Starvation deaths in Andhra Pradesh

Print edition : January 15, 2010

AS you drive along the roads of Guntur and Prakasam districts of Andhra Pradesh, never very far from the bustling city of Vijayawada, the paddy fields stretch away, lush and green, to the horizon. The verdant landscape affirms that it has been a good year for agriculture in coastal Andhra, one of South Indias most fertile and productive regions. And, one assumes, it has also been a good year for the local people.

But if you stop at any of the weavers hamlets or colonies that dot the landscape, the story you will hear is very different. It is a story of narrowing options, desolation and despair and, increasingly, of death. Reports of starvation deaths and of suicides triggered by sheer desperation are currently filtering out of the area with disquieting regularity. While officialdom may quibble over what exactly constitutes a starvation death (Did not the victims family draw its rice ration a few days before the death? Did not the stomach of the deceased reveal some remnants of nourishment?), what is clear beyond dispute is that the weaving community of this relatively prosperous accessible region of Andhra Pradesh is today trapped in an acute and deadly crisis.

Many weavers and their families, already existing below the threshold of poverty, seem poised to descend beyond the point of physical survival unless intervention is decisive, large-scale and immediate.

FOR THE HANDLOOM weavers of Prakasam and Guntur districts survival itself is a delicately poised matter. An old woman and a young boy work on a jacquard loom.-H. SATISH

Frontlines case studies point to three broad conclusions. First, the general conditions of life of the weavers of Guntur and Prakasam districts are so desperately low that survival itself is a fragile, delicately poised matter. It is therefore meaningless to pose the clinical question whether deaths such as those investigated by the Frontline team are technically starvation deaths. Here, weavers subsist on painfully low levels of nutritional intake; they have access to very poor health care facilities; their weakened bodies are susceptible to all manner of infections and diseases which work to reduce further their physical well-being. Any crisis a family problem, a reduction in income is certain to accelerate the downward spiral, further lowering nutritional intake and reducing the body to the threshold of mortality. The final cause of death may be an infection; it may be something else.

The second point from the Frontline case studies is that none of the survival strategies normally resorted to by people in crisis appear open to the Andhra weavers. For those who seek to migrate to nearby towns, there are simply no jobs.

Thirdly, Frontlines case studies suggest that recent Central and State government economic measures, especially those adopted by the Central government in its 1991-92 Budget, have in effect tipped the weavers over the edge. The sharp increase in yarn prices that followed the Budget has perhaps more than any other single factor precipitated the current crisis.

This is no crisis affecting some outback, some peripheral section of the people and the economy. Weaving in India provides employment to the largest number of people in any sector other than agriculture; there are an estimated 3.5 million handlooms in the country, supporting roughly 17 million people. Of this, Andhra Pradesh has an estimated 525,000 handlooms on which some 2.5 million people subsist; nationally, it ranks next only to Tamil Nadu as a handloom-weaving State (with an estimated 556,000 looms and 2.8 million people).

As yet, the unfolding tragedy of Andhras weavers has stimulated no meaningful or sensitive response from the government, whether at the Central, State or local level. On the contrary, the governmental emphasis is on assuring the world that Andhras weavers do not starve and that this seasons bountiful harvest does not coexist with death by starvation.

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