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Treating the poor like dirt

It’s mud on the menu as India debates a food security law. What a poverty of imagination.

india Updated: Apr 06, 2010 02:53 IST

Forget that easy, lazy compartmentalisation of the country into ‘Real India’ and the ‘India We Live In. To tag on to a ‘new’ cliche is to strengthen it and provide the dangerous illusion that identifying a problem is halfway to solving it.

(We all know where ‘Garibi hatao!’ got us.) When this paper uncovered the fact that children in 2010 India are being forced to suppress hunger by eating mud because not enough food is available to them, it was not an exposé of the way a vast number of Indians live — we just need to go out of our homes to know that the old cliches of poverty are still very much there — but a thuddering confirmation of how the ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic of India’ takes care of its hungry and malnourished citizens.

In the flurry of India’s economic progress and growth of wealth and wealth-creating institutions, starving or malnourished Indians can be such a party-pooper. Which must be the only explanation as to why children in Ganne village, some 45 kilometres away from the hometown of India’s first prime minister — and consequently of India’s first political family — have been left to come up with their own version of a food security programme while an expert group of ministers met to firm up an anti-hunger law. And eating silica-rich mud certainly seems to have been a more effective way of beating hunger than the current set-up that, on paper, feeds the nation’s poorest of the poor.

Denials are the usual reaction and authorities entrusted to see that food reaches India’s many Gannes have always found a way to treat ‘malnutrition’ as a vast improvement on ‘starvation’. Some five years ago, when there were reports of ‘starvation deaths’ in West Midnapore district of West Bengal, state authorities went on an overdrive not to fix the system to get food to the hungry but to point out that the deaths were caused by ‘malnutrition’ and organ failures resulting from such a condition. This time round too, the cause of diseases and ailments among Ganne’s children is kidney problems — related to their ingestion of mud — and thus a debate on whether the issue is ‘malnutrition’ per se has already broken out. Such jugglery will get us nowhere. Add to this, the buck-passing between state and central governments and then we understand that eating mud isn’t only logical but also necessary for so many, too many Indians. And this has nothing to do with ‘Real’ or ‘Unreal’ India at all.