As top officials from multiple ministries worked over the weekend recrafting a draft legislation deemed inadequate to deliver food to the poorest, a grim reminder of the depth of deprivation in India emerged from its most populous state.
Frail, malnourished children eating moist lumps of mud laced with silica—a raw material for glass sheets and soap—because they are not officially classified as poor and so ineligible for official help: This is what a Hindustan Times (HT) reporter saw in a village of eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Under an unusually hot April sun, skinny, hungry children silently poked around on the dusty edges of a stone quarry in Ganne village, 45 km east of Allahabad and a 12km walk from the nearest road.
“It tastes like powdered gram, so we eat it,” said Soni, 5, a listless girl with a protruding belly. It’s a learnt experience. Older children such as Soni wait for the excavated moist mud. The younger ones imitate them. With most families reduced to one or two daily meals of boiled rice and salt—with a watery vegetable on a lucky day—the mud is a free but deadly option at the 20 stone quarries sustaining the poorest villagers.
Eating the mud worsens malnutrition and disease, but these families are not eligible for subsidized food and other state programmes, though each of a family of five earns about Rs400 a month; UP’s official poverty line is Rs. 435 per person per month.
It is people like these that Congress president and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi wants covered by a national Food Security Bill.
That is why she pushed the UPA’s top ministers back to the drawing board after rejecting last week a draft that was about to be presented to the cabinet.
Headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, the empowered group of ministers (eGoM) will meet on Monday to consider upping the official family entitlement to subsidized food from 25kg to 35kg, bringing the homeless into official safety nets, and perhaps redrawing the poverty line; less than 300 million are officially poor today.
The eight ministers include agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, home minister P Chidambaram, railway minister Mamata Banerji and rural development minister C P Joshi.
“There has been a lot of pressure from Sonia Gandhi to expand this legislation and make it truly inclusive,” said a food ministry official, requesting anonymity. “She has spoken to the finance minister about this.” A highly placed finance ministry official, brought to advise ministers, said the effort would be to widen the ambit of the Bill. “The net ought to be cast wide so people ought to get not just the right to food, but food as well,” said the person, referring to structural reforms. “This issue is going to linger for some time.”
The government’s approach to the Food Bill has thus far been “very minimalist”, said Harsh Mander, commissioner to the Supreme Court, where India’s food policies have overwhelmingly been crafted for the last nine years. “What we’ve asked for is quite substantial.”
The Supreme Court’s other commissioner, N C Saxena, said the Centre could not close its eyes to large-scale fraud in the public distribution system by taking the narrow Constitutional position that implementation is the state’s responsibility.
Around 58% of India’s subsidized foodgrain does not reach families below the poverty line (BPL), an official measure used to implement social security programmes.
Back in Ganne, the effects of a faltering system are evident. Every second child has swollen eyes and a protruding belly, suffers from stomach aches and frequent spells of dizziness, said Amit Shukla, a neurophysician who surveyed the village’s 149 families, one-third of them adivasi (tribal), another 30% schedule castes.
Shukla’s survey revealed only 45 families hold BPL cards. Raja Babu and his wife Phulan, workers at Ganne’s quarries, narrate how they lost their 14-month-old daughter Golu to kidney failure, after she learnt to eat the silica-laced mud when hungry.
Her eyes swelled, so did her belly. She found it hard to urinate. “We couldn’s take her to the nearest community health centre, 10km from our quarry,” said Phulan, weeping. “A roadside doctor gave her some injections from time to time.”
In September, Golu died, one of seven children who perished last year. All ate mud to survive hunger. There is no record of malnutrition deaths. Officially, Golu didn’t die of malnutrition. People rarely do, unless it’s of the severest grade four (Shukla said most village children suffer grade three), a step below immediate hospitalization.
Golu’s proximate cause of death: kidney failure.
HT found similar tales unfolding across Ganne, one of five villages under the Harro gram sabha (village council). Two anganwadis (child health centres) serve the area. They are too distant for the stone workers and stock no more than 20 sacks of semolina.
The entire Shankergarh block (a sub-unit of Allahabad district) is rocky and sustains little or no agriculture. After independence, stone quarries spread across the barren land, a source for the grit that goes into building roads and buildings, with the workers settling in the villages. “I will send a team to the village,” said Allahabad district magistrate (DM) Sanjay Prasad. “Those found guilty including the gram pradhan (village council chief) will be penalized.”
The head of the district’s health services, additional director (health) S N Pathak, first said he would check hunger reports.
“Malnutrition is not new,” said Pathak. “But kids suppressing hunger by consuming mud is horrifying. I will make a personal visit to the village along with the medical officer.” When contacted again later, after the DM promised action, his tack changed.
“Aap log til ka tar bana rahen hain (you people are creating a palm tree from seeds),” he said, using a Hindi expression that means that one was exaggerating the situation. “There is no malnutrition here.”
His local health officer, B L Patel, in a primary health centre 5km from Ganne, confirmed “an average of four to five cases” of malnutrition, how high fever, stomach aches, liver and kidney disorders and tuberculosis result from eating mud.
“The parents tell me how their children eat mud because they are hungry,” said Patel.
Across Harro, there are only 107 BPL cards for 3,600 inhabitants. In Ganne, many of the BPL cards are issued to families who appear to be the richest in the village and close to the gram pradhan.
Clad in jeans and sunglasses, village council chief Manish Tripathi, 32 and his family represent the contractors who own the area’s quarries. “The health services have not visited the area for the last two, three years,” said Tripathi, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party. As for the families who haven’t got BPL cards, he said: “Whoever has approached me have got cards. Who is telling you they have not got cards? Give me the names.”
No official survey of poor families was ever done, leaving the identification of the poorest to Tripathi’s discretion.
Other anomalies abound.
The national old-age pension scheme was rolled out eight years ago, but many villagers complain they never received pensions. Sona Kali, 50, a widow, has an account for her pension, opened by the gram pradhan, in the Allahabad Rural Bank, one of 43 people who hold such accounts.
Kali’s account 6686 was opened on 5 September 2002. She never received any money.
There are others like her. “They should have approached me,” said district probationary officer S.K. Mishra. “I will conduct a special checking.” District social welfare officer S K Sonkar said he had more than 8,000 applications for pension. “But there are no funds,” he said.
There are two schools in Harro serving midday meals, but the villagers of Ganne said they know very little of these opportunities. None of their children go to school.
(The Hunger Project is a joint effort of the Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger)