Hunger amid plenty

RECENTLY a group of social activists knocked on several ministerial doors in New Delhi to ask a simple question. Why are millions of Indians starving while food grains continue to pile up in government godowns? Of course this food must reach the people, agreed every minister and bureaucrat the activists met. But there's a catch. "No ministry seems willing to book it, that is, show this food distribution as part of their planned expenditure" says Aruna Roy, one of the leading activists in the group seeking answers from the powers that be.

There is big money involved here. About 60 million tones of food grains are now stockpiled in government godowns, spread all over India. According to one estimate, quoted in Business Standard, this grain is worth approximately Rs. 58,000 crores.

Meanwhile 11 States are afflicted by one of the most severe droughts in living memory. A report in the magazine Down to Earth estimates that approximately 160 million people are suffering the consequences of this drought. Most of the people have poor purchasing power even in a good rain year. A severe drought and crop failure coupled with failures of the Public Distribution System (PDS) have thus left millions of people in famine conditions.

While this year's drought is excessively severe, in many States the relief measures are skimpy compared with previous drought years. For example Rajasthan, one of the worst affected areas, faced a similar situation in 1988. According to the economist Jean Dreze, an average of 17 lakh persons were employed on relief works in Rajasthan between January and May 1988. But this year only about six lakh people have been employed at famine relief works. Taking into account the growth of population in the intervening period this represents a 70 per cent reduction in employment provided by the State. "When eight persons are queuing up for every job under drought relief, the average labourer gets about three days of employment a month" writes Dreze.

A double tragedy is unfolding here. One, mountains of food grains grow higher while people starve. And two, there is little or no action on a wealth of long term solutions that would lift millions out of poverty by improving land and water management.

Political action groups and non-governmental organisations have been drawing attention to both these elements. But, naturally, at present the primary focus is on demanding that food for work programmes are run on a much larger scale to ensure that all the affected people get immediate relief.

Earlier this year the People's Union of Civil Liberties filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court demanding that the government take immediate action to distribute food stocks. On July 23, this PIL led to the Supreme Court directing several States to reopen, within a week, public distribution shops which have been closed or made dysfunctional. This order could bring some short term relief to those deprived of food but it is clearly not a real solution. Actual solutions require, first and foremost, proper governance. At present there is virtually no governance, says Aruna Roy of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan. True governance requires "that a government husbands its resources, minimises its losses and feeds its people but none of this is happening" adds Roy. Thus the tragic absurdity of food rotting in godowns, even being eaten by rodents, while people stay hungry.

The MKSS has spent the last ten years in evolving several different ways by which ordinary citizens can hold government officials accountable. For the last seven years this has been done largely through its vigorous campaign for right to information. This campaign began at the village level and is now linked to a national level mobilisation of people demanding transparency and accountability in government functioning and policy-making. There is still wide-spread corruption in famine relief work in Rajasthan. But a recent survey by Jean Dreze reveals that the scale of corruption is much smaller. This is because the right to information movement has made administrative records available for public scrutiny. It has also created a greater public awareness and a culture of public vigilance.

These incremental gains are a major source of energy for activist groups that are demanding food for work programmes. There is now much greater awareness among people about the Constitutional Right to Work. When the government says it doesn't have the resources to run such programmes, people no longer accept that as a valid answer and instead demand better management of public resources. "This makes us more confident" says Aruna Roy "because people know what questions to ask and insist on answers, and the government feels insecure because it has to give answers."

Three decades ago, such political pressure led to the enactment of an Employment Guarantee law in Maharashtra. Much activist energy today is directed towards creating legally binding employment guarantee programmes run by State governments. However, Employment Guarantee Schemes (EGS) alone will not solve the problem if they are run with wrong priorities. For example, in Maharashtra over the last decade, the percentage of EGS funds spent on irrigation, agriculture and forests has steadily declined while road construction has hogged the largest chunk of money. Roads do virtually nothing to strengthen people against drought and often the same road is reconstructed year after year.

In any case an EGS cannot be a substitute for sweeping change in economic policies that ensures adequate livelihood for all. This in turn means comprehensive land-regeneration, long-term watershed management strategies and innovative modes of industry based on decentralised generation of renewable energy.

Just as there are mountains of grain locked in godowns all over India there is also a wealth of experience and knowledge about technological options and modes of social organisation that would create livelihood for every last Indian. The responsibility for fully realising this potential rests with ordinary citizens. Governments will have to be compelled to act in this direction and this means a far greater mobilisation than all the activists efforts together constitute at present.

It is not enough that a handful of activist groups should be trudging the corridors of power and pleading with the Supreme Court to get food out of government godowns. The rest of us must find effective ways of pressing for a simple demand - that the government does its job.


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Referred by: Benjamin P.
Published on:August 5, 2001
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