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The wars we forgot

india Updated: Apr 12, 2010 15:07 IST
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Writing these words, I’m in a spot in the Kumaon hills where it is possible to forget about the rest of India. From a little ledge, I look out at a near-180-degree vista in every shade of green. Down the slope at my feet are pezzzzzzzzzach trees in a terraced orchard. At the far end of one terrace is a red plastic moulded chair, catching the eye because that bit of red is so striking against the green. Where the valley bottoms out a thick jungle begins, carpeting the hill that’s across from me and the hill that’s behind that one and the one behind that one… To my right and above are the only signs, apart from the chair and the terraces, that humans have been here: a mansion, it looks like, on the ridge.

It’s easy to forget, here, that elsewhere in my India, I can find surging crowds of cars and people, glitzy malls and ‘Karbonn Kamaal Katches’ at the ongoing IPL tournament. It’s easy to forget, too, that I can find in my India kids who stave off hunger by eating mud and Maoist insurgents who, in early April, killed 76 CRPF men.

Easy to forget all that, here. It’s what a vacation in a secluded beautiful spot will do. Though what’s our excuse, I wonder, when we go about our daily lives? What’s our excuse, then, for forgetting? In particular, I’m referring to kids eating mud: when did we forget that India also offers such scenes? And is there a connection to the 76 dead men that we should make?

Only days before the CRPF tragedy happened, Hindustan Times carried a front page report, part of its ongoing series on hunger across the land. It mentioned a hungry child on the edge of a construction site in Allahabad, complete with a photograph of the girl gnawing on a large lump of mud. She had nothing else to eat. The report brought HT a flood of letters from dismayed readers, trying to comprehend the pathetic state of a child who would eat mud.

It made me go back to my hard disk, and somewhere in its recesses I found what I was looking for, an article a doctor I know wrote in 1997. At the time, she had no computer at the rural health clinic she worked in Orissa, so I typed it on mine. It is an account of the struggles of a family she had met, migrant labourers from Bolangir district in that state. Husband and wife contracted with the owner of a brick kiln in Berhampur. Their take-home: Rs 40 and 10 kg of rice a week.

“With a family of six to feed,” wrote this doctor, that payment “does not stretch far”. The husband “was often forced to take a loan mid-week. Once the loan was refused and the family went hungry. [Their infant son] Padman cried with hunger, ate some of the mud plentifully available around their hut and had a severe attack of diarrhoea.”

From 1997 to 2010: 13 years that India has changed in a myriad ways, nurtured a boom economy, bought itself millions of cars, built sealinks and flyovers and malls. Yet 13 years later, some hungry Indian kids still eat mud.

How did we forget?

In March, I travelled to where that same doctor now works, a clinic in central Chhattisgarh. The state government runs a programme for its poorer residents under which they can buy up to 35 kg of rice a month at Rs 2 per kg. Compare to what I spend to buy rice in Bombay: nearly always over Rs 30 per kg, Rs 80 or more if I want basmati for a special occasion. That Rs 2, then, is a measure of poverty in Chhattisgarh (and in fact in other states that have similar programmes).

Yet the true measure of poverty in Chhattisgarh might be something I saw when we visited some villages in the area where the clinic does outreach work. While the doctors met patients, I wandered about and spoke to the residents. Almost every house in these villages — certainly more than 80 per cent of the many dozen houses that I must have strolled by — has a red notice painted beside its front door. It confirms that this family is eligible for rice at Rs 1 per kg.

That is, these are families too poor to afford rice at even the Rs 2 price. And in my random sample in a random pocket of Chhattisgarh, easily four of every five families are that poor. That’s the scale of the kind of poverty that’s too easily seen in India.

How did we forget?

There’s more. (There always is). Speaking to patients at the clinic, I found some had come from up to 250 km away: this is the only reasonable healthcare for that kind of distance. The OPD operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We found some people who had come on Monday but, because of the sheer number of patients to be seen, would not get a chance to meet a doctor till Friday. The doctors work hard, but that’s how heavy their load is. It’s as if I, sitting in Bombay with an earache, had to travel halfway to Goa and then wait four days, just for a doctor to peer in my ear.

And as a thought experiment, consider that 250 km as the radius of a circle centred on this rural clinic. Simple school arithmetic will tell you that circle’s area: something like 200,000 square km, or getting close to a tenth of India’s area. Now, of course, not everyone in that vast expanse comes to this clinic to seek treatment. Yet what does it say about healthcare in these parts that there are people who have no option but to travel that distance? What does it say about India

that this is just one clinic in one part of the country? How many other such 250 km-radius circles would we find, if we started looking?

How did we forget this, too?

Nobody should get away with massacring 76 Indian security personnel, and so I hope those behind this egregious atrocity will be found and punished. But let’s try to remember the circumstances too many people in our country live in, every day. For it forms the context in which the massacre happened. When we fail to provide healthcare, education, justice and simple governance to large stretches of this country, we prepare fertile ground for the folks who peddle the seductive message of overthrowing the state and bringing about some new utopia. When all they are really interested in is power and control, our continuing forgetfulness gives them legitimacy and the aura of being saviours.

Plenty of comment after the massacre has mentioned “war”, wondering if that’s what we are seeing in Chhattisgarh. It reminds me that in describing what the people they work among must live with — from chronic hunger to non-existent healthcare — this same doctor and her colleagues often use the phrase “structural violence”.

Sounds like a synonym for war. Let’s not forget, any more: it has been going on for 62 years.

