The spectre of starvation

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Good rainfall has turned the landscape green in Orissa's Kashipur block, but the lives of its poverty-stricken people remain steeped in despair.

"Orissa has received a few hundred crores of rupees in aid and welfare projects in the last decade or so. But don't ask what happened to the money... 90 per cent of it was swallowed by the local politicians and bureaucrats. This State has never seen good governance, and corruption is rampant here."

- Rabindranath Tagore, a former Assistant Registrar of Cooperatives, Orissa.

"I cannot force somebody to eat one thing or another; and I can't change people's eating habits. If they prefer to eat mango kernel, which often becomes infected with fungus, what can anybody do? But I agree, poverty is rampant here."

- Bishnupada Sethi, District Collector, Rayagada.

"Just because we like the taste of mango kernel or imli ka dana (tamarind seeds), it doesn't mean that we prefer to eat that instead of rice. You people like pickles with your food; but can you eat pickles for an entire meal?"

- An unlettered woman of Dikaral village in Kashipur block of Rayagada district, Orissa.

"And, some of them even had a bank balance."

- Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, citing the result of an "investigation", which, he said, had shown that foodgrains were found in the homes from which starvation deaths were reported, and blasting the media for misrepresenting facts and spoiling the image of the country.

WHILE the rest of the country debates on whether the recent spate of deaths reported from Kashipur block of Rayagada district in Orissa can be classified as "hunger deaths" or not, many of the 31,000-odd families of Kashipur continue to exist in sub-human conditions. Chief Minister Navin Patnaik visited some of the villages concerned about a month after the deaths were reported. He made yet another round of the villages on September 14, this time accompanied by Union Food Minister Shanta Kumar.

In its April 29-May 12, 1989 issue, Frontline published a report and a set of photographs from the drought-affected villages in Koraput, Kalahandi and Bolangir districts. They presented a picture of stark poverty. Those faces, the despair in those eyes - what a visitor sees today is strikingly similar to them. The question is, has anything changed in this area in the past 12 years? The Food Corporation of India's (FCI) godowns might be overflowing but in the villages of Kashipur hungry people desperately gulp down gruel prepared with fungus-infested mango kernel or inedible mushrooms.

If at all there is any change, it is that the drought has ended, with the villages receiving good rainfall. The mountain brooks in the undulating terrain are swollen, and the foliage looks fresh and rich green. But the rain has hardly helped. Irrigation facilities are absent. Certain areas have been waterlogged and the paddy crops have turned yellow.

A tribal woman drying her limited supply of ragi.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

As for the number of deaths, the figures given by the Rayagada District Collector and the local people differ. The villagers say that more than 70 people have died owing to hunger and malnutrition but Bishnupada Sethi puts the figure at fewer than 20. These deaths, according to the Collector, are owing to "either food poisoning or natural causes". Sethi says: "A two-year-old child in a village died because it was not getting milk. Then, in some villages, people have died from old age or other natural causes. But I agree that poverty in this area is not only abject, it is visible too."

The district's medical personnel, latching on to the technical definition of 'starvation', argue that the stomach of a starving person would be devoid of any food but in some of the cases post-mortem showed that the stomachs had some remnants of food.

Of course, technical definitions do not take into account mundane facts - for instance, that a starving person would eat anything to douse his or her hunger, be it infected mango kernel, indelible mushrooms or plain grass. In many homes, foodgrains are indeed available. But is the supply sufficient to meet the family's essential nutritional needs? About 15,000 families of Kashipur have the BPL (below poverty line) status. Each BPL family is eligible for 16 kg of rice at Rs.4.75 a kg every month. The Collector admits that this quantity is not sufficient to feed an entire family.

In homes where sufficient foodgrains - broken rice, ragi, maize or other millets - are not available, the women have no option but to use limited quantities of grain. This writer saw a woman washing hardly 200 grams of broken rice to prepare a gruel with mango kernel for a joint family of eight.

At Panasaguda, a tribal woman with empty pots.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

Take the case of Almey Majhi, a 60-year-old woman in Bilamala, about 55 km from Rayagada. It is more than a month since she lost her husband Sadho Majhi, two sons and a daughter-in-law. The woman is inconsolable. She cannot bring herself to utter a single word. Nor can her surviving daughter-in-law, Sulmey Majhi, who is left with three little girls, the youngest one hardly six months. Ranjan Kumar Kar relates the story of how death knocked at her doorless hut on August 8.

