Starvation rears its head in eastern India
NEW DELHI: While government warehouses across the country brim with excess grain, a shocking spate of starvation deaths is a symptom of what some call the "silent creeping crisis" in India's farm policies.
While the government is urging farmers to get plugged into world markets by planting more cash crops like soya, the poorest of the poor in drought-ridden areas are vulnerable to food shortages and starvation, even when grain silos are full.
For a month, newspapers and television have daily shown pictures of emaciated villagers and potbellied children eating porridge made from dried mango kernels - the only food available in villages across famine-stricken Rayagada district in Orissa.
Media reports say 23 people have starved to death, or died from eating decayed mango gruel, while 60 million tons of grain, kept in reserve by the government, are rotting in warehouses across the country. Opposition politicians put the death toll at over 50 and say a recent spate of farmer suicides in southern India underscores the seriousness of the crisis.
The Supreme Court - which recently has become an increasingly vocal critic of government policies ranging from failed rural food distribution to appalling pollution levels in the capital-censured the government for failing to supply food to the starving.
Federal authorities, however, have backed claims by Orissa officials that people are dying not of starvation but food poisoning from kernels infected by fungus.
Rayagada district official Bishnupada Sethi said people are eating mango kernel gruel "because it is a tradition in their community."
He said the gruel turned poisonous because it was stored in unhygienic conditions, a statement that was even repeated by Prime Minister Atil Bihari Vajpayee.
According to federal government figures, 325 million people, nearly a third of India's billion-plus population, live below an officially defined "poverty line." At least 50 million of these people are on the brink of starvation.
The government keeps large stocks of grain in reserve to use in times of widespread famine. For more localized flashpoints of hunger, it releases smaller amounts in exchange for ration cards.
The government has identified millions of Indians as eligible for a ration card guaranteeing basic food at cheaper prices. With the card, staples such as wheat or rice cost about 4 to 5 rupees per kg, compared to Rs 7 per kg on the open market.
But even the subsidized prices are too high for many of India's poor. They already have debts with local grocers or moneylenders and are forced to pawn their ration cards to guarantee further credit.
With the cards, media reports and Opposition leaders say, moneylenders and middlemen connive with government officials to sell about 60 per cent of the rationed grain on the open market at a premium.
One farmer who fell foul of the system is Biswanath Majhi, an emaciated figure lying listlessly on a cot outside his straw-thatched hut in Panasaguda, an Orissa village.
His wife, son and mother are dead - among the most recent victims of the food shortage. He must still try to feed two younger children with stick-like arms and legs.
Majhi angrily dismissed the government claims.
"It's wrong to say that eating mango kernels is a tradition," he said. "We've been eating this gruel because there is no rice available. We have no choice."
State officials stress that Orissa is a victim of the vagaries of India's monsoon-driven farming cycle and has a sad record of natural disasters.
This summer, maize and vegetable fields were washed away by floods. In 2000, crops withered in a severe drought. Two years ago, Orissa was devastated by a cyclone that killed 10,000 people and destroyed millions of homes.
Economists and policy makers agree that the recent deaths underscore a basic problem: Not the lack of grain but the poorest Indians' lack of purchasing power.
The government wants to transform agriculture, which accounts for more than a quarter of India's Gross Domestic Product and employs nearly two-thirds of the population.
More than a decade of good rains have resulted in surplus buffer stocks, and rice is now an important export. Hybrid seeds and modern farming techniques have brought spectacular gains in crops in some pockets of the country.
But the shift away from subsistence farming has also led to a concentration of larger farms, with landlords buying out small-time peasants and turning them into landless laborers. They earn little and are more vulnerable to food shortages.
"In the last decade there has been a decline in per capita food production," said K Nagaraj, professor at the Madras Institute for Development Studies. He blames the crisis on gradual cuts in state investment in agriculture and failure to back public distribution systems.
"I call this the creeping silent crisis in Indian agriculture," he said. ( AP )