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The living dead

Print edition : Apr 06, 2007 T+T-

Weavers are starving,children are dying and there have been reports of suicides. But the administration seems to be in denial mode.

ANNIE ZAIDI in Varanasi

"It's really very simple, Governor. When people are hungry, they die... ."

- Bob Geldof on famine relief in a conversation with the Deputy Governor of the Eastern Region of Sudan in 1985.

SIMPLE enough. Yet the State of Uttar Pradesh does not seem to have quite understood the connection between hunger and death. The crisis brewing in its belly, which the State has not acknowledged publicly so far, has claimed hundreds of lives already.

One of them, nine-month-old Seema, died in July 2006 at Belwa village in Varanasi district. Her grandmother Manni Musahar said they had nothing to eat and no money. Seema's mother Lakshmina tried to barter her wedding sari for grain. But before that her baby died. The sari had to be pawned anyway, for Rs.100.

Manni makes pattals (plates made of dry leaves stitched together with strips of bamboo) for a living. A hundred plates sell for just Rs.20, and even that depends on whether there is a wedding or death feast in the area. She broke down while telling Frontline how she has to climb trees to pluck leaves. "My legs tremble. And I have fallen and broken an ankle once. But this stomach forces me to go on. There used to be a time when we were paid in grain. That was better. The price of food rises, but the prices of the pattals do not."

Manni has neither the widow's pension she is entitled to nor an old-age pension. She does not have a ration card either, and depends on her son, who lives separately, for foodgrains, which he buys on his family ration card.

Her loss and her story are multiplied several times over in the village. Chandrika had to climb trees and pick leaves barely three days after she gave birth to her daughter. The baby died before she could be named and was barely a month old. She had earlier lost her son Monu. Five children died at Belwa between May and September last year. Many more may have died but for the intervention of the People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR), a Varanasi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). It has documented 174 hunger-related deaths in eastern Uttar Pradesh; some of them committed suicide, while others died of starvation. Two years ago, 18 children of the Ghasia tribe died at Raup village in neighbouring Sonebhadra district. The residents have erected a `martyrs' memorial' and taken a pledge to prevent starvation deaths.

That is what State governments pledge to do, but the government in Uttar Pradesh remains unmindful of this promise. Apparently, the Musahars are the worst sufferers. In Sarain village, Varanasi, many families in the Musahar basti have been given above-poverty-line yellow cards and some have no card at all. The village does not have an Anganwadi centre either. Belwa, thanks to media attention and pressure from the Asian Human Rights Forum, got an Anganwadi centre in January. However, the residents say children are still not weighed and malnutrition levels are not monitored.

According to the third National Family Health Survey, in Uttar Pradesh at least 47 per cent of all children up to the age of three are underweight and at least 14 per cent are "wasted", which is worse than the 11 per cent recorded in the previous survey.

A paper presented to the National Advisory Council in 2004 states that in Uttar Pradesh only 18.6 per cent of children between three and six years of age have been enrolled in the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) centres. Among the poorest sections, the figure is only 6.8 per cent. It also pointed out that CARE, the international organisation engaged in fighting poverty around the world, withdrew from Uttar Pradesh citing endemic corruption.

One part of the problem is the lack of information about malnutrition and fatality even among those who are paid to counter it. Anganwadi workers, for instance, may be able to recognise classic symptoms such as a distended stomach, mousy hair or thinness. But not many of them are trained to look for Kwashiorkar, a disease caused by protein malnutrition.

Dr. Rajendra Pathak, a paediatrician in Varanasi who has saved the lives of at least two children from Belwa, suggested that this could be the reason why children seem to die suddenly. He said: "PEM [Protein-Energy Malnutrition] is found everywhere. Kwashiorkar, however, is more dangerous because the victim does not look thin. The body is swollen, which gives the impression of health. Other symptoms include discharge from the ear and eyes, and peeling of the skin. The disease is fatal since the heart can stop functioning due to a sudden fall in protein. And, of course, it is not restricted to children. This is common when people eat only rice or potatoes, with no pulses or vegetables."

Most Dalit families cannot afford pulses or vegetables. Multiple vitamin deficiency is common and many children are at risk of losing their eyesight. Dr. Pathak says he gets at least three such cases every week.

"The ANM [auxiliary nurse-midwife] should be giving them Vitamin A doses. However, it is no longer available free in government health centres. There is no nutritional rehabilitation programme either in this State," he said. Sources at the teaching hospital at Banaras Hindu University estimated that 39 cases of severe malnutrition were brought to the paediatric ward every month. Among the worst affected are the families of Dalit and Muslim weavers of Varanasi and neighbouring districts.

How hungry does one have to be before the hunger becomes official? In the Harijan basti of Shankarpur village, many families have lost their loved ones to "weakness" or "lack of money" or just plain poverty.