On that day, the women prepared a thin gruel by boiling some millets with mango kernel. (The kernel is kept for a day under flowing water so that its bitterness is removed. It is then dried and stored either as a whole or in a powdered form. Being kept in mud huts that do not have doors or windows, this "food" gets infested with fungus in the rainy season. Such mango kernel, instead of sustaining life, can end it.) The gruel was eaten by the family and the only one who escaped the severe bouts of vomiting that followed was Almey Majhi. All the five sick members were taken to the primary health centre at Tikiri. "There was no doctor there. So the compounder gave some medicines and asked us to take them to Kashipur," said Kar.

At Kashipur, the doctor had gone away to watch a television programme and returned only in the evening. Some treatment was given in the meantime. But by then the condition of the patients had become serious. They were asked to be shifted to the district headquarters hospital at Rayagada. Sulmey was the only one to survive.

People in the village and Almey's relatives from other villages scraped together the money that was needed to transport the sick to Tikiri, Kashipur and Rayagada. When Almey's 30-year-old son died, it took Rs.3,500 to bring his body back to Bilamala. "The district administration gave Rs.20,000 to the family, but more than half of it is gone in repaying the debts incurred on transport and on completing their last rites," Kar said.

A group of tribal people, with baskets containing mango kernel.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

Kar is sorry that when Navin Patnaik visited Almey's home and asked her repeatedly what he could do for her, she could not respond. "She kept crying and couldn't say anything, and missed an opportunity to get some land or a job for Sulmey."

Throughout the conversation with this writer, Almey wept quietly. There was neither shouting nor ranting. Her two little granddaughters do not leave her side for a moment. Their young sibling is at the breast of the mother, who was also in tears.

Rabindranath Tagore, who has become an activist after taking voluntary retirement from government service several years ago, points out that the tribal women in this belt work extremely hard, in the fields as well as in their homes. But a major chunk of their income is frittered away on alcohol and beedis by their menfolk. Often, men opt not to work, even when work is available.

SEEING our car and mistaking us for yet another group of 'VIPs', many villagers move forward to complain that they have not got the BPL ration cards yet. Nor do they get any employment under the food-for-work programme. Tagore explains that developmental and welfare schemes have not helped change the miserable lives of the Adivasis living in this belt.

Tagore says: "Union Food Minister Shanta Kumar said that food security is the government's top priority and announced a scheme, the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, under which the BPL families will get 25 kg of rice at Rs.3 a kg. But the problem is that many of the tribal people have mortgaged their BPL ration cards for sums as paltry as Rs.50 or even less. Even those who have the cards cannot afford to lift 25 kg, paying Rs.75, on a single day. So they will either borrow money from moneylenders (who will allow them to keep hardly 5 kg, take away the remaining 20 kg and sell it at Rs.7 or 8 a kg) or buy 3 or 4 kg and the shopkeeper will sell the rest in the open market."

In village after village - be it Dikaral, Panasaguda, Bilamala or Tikiri - the story of misery is the same. Rice is clearly a luxury and people would eat it only if they can afford it. The next best is coarse grains like ragi or even bajra and maize. Some tribal families do own land but, as the Collector points out, 70 to 80 per cent of it is high land, which yields "little or nothing".

One does not require any medical expertise to diagnose chronic malnutrition. It is evident enough in the frail bodies and gaunt faces of the adults, the distended bellies of the children, and the despair in the eyes of all of them.

The media have been squarely blamed. Sethi accuses them of being "unethical". "You cannot write on deaths in Kashipur sitting in Bhubaneswar or Rayagada as some journalists have done," he says bitterly. But media scrutiny and governmental response in the form of welfare schemes such as the food-for-work programme have brought back the smiles in at least a few villages.

For instance, in Panasaguda, where some starvation deaths have taken place, the freshly laid-out main road can easily take on four-lane traffic. This is because of the employment programme launched by the district administration under which one male and one female member of every household in the village have been pressed into service to make roads in the villages.

"We get Rs.40 a day for this work and our families are able at least to eat some decent food," says a beaming villager. By the side of the road there is a group of men sitting and smoking. In the distance and against the backdrop of the hills, several women can be seen carrying headloads of materials for completing the road. One can only hope that the wages they get will go towards meeting the nutritional and other needs of the family and not spent on alcohol.

Dut Duriya, a Bahujan Samaj Party member from a panchayat near Tikiri, says that such welfare schemes, which are often launched at the time of distress, will not last. "This is one big show. Because of media reports people are getting phokat ka khana (free food). But for how many days can any government feed us? We want stability and dignity. Give us work and not charity," he says.

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