For the country’s politicians and bureaucrats, denial has always been the best form of defence and ad hocism the solution to all problems. Reacting to a report on starvation deaths in Balangir district, Orissa, that appeared last week in this paper, the state revenue minister did as expected of seasoned politicians: he flatly denied that there have been deaths in the district due to ‘chronic’ hunger. The executive arm of the government, the district collector, not only echoed his political boss’s view but went farther by saying that one of the hunger victims was paid “Rs 10,000 before his death”. Will someone please tell the collector that as the head of the district administration, ensuring two meals for the people is his core responsibility — and handing out doles is just a shameful attempt to cover up his incompetence?
Now that the National Human Rights Commission has asked the Orissa Chief Secretary to file a report on the hunger deaths, there will hopefully be some heads that will roll. But then, going by how the Indian political system usually works, one fears that there will be no change at all, with no one held accountable. That the deaths have happened in Balangir is not surprising at all. The failure of governance, including the provision of basic food items reaching here, has been chronic in this district. Along with Kalahandi and Koraput (known as KBK together), Balangir has been one of the poorest and most backward districts in the country. Balangir’s fate has been practically unchanged for decades despite its inclusion in all poverty eradication programmes since 1947. Yet, poverty has become a permanent feature here with people having very little access to proper healthcare and nutrition. Even the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme failed to make any difference. One study found out that in the KBK region in 2008-09, 74 per cent of the wage payments were siphoned off.
In his Budget speech, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee upped the social sector outlay by 22 per cent to Rs 137,674 crore. The draft of the Food Security Bill is also ready. But such numbers and legislations will have no meaning if they are unable to deliver the basic minimum to people fighting off hunger and death. The Balangir deaths say a lot about our governance system, the value we as a nation put to the lives of our own people, the leaking delivery mechanism, and the giant, gaping holes that are allowed to exist in our so-called social security net. The declaration of 8 per cent growth in the next fiscal and other such wonderful economic figures and projections in the face of Indians still starving to death would have sounded terribly funny if it weren’t for the fact that it’s an incredible ongoing tragedy.