Hunger and democracy

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

The political economy of food in Adivasi societies of the Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi region of Orissa.

A STARK image, reflecting little glory on Indian democracy, was that of Orissa Chief Minister Navin Patnaik asserting that the tribal people of the State were dying not because of starvation, but because of their ignorant and backward habit of eating poisonous mango kernels; that it was not the lack of food, but ignorance that was killing them. This attitude of Patnaik and his ministerial colleagues brings into sharp focus the callousness of the rulers. But they have been unable to shift public attention away from the grossly flawed food policies, whose worst effects are now being felt in Orissa. The media gave voice to this by advertising the fact that 40,000 tonnes of paddy was rotting in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) while poor farmers and Adivasis in western Orissa were starving.

While growing public outrage may compel the government to introduce some short-term relief measures for the Adivasis, the problem of a dysfunctional food distribution system is only the tip of the iceberg. It does not touch the core of the problem that lies in the structural changes in Adivasi society and economy in the last 50 years that have destroyed the food and livelihood security of these regions. More recently, the crisis of Adivasi survival has been further deepened by the policies of structural adjustment adopted by the Union government with the endorsement and support of a large part of the political and business elite. Perhaps, that is why the media do not seek the answer for inconvenient questions. For instance, why does a rice surplus district like Kalahandi have one of the highest mortality rates (140 per thousand) in the country and the most frequent instances of starvation? Or why are predominantly tribal districts, such as Sarguja in Chattisgarh or Mandla in Madhya Pradesh, vulnerable to chronic disease and malnutrition despite their rich forest, mineral and agricultural resources? The answers to these questions are disturbing for the sections that dominate Indian democracy. This is because any long-term remedy for the situation would require the reversal of the policies impacting on natural resource management and agriculture, particularly the policies initiated since the liberalisation process. In this sense, the hunger of the Adivasi areas is a phenomenon that has a systemic link with the suicides of small farmers in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and recently Karnataka.

THE spectre of starvation in western Orissa has its roots in the rising inequalities within the agrarian regime. Fundamental changes have plagued the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) belt since the late colonial and early post-colonial period. The first scarcity conditions were seen as early as 1954-55 and thereafter there was hardly any decade without a scarcity, the worst one being in 1965-66. But despite these conditions a report on paddy production in Orissa recorded that Kalahandi had 118,731 tonnes and Bolangir 66,036 tonnes of surplus paddy. Between this period and the 1990s, rice production in the KBK area suffered while the production of oilseeds, along with pulses, reached a new high. These are points made in Bob Currie's The Politics of Hunger in India, which also shows that paddy may have been replaced by ragi, a subsistence crop of Adivasis and other small farmers.

Changes in the cropping pattern within Adivasi areas are evident in Chattisgarh also. In the post-1991 period, an area, which has over 10,000 indigenous varieties of rice, has been busily engaged in the promotion of soyabean as a crop with major potential for rise in productivity. These changes have been prompted by the sharp rise in the price of soyabean in the world market. Facts such as these bear out Utsa Patnaik's thesis that liberalisation will lead to a shift to commercial crops and therefore a contraction of the area under subsistence and food crops.

These phenomena are not merely a result of the liberalisation process, but also an impact of the Green Revolution on Adivasi areas. Because these areas provided cheap land and labour, the shift to cash crops also implied that big farmers came from outside, bought tribal land and made the Adivasis work on their farms as cheap labour. For instance, there was an influx of Punjabi landholders into the heavily forested area of Shivpuri in western Madhya Pradesh. Some of these farms (owned by prominent bureaucrats and freedom fighters) were built on land bought from the Adivasis at throwaway prices in the late 1960s, which then put the same Adivasis to work as landless labourers. Such a differentiation is also evident in the KBK area where there was a sharp increase in the number of landless labourers and small and marginal farmers. Between 1971 and 1991 the number of marginal farmers with landholdings of less than one acre increased from approximately 17 per cent to 39 per cent of the total agricultural workforce, whereas the number of large farmers (owning above 10 acres, or four hectares) declined in the same period from 4.7 per cent to 0.9 per cent. However, the most stark trend was the decrease in the importance of the middle peasant (four to 10 acres of land) from 30.4 per cent to 9.9 per cent during the period. Since the number of small peasants (owning one to four acres of land) did not increase in the same proportion as the decline of the large and middle peasantry, it can safely be assumed that many of the medium farmers may have been reduced to landless peasants or marginal farmers. In this context, the work of Currie as well as the fieldwork of Gail Omvedt in 1996 shows that most Adivasis and Dalits (comprising about 47 per cent of the population) have been divested of "good and fertile" lands and have become marginal farmers or labourers. In contrast, the low lands with high productivity and fertile lands are controlled by fewer than 10 per cent of the people, most of whom are non-Adivasi absentee landholders.

THE pauperisation of Adivasi peasants has had a detrimental impact on the livelihood security in Adivasi areas. Most Adivasis survive on a combination of forest gathering and farm labour for work. They also form a major part of the workforce in the mines. But most of this work is seasonal in character, and migration out of the areas is not uncommon. In times of scarcity and drought the rate of this migration increases manifold. This season, 21 out of 30 districts were under severe drought in Orissa and consequently the number of migrants was estimated at 100,000. Chattisgarh too witnessed its worst drought in the last 50 years and activists estimate that a large part of the population has left the region. But these were not the only regions that suffered the drought. Then what makes these predominantly Adivasi and Dalit areas prone to migration and starvation?