Dilip D’Souza is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal
The wars we forgot


Writing these words, I’m in a spot in the Kumaon hills where it is possible to forget about the rest of India. From a little ledge, I look out at a near-180-degree vista in every shade of green. Down the slope at my feet are pezzzzzzzzzach trees in a terraced orchard. At the far end of one terrace is a red plastic moulded chair, catching the eye because that bit of red is so striking against the green. Where the valley bottoms out a thick jungle begins, carpeting the hill that’s across from me and the hill that’s behind that one and the one behind that one… To my right and above are the only signs, apart from the chair and the terraces, that humans have been here: a mansion, it looks like, on the ridge.

It’s easy to forget, here, that elsewhere in my India, I can find surging crowds of cars and people, glitzy malls and ‘Karbonn Kamaal Katches’ at the ongoing IPL tournament. It’s easy to forget, too, that I can find in my India kids who stave off hunger by eating mud and Maoist insurgents who, in early April, killed 76 CRPF men.

Easy to forget all that, here. It’s what a vacation in a secluded beautiful spot will do. Though what’s our excuse, I wonder, when we go about our daily lives? What’s our excuse, then, for forgetting? In particular, I’m referring to kids eating mud: when did we forget that India also offers such scenes? And is there a connection to the 76 dead men that we should make?

Only days before the CRPF tragedy happened, Hindustan Times carried a front page report, part of its ongoing series on hunger across the land. It mentioned a hungry child on the edge of a construction site in Allahabad, complete with a photograph of the girl gnawing on a large lump of mud. She had nothing else to eat. The report brought HT a flood of letters from dismayed readers, trying to comprehend the pathetic state of a child who would eat mud.

It made me go back to my hard disk, and somewhere in its recesses I found what I was looking for, an article a doctor I know wrote in 1997. At the time, she had no computer at the rural health clinic she worked in Orissa, so I typed it on mine. It is an account of the struggles of a family she had met, migrant labourers from Bolangir district in that state. Husband and wife contracted with the owner of a brick kiln in Berhampur. Their take-home: Rs 40 and 10 kg of rice a week.

“With a family of six to feed,” wrote this doctor, that payment “does not stretch far”. The husband “was often forced to take a loan mid-week. Once the loan was refused and the family went hungry. [Their infant son] Padman cried with hunger, ate some of the mud plentifully available around their hut and had a severe attack of diarrhoea.”

From 1997 to 2010: 13 years that India has changed in a myriad ways, nurtured a boom economy, bought itself millions of cars, built sealinks and flyovers and malls. Yet 13 years later, some hungry Indian kids still eat mud.

How did we forget?

In March, I travelled to where that same doctor now works, a clinic in central Chhattisgarh. The state government runs a programme for its poorer residents under which they can buy up to 35 kg of rice a month at Rs 2 per kg. Compare to what I spend to buy rice in Bombay: nearly always over Rs 30 per kg, Rs 80 or more if I want basmati for a special occasion. That Rs 2, then, is a measure of poverty in Chhattisgarh (and in fact in other states that have similar programmes).

Yet the true measure of poverty in Chhattisgarh might be something I saw when we visited some villages in the area where the clinic does outreach work. While the doctors met patients, I wandered about and spoke to the residents. Almost every house in these villages — certainly more than 80 per cent of the many dozen houses that I must have strolled by — has a red notice painted beside its front door. It confirms that this family is eligible for rice at Rs 1 per kg.

That is, these are families too poor to afford rice at even the Rs 2 price. And in my random sample in a random pocket of Chhattisgarh, easily four of every five families are that poor. That’s the scale of the kind of poverty that’s too easily seen in India.

How did we forget?

There’s more. (There always is). Speaking to patients at the clinic, I found some had come from up to 250 km away: this is the only reasonable healthcare for that kind of distance. The OPD operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We found some people who had come on Monday but, because of the sheer number of patients to be seen, would not get a chance to meet a doctor till Friday. The doctors work hard, but that’s how heavy their load is. It’s as if I, sitting in Bombay with an earache, had to travel halfway to Goa and then wait four days, just for a doctor to peer in my ear.

And as a thought experiment, consider that 250 km as the radius of a circle centred on this rural clinic. Simple school arithmetic will tell you that circle’s area: something like 200,000 square km, or getting close to a tenth of India’s area. Now, of course, not everyone in that vast expanse comes to this clinic to seek treatment. Yet what does it say about healthcare in these parts that there are people who have no option but to travel that distance? What does it say about India

that this is just one clinic in one part of the country? How many other such 250 km-radius circles would we find, if we started looking?

How did we forget this, too?

Nobody should get away with massacring 76 Indian security personnel, and so I hope those behind this egregious atrocity will be found and punished. But let’s try to remember the circumstances too many people in our country live in, every day. For it forms the context in which the massacre happened. When we fail to provide healthcare, education, justice and simple governance to large stretches of this country, we prepare fertile ground for the folks who peddle the seductive message of overthrowing the state and bringing about some new utopia. When all they are really interested in is power and control, our continuing forgetfulness gives them legitimacy and the aura of being saviours.

Plenty of comment after the massacre has mentioned “war”, wondering if that’s what we are seeing in Chhattisgarh. It reminds me that in describing what the people they work among must live with — from chronic hunger to non-existent healthcare — this same doctor and her colleagues often use the phrase “structural violence”.

Sounds like a synonym for war. Let’s not forget, any more: it has been going on for 62 years.

Dilip D’Souza is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal