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Will food bill help these children?

As country’s top ministers meet today to redraft a bill that hopes to guarantee food for all, HT travels to east Uttar Pradesh to find children surviving on mud.

india Updated: Apr 21, 2010, 18:21 IST
Kenneth John and Samar Halarnkar
Kenneth John and Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

Poor children in Ganne, a village 45 km east of Allahabad, one of Uttar Pradesh’s biggest commercial centres, are eating silica-laced mud to quell their hunger pangs, even as a group of top union ministers meets on Monday to redraft the food security bill.

Headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the empowered group of ministers (EGoM) will meet to consider upping the official family entitlement to subsidised food from 25 to 35 kg, bringing the homeless into official safety nets, and perhaps redrawing the poverty line — less than 300 million are officially poor today.

The eight ministers include Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, Rural Development Minister C.P. Joshi.

Mega projects

World’s largest
programmes face reform

Integrated Child Development Scheme: Addresses nutritional needs of children under six;
1.4 million centres nationwide. Outlay for 2010-11: Rs 7807 crore

Midday Meal Scheme: Provides meals to retain children in government schools. Outlay for 2010-11: Rs 9,440 crore

National Social Assistance Programme: Pensions for old age, widows and disabilities. Outlay for 2010-11: Rs 5710 crore

Public Distribution System: Subsidised food through half a million fair-price shops. Outlay for 2010-11: Rs 55,578 crore

National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme: Guarantees 100 days of work every year to the poor. Outlay for 2010-11: Rs 40,100 crore

“There has been a lot of pressure from Sonia Gandhi to expand this legislation and make it truly inclusive,” said a food ministry source. “She has spoken to the finance minister about this.”

A highly placed finance ministry source roped in to advise ministers said the effort would be to widen the ambit of the bill. “The net ought to be cast wide so people ought to get not just the right to food, but food as well,” said the source, referring to structural reforms. “This issue is going to linger for some time.”

The government’s approach to the food bill has thus been “very minimalist”, said Harsh Mander, Commissioner to the Supreme Court, where India’s food policies have overwhelmingly been crafted for the last nine years. “What we’ve asked for is quite substantial.”

The SC’s other commissioner, N.C. Saxena, said the Centre could not “close its eyes to large-scale fraud in the public-distribution system by taking the narrow constitutional position that implementation is the state’s responsibility”.

About 58 per cent of India’s subsidised foodgrain does not reach families below the poverty line (BPL), an official measure
used to implement social-security programmes.

In Ganne, every second child has swollen eyes and protruding belly, stomach aches, frequent spells of dizziness and an overall weakness, said Amit Shukla, a neurophysician who surveyed the village’s 149 families, a third of them Adivasi (tribal), another 30 per cent schedule caste.

Shukla’s survey revealed only 45 families hold BPL cards.

Raja Babu and his wife Phulan, workers at Ganne’s quarries narrate how they lost their 14-month-old daughter Golu to kidney failure, after she learned to eat the silica-laced mud when hungry.

Her eyes swelled, so did her belly. She found it hard to urinate. “We couldn’t take her to the nearest community health centre, it’s 10 km from our quarry,” said Phulan, weeping. “A roadside doctor gave her some injections from time to time.”

In September 2009, Golu died, one of seven children who perished last year. All ate mud to survive hunger. There is no record of malnutrition deaths.

Officially, Golu didn’t die of malnutrition. People rarely do, unless it’s of the severest grade four (Dr Shukla said most village children suffer grade three), a step below immediate hospitalisation.

Golu’s proximate cause of death: Kidney failure.

HT found similar tales unfolding across Ganne, one of five villages under the Harro gram sabha (village council). Two anganwadis (child health centres) serve the area. They are too distant for the stone workers and stock no more than 20 sacks of semolina.

The entire Shankergarh block (a subunit of Allahabad district) is rocky and sustains little or no agriculture. After independence, stone quarries spread across the barren land, a source for
the grit that goes into building roads
and buildings; the workers settling in the villages.

“I will send a team to the village,” said Allahbad District Magistrate (DM) Sanjay Prasad. “Those found guilty including the gram pradhan (village council chief) will be penalised.”

The head of the district’s health services, Additional Director (Health) Dr S.N. Pathak, first said he would check hunger reports.

“Malnutrition is not new,” said Pathak. “But kids suppressing hunger by consuming mud is horrifying. I will make a personal visit to the village alongwith the medical officer.”

Dr B.L. Patel, doctor at a primary health centre 5 km from Ganne, confirmed “an average of four to five cases” of malnutrition; how high fever, stomach aches, liver and kidney disorders and tuberculosis result from mud-eating.

When contacted again later, after the DM promised action, his tack changed.

“Aap log til ka tar bana rahen hain (you people are creating a palm tree from seeds),” he said. “There is no malnutrition here.”

“The parents tell me how their children eat mud because they are hungry,” said Dr Patel, in charge of a primary health centre, 5 km from Ganne.

Across Harro, there are only 107 BPL cards for 3,600 inhabitants. In Ganne, many of the BPL cards are issued to families who appear to the richest in the village and close to the gram pradhan.

Clad in jeans and sun-glasses, village council chief Manish Tripathi (32) and his family represent the contractors who own the quarries. The local fair-price shop belongs to one of Pradhan’s men.

“The health services have not visited the area for the last two, three years,” said Tripathi, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

As for the families who haven’t got BPL cards, he said: “Whoever has approached me has got cards. Who is telling you they have not got cards, give me the names?”

No offial survey of poor families was ever done, leaving the identification of the poorest to Tripathi’s discretion.
Other anomalies abound.

The national old-age pension scheme was rolled out eight years ago, but many complain they never received pensions.
Sona Kali (50), a widow, has an account for her pension, opened by the gram pradhan, in the Allahbad Rural Bank, one of 43 people who hold such accounts.

Kali’s account 6686 was opened on September 5, 2002. She never received any money.

There are others like her. “They should have approached me,” said District Probationary Officer S K Mishra. “I will conduct special checking.”

District social welfare officer S.K. Sonkar said he had more than 8,000 applications for pension. “But there are no funds,” he said.

There is are two schools in Harro serving midday meals, but the villagers of Ganne said they know very little of these opportunities. None of their children goes to school.

(The Hunger Project is a Hindustan Times effort to track, investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger.)

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