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Chronic Hunger

Print edition : Apr 23, 2010 T+T-
in Palamu

Last summer, about 150 families of Kachan village in Jharkhands Palamu district decided to pool funds to repair their only community tube well. A drought, the worst in many years, had dried up two ponds; there were no wells around; and the tube well had been dysfunctional for a year. It took a lot of hardship and one whole month for them to put together what the mechanic had asked for Rs.60. Prabhawati Devi, a resident of the village, said, Some of us did without food for days. All of us had to work for extra hours to manage that amount. It was all to no avail, however. The mechanics verdict was that the low water level had caused a major jam and that it would take another Rs.1,000 to set it right. The tube well remains dry as the village residents recount their helplessness.

Kachan village in Palamu districts Chainpur block is also a place where children die of malnutrition. Over the last few years, at least 12 children have died of starvation. When Nepali Bhuyians three-year-old daughter died last October, doctors reported that she died of poisoning caused by some leaves that her parents had cooked for her. There was no food, so they had gathered the leaves from the forest to feed her. It was the first time they were trying these leaves.

This year, a family in Chorhat, another village in the same block, is in a similar situation. Patiya Devis six-year-old daughter, Surti, crawls instead of walking because her legs cannot bear her weight. The childs stomach is protruding, her head is slightly deformed, and her legs are reed thin. Her mother says the family does not even have one proper meal a day. Most mothers in the village complain that they do not have enough breast milk to feed their children. Most residents report that almost every household has lost a child under the age of six. Malnutrition of Grades 3 and 4 is common. (Grade 1 is the mildest and Grade 4 is severe.)

It is not just two villages that are in this desperate situation. In 2009, a survey done by Vikas Sahyog Kendra, an organisation based in Palamu, revealed that in 20 villages surveyed, there were 13 starvation deaths and around 1,000 families suffered from chronic hunger syndrome. The NFHS-2 in Jharkhand puts the crude birth rate (CBR) at 26.5 and IMR at 70 per 1,000. The percentage of underweight children under the age of three is 54.4. Extrapolating this information in numbers, of 713,088 live births each year, 49,916 infants die before they reach their first birthday. This figure does not take into account the deaths of children into their second and third years. According to the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India, New Delhi, more than 10 lakh children under the age of three in Jharkhand are underdeveloped and malnourished. According to NFHS-3, the percentage of highly anaemic women and children is particularly high in Bihar and Jharkhand (around 70 per cent). To top this, Jharkhand also has an abysmally low rate of institutional delivery, much lower than the national average of 40 per cent.

Last years drought was only an aggravating factor for the chronic hunger in these villages but not its cause. Chronic hunger is a routine thing in this part of Jharkhand, populated mostly by Chero, Bhuyian, Kherwar and Oraon tribes. The region, which includes Palamu, Latehar and Garwa districts in western Jharkhand and East Singbhum district in south-east Jharkhand, together put up the worst indices of hunger and socio-economic security.

According to a report on the State of Food Insecurity in Rural India prepared jointly by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in March 2009, Jharkhand has replaced Orissa at the top of the list of the countrys hungry States. The report, which is a corollary to the Food Insecurity Atlas of Rural India released in 2001, also ranks the country 94th on the Global Hunger Index of 119 countries. According to the report, almost two-thirds of rural households in Jharkhand do not have access to safe drinking water.

The Supreme Court in PUCL vs Union of India and Others in 2001 prescribed norms to implement food security through seven different schemes and not just the public distribution system, though it is the most important one. These were the ICDS, the midday meal scheme, the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, the National Old Age Pension Scheme, the National Maternity Benefit Scheme, the National Family Benefit Scheme, and, of course, the PDS.

