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The hungry fields of Orissa

Sasimukhi Bentkar’s 43-year-old husband Manu, malnourished for years and bed-ridden with TB, was fast slipping to a point of no return. Like in other homes in Orissa’s poor Balangir district, food was scarce.

india Updated: Apr 21, 2010 18:01 IST
Priya Ranjan Sahu

Sasimukhi Bentkar’s 43-year-old husband Manu, malnourished for years and bed-ridden with TB, was fast slipping to a point of no return. Like in other homes in Orissa’s poor Balangir district, food was scarce.

As Manu’s body weakened, a desperate Sasimukhi (39) started selling most of the 25 kg rice she got from her Below Poverty Line card to buy medicines for her husband, who eventually died in 2008.

“I starved for days to buy medicine for him,” said Manu’s widow, a resident of Degaon village in Balangir, about 340 km west of Bhubaneswar, the state’s capital.

Manu and his brothers, Tinku (40) and Budhu (37), died of TB, all in quick succession.

The Bentkar brothers are among 50-odd people aged between 30 and 45 years, who have died in Balangir over the past two years.

The reasons cited by local officials and villagers range from TB to diarrhoea, but a Hindustan Times investigation into the deaths, conducted earlier this month, found one common strand: they all fell into a deadly loop of loan, migration, disease and hunger.

This week, the UPA government’s proposed Food Security Bill, 2010, which seeks to take decisive steps against chronic hunger, is likely to be cleared by the Cabinet.

Will it help save the lives of the thousands of Manus in India?

While that remains to be seen, it’s clear that the government’s anti-poverty measures such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the National Family Benefit Scheme (NFBS) — meant to protect the poor against hunger and destitution — were dysfunctional in this outback of Orissa.

Officially, 62 per cent of the district’s population are classified as poor, but the real incidence of poverty is higher.

The Bentkar brothers kept migrating for more than 10 years, in search of work. They would often go to Andhra Pradesh to work in brick kilns. They borrowed to meet daily expenses and migrated to repay the loan. The cycle continued — till Manu became afflicted with TB five years ago, his constitution severely weakened because of hard work and insufficient food.
With his brothers falling ill too, money flow choked. “We got our house mortgaged for Rs 12,000,” said Sasimukhi, who is not fit enough to work under the NREGS.

The village had NREGS-related work in 2009 — but it started in the rainy season and lasted seven days, villagers say. “People prefer to migrate because there is no assurance of continuous work under NREGS,” said Narayan Bentkar (22), a
villager.

The widows of the Bentkar brothers say they have yet to get either widow pension or financial assistance of Rs10,000 under the NFBS.

When quizzed about the hunger-related deaths in the district, Balangir’s Collector Sailendra N. Dey said he would inquire into the matter and direct officials to take necessary action.

Orissa’s planning and coordination minister and Balangir MLA A.U. Singh Deo said: “I will inquire into the matter from the Balangir Collector and get back to you.”

In places like Balangir, the UPA’s dream of a successful campaign against hunger might remain unfulfilled — unless the complex and interrelated factors leading to hunger and malnutrition are understood.

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