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|May 23, 2001||
F is a dirty word
No one wants to admit to it. No one is ready to acknowledge that it actually exists. Famine is possibly the dirtiest word in the political lexicon of modern India.
We are ready to admit communal riots take place. We are ready to concede that caste violence is growing. We acknowledge corruption and rising urban crime. Terrorism on our borders. Secessionist movements gathering momentum. Bangladesh Rifles torturing and killing our Border Security Force personnel in the most barbaric manner. The ISI sending in cocaine and counterfeit currency. Our failure to curb the global narcotics trade taking place here, right under our noses. We admit to extortion, murders, scams, human rights violations, deaths in police custody, in fact anything and everything but famine. Simply because it is a humbling thought that in modern India, where our granaries are overflowing and rats are eating up 15 to 20 per cent of the over 60 million tonnes of foodgrain stored in government warehouses, there are people still dying of starvation and malnutrition.
As Amartya Sen has pointed out, famines are not caused by the actual shortage of food. They are caused by lack of concern. They are caused by government apathy, ignorance, and at times even political design.
It is, therefore, sad and frightening to see what is happening in parts of Maharashtra today, in districts like Nandurbar, where over a thousand children have died from mysterious ailments and epidemics that are only euphemisms for starvation. For no one is ever ready to acknowledge that people die in India because of famines. So people die of malnutrition. They die of strange illnesses. They die of medical neglect and absence of medicines. But they never die of starvation because shameless governments seek semantic escape routes.
What is particularly galling this time is that we have huge amounts of foodgrain rotting in the warehouses while people are dying of hunger and starvation in what is touted as the nation's most industrially advanced state.
Remember the famine in Kalahandi in the eighties and how entire villages ate ants and bird seed to try and stay alive? Thousands died and those who survived were crippled for ever. To remind us that it not enough for a nation to boast of huge steel and cement factories and showpiece dams when its rural population remains still captive to the vagaries of the monsoons, where the failure of one crop can destroy millions of lives.
Remember the Great Bengal Famine that photographer Sunil Janah so tellingly captured on celluloid and shamed the British government of those days? Remember the uproar those pictures caused? Yet what has gone wrong with us today that neither the media nor the legislatures have the time or political will to discuss what must be our single most shameful, most abject failure? To ensure that the poor get enough food to stay alive when nature fails them.
What use is all this modern technology, this huge bureaucracy that feeds off our taxes when we cannot ensure that foodgrain rotting in our warehouses reach villages reeling under famine and crop failures in time to prevent deaths from starvation?
What use is the prime minister's visit to Malaysia to sing paeans to the emerging information corridor when we cannot monitor the simple logistics of reaching our huge buffer of foodgrain stocks to those who are starving in the villages? We spend hours in parliament arguing over silly specious issues. We invest crores of rupees in setting up parliamentary commissions to probe stock market scams and banking frauds. But no commission has ever been set up to examine why in a food surplus nation, where the buffer stocks are three times what we actually require for food security, thousands of children still die of hunger and malnutrition.
Luckily for India, the courts are still alive to such issues. The Supreme Court has just demanded that the government must respond to a petition filed by the People's Union of Civil Liberties which alleges that several state governments are ignoring the Famine Code of 1962. This code demands that in times of famine every healthy person who presents himself for work under the food-for-work scheme must be given work. In fact, the gender and age bias inherent in this code should also be removed.
In a famine struck area, any person, man, woman or child, young or old, sick or healthy, fit or handicapped, who is prepared to work must be given an opportunity to earn his or her food. It is not the prerogative of the state to choose who they want to support. Every Indian has the right to get food for work. A right upheld by the Supreme Court itself.
But then, if you ask the government, the first thing they will do is deny that there is a famine in the first place. It is like the scavenger law. There is a law that clearly demands that low caste people who move night soil (an euphemism for human dung) on their heads must be protected by the state. But how can any state protect them when no one is even ready to admit that scavengers still exist? No state is even ready to admit that there are homeless people dying on the streets because they have no support from uncaring, insensitive governments. Governments who are busy deciding whether McDonalds should be allowed to come in or whether we should protect our own chocolate industry in the wake of Swiss imports.
The issues that draw public and political attention are becoming increasingly sillier and sillier, more and more trivial while the real India continues to suffer from utter neglect and the political myopia of those who rule over us, as well as those who oppose them. All they seek, irrespective of which bench they sit in, is power, pelf and payoffs.
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