Succour for the starving

Published : Jul 02, 2004 00:00 IST

Apart from immediate relief measures such as the opening of gruel centres, long-term measures to provide food security are essential to ensure that starvation deaths do not occur.

in Nalgonda

THE pathos of Darawath Kamili (32), a tribal woman, Bangaru Ramachary (45), a carpenter, and Ganji Yadagiri (42), a handloom weaver, is identical in many ways.

They were engaged in agriculture and allied activities until 2001, when a series of droughts started and forced them to look for other means of livelihood. They were unable to keep the wolf from the door and the severe trauma of this experience and the malnourishment caused by abject poverty finally resulted in their death after brief spells of illness.

Family members, neighbours and friends termed their passing as "starvation deaths", but the district administration concluded firmly that they had died "due to illness".

Nalgonda district, known for the famous Telangana peasants' armed struggle, has been in the news in recent times for all the negative reasons - a dangerously high fluoride content in groundwater, the sale of girl children, `countless' sunstroke related deaths and a drought that has had a devastating effect on marginalised sections of the population such as agricultural labourers, rural artisans and tribal people.

The district has a population of 32.4 lakhs, of which 28 lakh people live in the drought-affected rural areas. At least 3,73,183 families live below the poverty line; 1,80,414 of these can be categorised as the poorest of the poor. The Scheduled Tribes, who constitute 9.7 per cent of the population, are bearing the brunt of the unprecedented drought conditions.

Kamili's case is a classic example of the impact the prolonged drought has had on the downtrodden sections and demonstrates the fallout of the official way of dealing with things. According to K.R. Venugopal, special rapporteur of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Kamili, the sole bread-winner in a family of four in Lal thanda (village) in Mathampally mandal, died of hunger on February 10.

Acting on a report that appeared in The Hindu on February 18 titled, `When death stalks thandas', the former Indian Administrative Service officer visited the village on February 24 and conducted an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the death. After interacting with many tribal people, including Bhukya Kanta, a fellow migrant of Kamili and a witness to the happenings prior to her death, Venugopal submitted a detailed report to the NHRC stating that the incident was an instance of the violation of the right to life.

Further, the tribal people told Venugopal that between June 2003 and January 2004 six persons, including Kamili's brother Banawath Peeka, had died of starvation.

But the district administration did not take cognisance of his report. Instead, it filed a case against the local fair price shop dealer for his failure to disburse rice to the tribal people and suspended three revenue officials for failing to supervise the distribution. A report sent by the district administration to the Chief Minister's secretariat stated: "Non-supply of rice was nothing to do with Kamali's death".

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Cherupally Sitaramulu, who investigated the death of Yadagiri of Kattangur, asserts that the latter died from starvation. "He had no food for the five days prior to his death (May 16). The severe slump in the industry made him jobless," Sitaramulu said. "As many as 11 weavers in Pochampally, Siripuram, Koyyalagudem, Kattangur, Munugode and Nakrekal died of hunger-related ailments in the last two years," he pointed out.

District Ryothu Sangham (District Farmers' Association) secretary Bontala Chandra Reddy said: "The officials may write off our version citing ridiculous reasons, but our inquiries made it clear that at least seven starvation deaths occurred in Bhongir, Huzurnagar and Garidepally mandals in recent times."

Drought has become a perennial feature of life even in the Nagarjunasagar ayacut area, where ryots prospered from cultivation. Farmers from the non-ayacut areas do not have any problem in seeking alternative employment during the rainy season, but the comparatively prosperous ayacut farmers consider it below themselves to look for other sources of livelihood.

Says Venepalli Panduranga Rao, the Alagapada village sarpanch who caught media attention by holding a referendum in the village on his style of functioning: "If the rain plays truant this season too, we are going to witness starvation deaths en masse in the ayacut area. The lives of farmers are in the hands of the rain gods." According to him, farmers in drought-hit villages can afford only one meal a day because of financial troubles that resulted from consecutive crop failures. Some farm labourers in Settipalem village endorsed the statements of the sarpanch. One farmer warned: "The situation is alarming. One can see that at weddings and other social gatherings, where food is served, there are big crowds nowadays. Thousands of lives will be at stake if emergency drought relief measures are not taken up."

In the absence of a social security system, and owing to the failure of the administration to detect scarcity conditions and spot the needy, hunger-related deaths are occurring at regular intervals in the district.

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government of the day claimed that it had distributed a whopping 1,65,668 tonnes of rice under the food-for-work programme over the past two years and that 45,252 persons had been covered under the Antyodaya Anna Yogana scheme since March 2001. However, there are allegations that most of the rice stocks were appropriated by TDP leaders and cadre.

Says K. Nageswar of the Journalism Department at Osmania University, Hyderabad: "As the noted economist Amartya Sen observed, what causes hunger in India is the widely prevalent poverty and inability of a large section of the population to buy enough food or establish entitlement over an adequate amount of food. Nalgonda is turning out to be a classic case for persistent undernourishment and endemic hunger."

According to Julakanti Ranga Reddy, the CPI(M) MLA elected from Miryalaguda, where hundreds of daily-wage workers have been rendered jobless because of a crisis in the region's rice mills, people who suffer the most are those who are disinclined to migrate to other places in search of work. "The agricultural labourers and others belonging to the weaker sections, who are not venturing to migrate, are suffering silently. In fact, they are dying owing to mental trauma rather than physical ailments," he observed.

Taking up land reforms on a war footing, completion of hitherto neglected irrigation projects, modernisation of lift irrigation schemes, effective management of the Krishna waters, and the opening of trauma care centres are some immediate steps that have to be taken. More important, gruel centres should be opened on a massive scale. Although the supply of free power and the waiver of power dues have brought some cheer to the farmers, the government should come out with a concrete plan to save landless agricultural labourers, rural artisans, tribal people and other vulnerable sections from the jaws of death.

The State government should order a probe into the starvation deaths and implement a package to provide succour to the bereaved families. A drought management mechanism should be kept ready to meet any exigency in the near future.

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