By Uma Sudhir
On the eve of Independence Day, to fast or not to fast is not the question. You simply won’t be allowed to fast. At least not for as long as you want to. By imposing that diktat is the Indian government taking away the democratic right of its citizens to protest peacefully? That is what Team Anna claims.
Whereas the Union home minister has declared that no one (meaning not just Anna and team) can be allowed to fast and endanger their life. The government simply cannot allow that to happen, he declared, in his oh-so-typical, am-always-so-correct manner. Really, Mr Home Minister? Should we be impressed?
One of those delicious ironies that leaves a bitter-than-quinine taste. Am reminded of an Independence Day eve the year UPA-I came to power. 2004. That night at the strike of the midnight hour, a farmer died in Pulimamidi village of Medak district, some 70 km from Hyderabad. Within hours, before daybreak, his young teenage daughter died as well. There had been no foodgrain in the house for more than ten days. Not that things had been much better before that. The reasons were nothing out of the ordinary. Rural distress brought on by unremunerative farming, crop failure because there was no reliable source of irrigation, no livelihood options and no social security net to keep body and soul together.
When I reached their home, the next morning I did not find Budhaiah’s wife wailing aloud in grief, in the haunting, sing-song mourning that I had heard so very often in so many homes in this region where farmers and weavers have been driven to desperation and suicide. Instead, I found Shantamma busy feeding her two younger children, both less than 10 years old, with her own hands, as though she was in a hurry.
A bag of rice had arrived that morning under the Antodaya scheme. Revenue officials who had come to carry out the official inquiry about the deaths had quickly sent that in, probably worried that questions may be asked about the twin tragedy of starvation deaths. People had pooled in money for the last rites of the father and daughter. Once the bodies had been taken away, for the mother, very obviously, the priority had been to feed her little children, who she must have so very often seen going hungry. Not that Shantamma looked like she had the energy to cry. Her voice came out in gasps. She must not even have been 30 but looked more than double her age, weak and gawky-eyed, with no time for tears and mourning for the husband and daughter who were no more. She had to care whatever little she could to ensure at least her two smaller children don’t go hungry today.The lump in my throat would not go away.
After I reported this twin tragedy, that had happened even as India was celebrating 57 years of Independence, a debate began on whether or not this should be called a starvation death. For the uninitiated, starvation death has a technical definition and a complex statistical calculation. The government said Budhaiah died due to tuberculosis/ liquor addiction and his daughter succumbed to jaundice.
I remember a state health minister dismissing earlier reports of starvation deaths, saying, “madam, i am also from a village. There can’t be starvation deaths there, because if someone is hungry, a neighbour will feed.”
While that may sound the way we would like to imagine our good country to be, the truth is that in villages where most homes are in a perennial crisis, and no one is eating a full meal twice a day, that is not really the reality, I had countered. And then, it is not hunger over a few days, it is a process of continous deprivation after which the body loses its health and ability to fight disease, and finally gives up, succumbs. Once the minister became an Oppostion member, he readily talked about starvation deaths happening all across the state.
The National Human Rights Commission took notice and sent a notice to the Andhra Pradesh government asking the Andhra Pradesh government to recognise these as hunger-deaths and take corrective action, going by evidence that there had been foodgrain in Budhaiah and Shantamma’s house for at least 10 days before the death and Budhaiah had no work for the last four months. The mid-day meal at school had probably been the only meal the children had eaten on several days. The area had been drought-hit for the last six years but adequate social security measures were not taken by the government.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the right to food and right to health as integral to the right to life. Yet, the government and activists are still to agree on what we should be included in the Right to Food Bill.
I feel ashamed and embarrassed that we claim to be emerging as an economic powerhouse and yet nearly 50 per cent of our children go perennially hungry and we account for one-third of the world’s malnourished children. In this country of ours, 40 per cent of the world’s low-birth weight babies are born to poor unhealthy mothers, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and hunger. An average of 6,000 children died every day in India; 2,000-3,000 of them from malnutrition.
As yet another Independence Day arrives, an entire generation of children will be subjected to stunted mental and physical growth, poor education and no opportunity, disease and early death. Ten years ago, India committed to the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving its number of hungry by 2015. Optimistic estimates are that India may not achieve that goal even 30 years from now.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described malnutrition as “a curse that we must remove” in an Independence Day speech. His government has on paper more than quadrupled funding to tackle the problem — but corruption and leakages won’t allow that to happen.
The Jan Lokpal Bill to me is one hope that it may be a new beginning to check corruption and ensure good governance. So we can hold our government accountable. So social security programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme will work well. That we will not just allocate money but ensure that it is used well, so that I don’t have to report the shame of yet another twin tragedy on an Independence eve. So if some civil society leaders have come forward to use a non-violent method to demand change and awaken the conscience of a sleeping nation and its people, I would selfishly support this war where hunger is a weapon. Because I want freedom from shame.
(Uma Sudhir is Resident Editor with NDTV and a documentary filmmaker)