A nation where hungry children are forced to eat mud has no right to call itself a superpower or a civilised nation. What makes such reports frustrating for someone like me, who has been feeding poor children for the past one decade, is that reaching food to hungry children is not complicated or costly. It costs very little to give a child the required amount of calories and supplements she needs for survival and proper physical and mental growth. It seems to me that as a society we have lost compassion for those who have no power to make themselves heard or are not votebanks — our children.
I often visit the rural and tribal parts of Rajasthan and am hit by how the people there see starvation. Many feel that it is their fate to remain hungry and are oblivious of the various Acts that guarantee food to them.
Recently I was in Kalahandi, once a basketcase plagued by endemic hunger, malnutrition and starvation, to set up yet another kitchen for feeding children. I found to my surprise that poor people were ready to participate in our centralised kitchen-based feeding programmes.
To say that states don’t have money to feed their poor children is a fallacy. It is just that no one seems to have the time or imagination to channelise the resources in the right direction. Large swathes of the country also get left out because they are inaccessible. But can it be that difficult to traverse 10 or 20 kilometres to reach food to a starving child?
Too often we think that we are doing charity by feeding hungry children. But, we are not doing them a favour. The State has provided for them, albeit inadequately. The freedom from hunger is their right and we are merely facilitators who ensure that this right reaches them.
Many states argue that certain areas are too dangerous for its officers because of the Maoist threat. Yet, our workers have never faced a problem. Instead we have only received cooperation and, for want of a better word, gratitude. If we can do it, surely the State with its vast resources can do it too.
In my long years in the field of providing mid-day meals for children or running anganwadis in tribal areas, I have found that the biggest impediment is not money, motivated workers or infrastructure. It is the penchant of politicians to play ducks and drakes with such schemes. Even the Food Security Bill has no separate mention of children’s right to food security.
The million children that we feed a day may sound like a daunting task. It is. But with careful planning and a core of dedicated workers and minus interference from the administration, it is not half as difficult as it sounds. We have run into all sorts of glitches from our food vans being burnt to political arm-twisting but the trick is just to pick yourself and get moving again. There is no choice because a day’s delay means that children somewhere will go hungry to bed that night. Would you be able to sleep in peace if that were your child? I would not.
My lament about this preventable disease called hunger is that it is not contagious. And so none of us is bothered about children dying of hunger. It would be beyond shameful if we forget the story of children eating mud as soon as it moves out of the news. The dying children with their swollen bellies full of poisoned mud will come to haunt our dreams holding us collectively guilty.
Manoj Kumar is CEO of Naandi and a member of the Citizens’Alliance to Fight Malnutrition
The views expressed by the author are personal