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‘Hunger stares you in the face’

A Supreme Court inquiry finds situation worse than Hindustan Times report of UP children eating mud; state says it's habit, not hunger, reports Samar Halarnkar. Special coverage
Hindustan Times | By Samar Halarnkar, New Delhi
UPDATED ON AUG 30, 2010 11:21 AM IST

Nine of 10 mud-eating children are in the last stage of malnutrition. Eight of 10 people are deprived of every national social-security net and live with starvation and hunger. The average life span is 40.

In April, the Hindustan Times revealed acute deprivation in the Uttar Pradesh village of Ganne, part of the former constituency of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Now, a Supreme Court inquiry team that visited the area soon after reveals hunger and disease worse that this paper reported, spread over 150 sq km of a former kingdom called Shankargarh.

“A grim, catastrophic picture emerges from enquiry of commission (sic)…there is a total collapse of food-security related schemes,” said the report, recommending several “emergency measures” in up to 46 villages. “Protruding stomach, dry, whitish hair, ashen skin, skinny children — hunger stares you in the face.”

The state government refutes this assessment, saying "habit, not hunger" makes children eat mud.

The SC report, a copy is with HT, attributes the crisis in Shankargarh to “apathy, insensitivity, nexus between vested interests and elected representatives with active approval of administration and state”.

Written by Arundhati Dhuru, an advisor to the Supreme Court, and noted economist Jean Dreze, the report is the latest indicator of the frailty of India’s vast but inefficient and corruption-ridden social-security systems, on which the nation will spend more than Rs 1.18 lakh crore over 2010-11. The Planning Commission is presently working at identifying the number of poor in advance of a Right to Food legislation, stalled in March as being inadequate by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.

Experts have said reform of India’s social-security schemes is essential if the government is to deliver “inclusive growth”, an ambition stressed repeatedly by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier this week. After the Supreme Court team visited Ganne, the district administration, which had rubbished HT’s reportage, restarted collapsed programmes: school mid-day meals, child health centers, jobs-for-work programme and drinking water projects, among others.

“Following the observations of the Supreme Court team about the anganwadi (a nutritional-health centre) outside the village at a distance, the same has now been opened inside the village limits,” said UP’s Director of the Child Development and Nutrition Department Devendra Verma.

Verma then quoted the state’s own findings: “It was found that children were eating mud as a habit and not due to hunger.”

HT had found frail, malnourished children eating lumps of mud laced with silica — a raw material for glass sheets and soap — because they were not officially classified as poor and so ineligible for help. Instead, richer and influential people had cornered government benefits.

Most families work in stone quarries and eat one or two daily meals of boiled rice and salt — with a watery vegetable on lucky days — with the mud being a deadly option in Ganne, 45 km east of Allahbad and a 12-km walk from the nearest road.

The silica mining rights to 46 villages over 150 sq km vest with the former ruler, the Raja of Shankargarh, in perpetuity. He contracts the mines to contractors who exploit thousands of villagers, the report said.

“There is strong indications (sic) that people are living in conditions of bonded labour,” the SC report said.

Since Shankargarh is rocky and most land unfit for cultivation, villagers have little choice but to work in the silica mines.

Apart from hunger, the SC team found every third person diagnosed with tuberculosis from inhaling silica. “Shankergarh-wali TB” is the name given by locals to what appears to be incurable silicosis.

The mud-eating children and famished, disease-ridden villagers mainly belong to a community called the Kohls, a scheduled caste found across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Originally jungle dwellers, they were driven out when the forests were cleared.

The Kohls do not own even the land they live on, their children help them break stones and when the monsoons arrive, they must migrate, as far west as Surat in Gujarat.

The grade IV malnutrition that the team found in 90 per cent of the children requires hospitalization, according to Union Health Ministry standards. That is unlikely.

“They are not covered by any labour laws or medical benefits,” said the report, forwarded to the Uttar Pradesh government by the Commissioners to the Supreme Court.

India’s highest court monitors programmes related to food security as part of a nine-year-long case that seeks to make the right to food a fundamental right.

India is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry – about 230 million people – according to a World Food Programme report released on March 2009.

(with Kenneth John in Allahbad)

Tracking Hunger is an HT initiative to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger. You can read previous stories at

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