Case studies

Print edition : January 15, 2010

I. Udutha Radhakrishnamurthy, a 45-year-old weaver of Gollapalli village in Guntur district, died of starvation on September 4, 1991 one of the first weavers of the area to die, indisputably, of starvation in the current period. Radhakrishnamurthy and his wife had been engaged by a middleman to weave shirting material at the rate of Rs.100 per pacham (24 metres). Combining their labour, they were able to weave between three and four pachams a month, bringing home the meagre income of Rs.300 to Rs.400 for a family of six. In rural Andhra Pradesh the poverty line is reckoned to be Rs.125 per person a month; Radhakrishnamurthys family therefore required an income of at least Rs.750 to keep itself at subsistence level. In reality, family income was 50-60 per cent below even this minimum level of consumption. Then came a body blow, in the shape of the Union Budget of July 24, 1991. The price of yarn, already on the rise over the past few years, jumped dramatically and the burden of this increase was passed on to the weavers. The per pacham rate payable to Radhakrishnamurthy and his wife was cut from Rs.100 to Rs.80; family income fell to Rs.240 to Rs.320 a month, 60-70 per cent below the minimum level of consumption.

The local Sub-Collector, anxious to deny the reality of a starvation death in his jurisdiction, claimed that Radhakrishnamurthy could not have perished through lack of food because his family, just nine days earlier, had purchased 20 kg of subsidised rice rations. In fact, of course, the family had been forced to take the step adopted by thousands of impoverished families across India: it had pledged the family ration card to a neighbour, in this case for the paltry sum of Rs.10. This was because the family had not the ghost of a chance of raising enough money to buy its 20 kg rice ration on a single day as per the requirement. It could use the Rs.10 to buy one-and-a-half kg of rice in the open market.

PARVATHAMMA, WHOSE HUSBAND Radhakrishnamurthy died of starvation.-

The breadwinner of the family is Raghavammas son, a weaver called Koteswara Rao. About 10 years ago, Koteswara Rao had been the owner of a 4-cent micro plot of land, and had also been able to procure a government loan of about Rs.4,000 to build a small house. He had agreed to pay back the sum on a monthly instalment basis. Then things began to go off-track. A combination of family crises and larger economic trends worked steadily to undermine the familys modest and precarious security. Koteswara Raos wife suddenly required surgery and, to meet the expenses, the weaver sold three of his four cents of land. Repayment of the housing loan Rs. 50 a month became increasingly difficult as the price of yarn rose, the quantum of work dwindled and family income declined. Following the recent sharp increase in yarn prices, Koteswara Raos monthly earnings plunged to about Rs.250 way below the poverty line income of Rs.875 for a family of seven living in rural Andhra and by subsisting on food purchased at todays prices.

The pathetic shopping list of edibles purchased by Koteswara Raos family in the month of September adds its own testimony to the growing body of evidence on starvation deaths. The food bill totalled roughly Rs. 225. The family diet is completely starved of vegetables and dal, not to mention fruit and milk. At the time of her death, Raghavamma was subsisting on a meagre portion of rice flavoured by tamarind and chilli. Koteswara Rao, in pain from a hernia which requires speedy surgical attention, labours on to support his depleted family.

II. Radha, who lived in Epurupalem village in Prakasam district, was just 25 years old when she died of disease and starvation on September 24. She was married to Thumma Rathaiah, a 30-year-old weaver with a pathetic tale of poverty, helplessness and misery.

Not so long ago, Rathaiah and his family had been weaving 4 pachams of 60-count saree material a month, earning about Rs.360 from this laborious, unremunerative work. Inevitably, the family got into debt. About eight months ago, Rathaiah, attempting to make good the loans, sold his loom for Rs.375 (its real price was probably closer to Rs.1,000) and took to warping for a wage of Rs.15 a day. Then the couples three-year-old son fell seriously ill and had to be admitted to the Guntur General Hospital. To meet the expenses of the little boys three-month stay in hospital, Rathaiah mortgaged the familys thatched hut.

When he got back to work after the family crisis, Rathaiah found himself unable to get warping work on a regular daily basis; the glut in the handloom market had reduced the demand for labour. Radha, malnourished and in a weakened, distressed condition, now came down with tuberculosis and was admitted to the government hospital at Chirala. Her husband, fighting an uphill battle to feed his aged parents and convalescing son, was simply unable to bring her food and she subsisted on the glass of milk and loaf of bread supplied by the hospital. Radhas condition deteriorated and on September 24 she died.

Angry weavers bore Radhas body to the Guntur-Chirala road at Epurupalem, where they held up traffic for two hours to protest against the inadequacy of the medical treatment Radha had received and the indifference of the government to their plight.

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