Friday, November 05, 2004

A fistful of rice -- Dalit starvation deaths

Democracy Wall | Harsh Mander

Barely seven days had passed since his widowed mother, Gajalachmi, had died, defeated finally by hunger. Balachandran, her 13-year-old elder son, was still badly shaken. “If there was even a little rice in the house, she would force us to eat,” he recalled. When he would press her to share the food, she would reply, “You need food more than me. My life is done. You should eat, become strong, study hard and grow to be good man.”

Gajalachmi was only 32 when she lost her battle with hunger. Her husband had died two years earlier of kidney failure. Of the most oppressed Madiga Dalit caste of Andhra Pradesh, they owned no land. Even when he was alive, they found work as farm workers only sporadically in their village Gonepally in Medak district, AP, and wages for agricultural workers were a pittance.

During her husband’s illness, she had borrowed Rs 70,000 from the local moneylender. After his death, she would rise before dawn to collect curry leaves and sell them at the village market. Part of her earnings went to the moneylender, part to the owner of the fields from where she plucked curry leaves. Usually not more than Rs 10 was left a day to feed her three small children and mother-in-law.

Some Dalit youths were moved by her struggle and helped her by securing admission for Balachandran and his nine-year-old sister, Rajani, in government hostels for scheduled caste children. The youngest, Suman, remained with Gajalachmi, along with her husband’s ageing mother, who had nowhere else to go.

Gajalachmi’s strength and spirit slowly ebbed as she toiled often without food for days at a stretch. During her last months, she could not even rise from her bed. Balachandran dropped out of school to take care of her and feed the family. He would also spend the day gathering and selling curry leaves.

In the neighbouring village of Kasturpalli, we encountered another elderly Dalit couple, Yalliya and Narsamma, silently awaiting death, with dignity, but bereft of hope. They had spent 30 years helping build skyscrapers in Mumbai, often strapped with ropes at dizzying height for hours. But now they were far too old for such work and their three sons had inherited their vocation in contributing to Mumbai’s unending journey skywards. Their sons do send their savings to the village from Mumbai but this money is to feed their own wives and children. Their parents tried hard to keep the bitterness out of their voices when they said, “Our sons have to look after their own families. How can we expect that they will look after us?”

Almost all able-bodied people have fled their villages in desperate search of work. Left behind are children, widows, disabled and old people. Children usually eat at least one meal in fairly efficiently administered school mid-day meals. For the rest, there is often no recourse except a slow, invisible, unacknowledged starvation. Government officials, not just in AP but also in every part of the country, deny allegations of starvation deaths. Most claim that the deaths result from illness. Some even quibble that people were just chronically malnourished, but not starving. I’m still unable to tell the difference.

Denials and petty technicalities can’t obscure the shame of hidden hunger deaths recurring in a country that produces considerably more grain than is needed to fully feed every resident of this teeming nation. In a highly significant legal battle in the Supreme Court, activists are demanding that the right to food, an extension of the right to life, should be explicitly recognised as a fundamental right of all citizens. People shouldn’t be dependent on the unreliable and grudging welfare of the government for their survival. The State must be bound to ensure the nutrition of every citizen.

For able-bodied citizens, the right to food would be realised substantially through the legal right to work. Studies indicate that the public distribution system, however flawed and corrupt, is still a lifeline for the survival of millions across the country. It needs to be expanded, strengthened and subjected to much greater people’s scrutiny and control. Almost half the children in India continue to be malnourished, stunting their physical and mental growth and survival chances in adulthood. A third element of the right to food, therefore, relates to children’s nutrition. In this, the Supreme Court has been the most progressive, declaring both mid-day school meals and pre-school feeding in ICDS centres universal entitlements for all children.

However, the most unconscionable neglect in public policy relates to the food security of vulnerable social groups like widows, disabled people and abandoned old people. Even a universal employment guarantee and public distribution system will not ensure their survival, because they lack both the means to work or to purchase even subsidised food. The State must ensure direct food transfers to each of them. Until it does this, people like Gajalachmi, Yalliya and Narsamma will continue to die, dispensable to our glittering world.

It is the custom in the Dalit Madiga caste of Andhra Pradesh to tie some grains of rice to the edge of the sari of a woman who dies, before she is buried in an unmarked grave. When Gajalachmi died, there was no rice in the house to bind to her sari. It is considered inauspicious for neighbours to donate grains for funeral rites. So Gajalachmi had to be buried as she had lived, without the solace and dignity of even a fistful of rice.

Source: Hindustan Times, November 5, 2004

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