful light on the problem: funds are under-utilised; whatever work takes place is often mechanised; and the muster rolls are massively fudged. At the end of this long chain of looting and fudging, actual employment generation is negligible.

In the case of social security schemes such as the National Old Age Pension Scheme (NOAPS), the main problem is not so much of corruption as limited coverage and lack of funds. According to local officials, 2,421 applications for old-age pensions are pending in Lesliganj Block, where Bhakasi is situated. As the quota of 1,663 pensions assigned to the block is fully utilised, new pensions are sanctioned only when a former pensioner dies. Assuming a mortality rate of 50 per 1,000 among the elderly, this means that a new applicant would have to wait for about 30 years for a pension.

Last but not least, virtually nothing has been done to protect children from hunger. Despite strict Supreme Court orders, the Government of Jharkhand is yet to introduce mid-day meals in primary schools. The ICDS programme, for its part, was derailed earlier this year by the discontinuation of CARE's controversial donations of genetically modified food. Sattu and gur are supposed to replace the earlier fare, but the supply is highly erratic and local anganwadis are bare.

The present approach to food security reminds me of the District Collector's touching faith in prayer. Food is sent down the system as in a dark hole. There are virtually no accountability mechanisms, except for reams and reams of inaccessible records. At the receiving end, hunger-affected families have no idea of their entitlements, no power over the intermediaries who are supposed to help them, and no means of seeking redress when they are short-changed. There is no hint here of a serious effort to protect the right to food, let alone the right to adequate nutrition implicit in Article 47 of the Constitution.

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