The answer to this question can be found in the precarious livelihood strategies that are dependent on seasonal work. For example, most Adivasis collect tendu leaves for 40 to 60 days a year and work on the lands of the big farmers during sowing and harvest time. For the rest of the year they may work in the mines or go off with the contractors for construction work, or simply send one member of the family to the town to find work. After the regular tendu work is over, people walk a distance of 350 km from Mandla all the way to the mines in Bastar to get seasonal employment that earns them between Rs.2,000 and Rs.5,000 over a three- or four-month period. From Kalahandi young men go to Raipur and pull rickshaws. The people of Chattisgarh make up a large portion of the manual labour force of the big cities. If they stayed back and remained dependent on seasonal work, they would earn a pittance, barely enough to make both ends meet, leave alone save for a bad day. On an average, a woman worker in Kalahandi gets Rs.5 a day for weeding while a man gets 5 to 6 kg of rice. For sowing and harvesting they may get anything from Rs.30 to Rs.40 a day. Small and marginal farmers are forced to do distress sale of their paddy at as low a price as Re.1 to Rs.2 a kg in order to buy essential commodities. As far as tendu work is concerned the story is much the same. P. Sainath, the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought, has shown how difficult it is for a beedi leaf collector to make more than Rs.30 a day, even after collecting 100 bundles of leaves. These facts make one wonder whether there is any way at all of enforcing minimum wages and support prices for the poor.

THE lack of purchasing power to buy food even at the public distribution system (PDS) rates and the distress sale of whatever food surpluses exist are the main reasons for the starvation deaths in the KBK region. This is true because the trader-government nexus determines the entire network of grain procurement and distribution. For example, the peasant gives his rice to the merchant at Rs.2 a kg and the merchant sells it to the FCI at the minimum support price. When they need to buy food in times of scarcity, peasants buy rice at double the price. The Targeted PDS (TPDS) is one of the worst targets of this nexus. A survey done in Kashipur in Koraput district following reports of starvation deaths showed that the poorest tribal families were declared above the poverty line even as a clique of local government and traders siphoned off the grain that was supposed to be distributed to below the poverty line (BPL) families under the TPDS scheme. This is even more shocking when one considers the fact that the number of BPL cardholders outstrips the number of registered BPL families by 8.5 lakhs in Orissa.

The lack of food supply through the TPDS is compounded by the fact that Adivasis have no rights in forest lands that used to provide them food and shelter in times of distress. Adivasi oral traditions from many areas in eastern and central India recount how mahua tree or ripe fruits, seeds and leaves from other plants were an essential dietary supplement, especially in times of famine. The denial of rights in the colonial and subsequently post-colonial period was motivated not only by the need to maximise revenues from forest timber, but also to harness forest produce for industrial purposes. Of these, mahua and mango kernel were some of the most valuable species in the KBK area and were therefore appropriated by traders and the state. The Adivasis were only included in the system as labourers who had no rights over the produce and would be paid less than the minimum wage for the collection of the mahua seed or the mango kernel. In the KBK area the "legal traders" buy mahua seeds for Rs.2 to Rs.3 a kg whereas the actual market rate is Rs.6.50 a kg. Some cases have also been reported where women labourers barter mahua and mango kernels for a small amount of salt. Given this desperate situation, it is not surprising that the only food the local Adivasis can have access to at the time of scarcity is poisonous mango kernels and roots (kanda).

THE problem of hunger and malnutrition in Adivasi areas is clearly linked to the inequalities and threats to livelihood security in these regions. They are also accentuated by the lack of proper infrastructure and services, most of the benefits of these being appropriated by richer farmers and traders. In this context, the solution of providing food for work or free food would only take care of the immediate needs of the Adivasis, but will not provide a long-term solution. The prevention of starvation deaths in the Adivasi belt requires the integrated development of the region. Jagdish Pradhan, of the Paschim Orissa Krushijeevi Sangh, voices the same sentiment when he argues that the main issue in the KBK belt is the lack of attention to local systems and conditions by the government. If this problem is to be tackled, then we need to look seriously at the government policies and programmes that define the people's access to their local resources. So far few steps have been taken in this direction. The enormously funded Orissa Hunger Project is mainly using the oft-failed but popular official strategy of distributing high-yielding seeds and "educating the people" in "improved technology" for better agricultural production. It is promoting potatoes and giving credit to farmers for growing vegetables in the area.

There is rich irony inherent in the effort to teach methods of agriculture to a people who have for decades produced surplus foodgrains. New crops are being promoted under the garb of people's welfare (through self-help groups and other such methods) without looking at the totality of their possible impact on the ecology and economy of the region. The strategy fits in well with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's statement in Haryana a few months ago that the farmer has to adjust and respond to the growing pressures of the world market. He should do this by producing less food and more of other crops, especially with the removal of quantitative restrictions under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime. Only then, says the Prime Minister, will we be able to benefit from the free market. Experience clearly shows that this strategy is only likely to increase the misery of 90 per cent of the people and produce more hunger. To remove hunger we need true economic democracy: a strategy that promotes redistribution of wealth through land reforms, rights of ownership in forest produce and decent labour rates. We also need people's institutions to monitor schemes and programmes (as in the case of community-based PDS), creation of community infrastructural assets (maybe local watersheds through food-for-work programmes) and mechanisms of value addition at the local level. In short, we need a structural adjustment in favour of 90 per cent of the population, and especially in favour of the Adivasis and Dalits.

Archana Prasad is Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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