In Jharkhand, the implementation of all these schemes seems to be at its worst. Justice D.P. Wadhwa in his Central Vigilance Committee report had said that the PDS in Jharkhand was a glaring example of what the system ought not to be. Most of the provisions are siphoned off before they reach the villages. In most of the villages that Frontline visited, the households had not got more than a total of 12 kilograms of grain in a month, whereas they were supposed to get 35 kg. The anganwadi centres and maternity benefit schemes had long stopped working. Panchayat elections have not been held in the State after 1978, when it was a part of Bihar. While Bihar under Nitish Kumar is preparing for its second local government elections, political instability in Jharkhand comes in the way of such initiatives in that State. This has led to extreme centralisation of governance, not just making the various schemes inefficient but creating a situation where no one can be held accountable for abuses of the system.

For instance, old-age pension funds, ideally, should be distributed through panchayats, but the Block Development Officer (BDO) must see to it when there are no panchayats. This leads to practical problems. People from far-off villages have to commute through difficult hilly terrain to get their funds from the block office. They often fail to make the trip, and even if they do they might encounter a BDO busy with other tasks and have to wait a long time. Chainpur block has 1,47,000 families, 182 villages and 35 panchayats but to manage them there is one BDO, six supervisers and only a few permanent government employees. A few have been hired on contract, Deputy Commissioner of Palamu Amitabh Kaushal said.

The function of issuing job cards under the MGNREGA also falls to the BDO in the absence of gram sabhas. This puts pressure on the thin bureaucracy, leading to structural failures. The situation has produced a new class of mediators, generally from the higher and richer castes, between the villages and the district administration.

James Herenz, a right to food activist, said, The growth of naxalism [Palamu has been the hotbed of Maoism in Jharkhand since the early 1990s] in the area had changed one social equation. It drove off the rich landlords to the cities and removed the upper castes from the seats of power. But the old equation is reinforcing itself in different forms as the various food security schemes are being controlled by the higher castes from the towns.

Amitabh Kaushal said, There are two important reasons why the food security schemes are not being implanted properly. First, there is inadequate supply of foodgrains through the PDS. Secondly, the thin bureaucracy leads to a lower level of monitoring, which leads to lower quality in implementation.

Most government officials say that these regions are inaccessible because of the presence of Maoists. However, villagers and right-to-food activists say that the Maoists have never come in the way of health and anganwadi workers or PDS officials. One senior official said, We have to work on a static population according to the 2001 Census. It is for that population that we get resources and funds to implement the schemes. However, the population has increased almost twofold in the last 10 years. Add to this, we have very low infrastructural growth to manage food security schemes in the area.

Going by the 2001 figures, too, there are many families that have been left out of food security schemes. For instance, according to the figures revealed at the review meeting between the district officials and Chief Minister Shibu Shoren on February 16, Palamu has 237,337 rural households [94.06 per cent of the districts population] but there are only 204,391 job cards. In the whole of Palamu, there are 1, 87,512 BPL households, that is, 79 per cent of the districts total population.

The forests in the area are dying out because of illegal smuggling of timber, leaving the villagers bereft of their traditional sources of food. As a result most of the villagers have switched to just cooked rice as the daily meal. Earlier they used to raise crops like the millet kutki, which took less water to cultivate. They grew it in 15 to 20 days. That was more nutritious than their present diet. But the governments encouragement of cash crops and grains like rice left the tribal people in despair as they could hardly accumulate resources to grow rice or any other cash crop. In the present food pattern, their meal contains only carbohydrates and no other nutrients, and this leads to acute malnourishment, Herenz said.

On February 12, the district administration opened a malnutrition treatment centre at the Chainpur Primary Health Centre. Such centres have been opened in the adjoining districts of Garwa and Latehar, too. We have started with five beds, and the child would be treated for 15 days and the mother would be paid Rs.100 a day. If we find this successful, we will expand its reach. We hope that anganwadi workers, local health workers [sahiyyas] and the auxillary nursing midwives monitor the villages and bring the extremely malnourished children to the centre, the district civil surgeon, Kaamendra Singh, said.