Nirhu, 65, was a weaver, but now works at brick kilns and construction sites. His two young sons, who gave up weaving and became labourers, died within eight months of each other. "I lifted stones to save their lives. But it was no use. Now there are their widows and children to provide for," Nirhu said. His wife, Chamila, who also works as a labourer, added that there were days when they did not eat at all. On an average, they eat one meal a day and even that consists of only rice and potatoes - a sure formula for Kwarshiorkar.

Vishambhar, a former weaver of the same village, lost his wife and two children to starvation. To save his three other children, he sent them to the SOS village (for orphans) just outside Varanasi.

According to the Bunkar-Dastkar Adhikar Manch, thousands of weavers are starving. However, this has not caused the sort of political storm that farmers' suicides has. Manch coordinator Siddique Hasan said this was partly because many weavers were too ashamed to announce their hunger. "Even I did not realize how bad things were. Whenever I visited them, they would send me off to sleep in a house where there was something to eat. Their dignity would force them to keep silent."

Frontline's visit to weaver Nizam Ahmed's house at Shivala village more than proved this point. The house was dark, owing to the unpaid electricity bills, and the faces gloomy. During the entire conversation, there was only one burst of laughter - caused by Siddique Hasan's mention of "eating healthy things like fruit". Shakila Bano, Ahmed's wife, couldn't help saying, "Fruit? The things you talk about! Fruit!"

Ahmed said had his old friend Hasan not insisted he would not have spoken to Frontline or any other publication. "It costs Rs.1,500 to weave a saree. I cannot sell it for more than Rs.600. How do you imagine we eat? In Bajardiya, Nakki Ghat and Saraiyan, there have been suicides. Families have mixed poison in rotis. Small children beg on the streets."

But the fact that they live in pucca houses is enough for the administration to deny them BPL cards. And houses, Hasan points out wryly, cannot be eaten.

The public distribution system has apparently been used more as a channel to distribute largesse than to help needy families. In Banda district, for instance, ration cards were recalled by the former District Magistrate and destroyed after complaints of large-scale bungling in the BPL list. However, the new list was also riddled with mistakes. Several poor families had been taken off the list and non-BPL families with panchayati clout had allegedly found their way into it and got themselves red or white cards.

There were similar inconsistencies with job cards issued under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP). In Madhavpur village, several residents showed white cards with signs that they had been tampered. The beneficiaries ought to have got red cards meant for those on the antyodaya list, but the numbers had been over-written, in some cases scratched out and in others fudged with white ink. Cardholders alleged that the village pradhan and secretary had pulled out the pages from the pink covers and re-stapled them into white ones.

In Kazipur village, Kallu (son of Babu) has had a job card since March 2006, but has not got even a day's work so far. Nor has he received any unemployment allowance. The pradhan, Sumitra Devi, refused to sign the job cards because they did not have the government seal or the signatures of block officials, which made them invalid.

The block-level administration has not sent any funds for starting new projects and Frontline's attempts to speak to officials and its many applications to the block development officer (BDO) met with no response.

In Madhavpur, Sadashiv, an activist of Ragaul hamlet, was beaten up after he filed complaints against local officials and asked for details about ration cards and job cards under the Right to Information Act. "An FIR [first information report] was filed, but only against one person, although I had named three people, he said.

The District Magistrate of Banda, Sanyukta Samaddar, admitted that there had been several complaints about names being struck off the BPL lists. "We send people from the district level to investigate. But there are only a limited number of cards allotted for each district. Now nothing can be done until the elections are over because the code of conduct prevents any new cards from being issued." She denied receiving reports of falsification, but said they would be dealt with. Meanwhile, in this drought-hit district even landed farmers are desperate because crops have failed and women survive by selling firewood for as little as Rs.10 a bundle, for which they walk up to 10 kilometres, carrying a load of 20 kilos on their heads.

But such deprivation does not seem to have stirred the government. Dr. A.K. Singh, director of the Giri Institute of Development Studies, Lucknow, said the State government had not requested any specific research or investigation into starvation or suicides. He said: "There is no crisis as such in Uttar Pradesh. It is a hype created by political parties and the press (sic). In any case, if there are hunger deaths, they are not because of lack of food but because of lack of livelihood."

Creating jobs would mean implementing the NREGP with an iron resolve as well as the National Advisory Council's recommendations on the ICDS. The NAC has pointed out that in Uttar Pradesh, one-third of all Anganwadi posts are vacant. The State requires at least 36,394 centres in the urban areas and 281,353 centres in the rural areas. According to the State government, until 2005 there were 102,811 centres, and 31,498 more have been sanctioned.

However, the Supreme Court recently summoned the Chief Secretaries of several States, including Uttar Pradesh, demanding to know why all the sanctioned centres were not functioning. It has set June 30 as the deadline to ensure that they do. For a country that has more hungry people than Bangladesh and Sudan, this deadline ought to be sacrosanct.