Enemy no 1

A young man came by recently. His dream: to make a difference. His vision: to help eradicate hunger by feeding the poor. His reason: hunger hampers every aspect of growth and development. One could only but agree. In the recent report on the Commonwealth Games, published by Habitat International Coalition and aptly entitled whose wealth- whose commons, we find some startling data: 40 % of the world’s starvation-affected people live in India, 76% families (840 million) people do not get their daily required calories, 55 % of India’s women are malnourished, 46% of India’s children are malnourished, more than 320 million people in India are unable to manage three square meals a day and the most startling one: more than 5,000 children die every day from malnourishment. So hunger is a huge issue and needs to be addressed.

And yet when the passionate young man came to me, I found myself trying to almost dissuade him from his mission, or at least temper it. When we began, a decade ago, we too had a nutrition component in our programme. I remember the bananas and porridge we doled out every day. But after a some time we found that these were often being thrown away by the children who maybe got bored of these items. And how can I forget the irate mother who came screaming that the banana given to her child was rotten! Anyway, we soon stopped the programme seeing that it was getting nowhere.

In spite of the stark reality and need of addressing the hunger issue, feeding the poor is no easy task. We simply zeroed in on education knowing somehow intuitively that this was the way to go.

I have often written about the wastage of food I have seen in the slums of Delhi. It is almost as if throwing food was a way to prove that you had arrived! And yet as I said earlier hunger is a sad reality and needs to be addressed. No child should be allowed to die of hunger in any self respecting society. 5000 do. Yet, if all was well, this should not be happening. In 1975, India launched the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). It was heralded as India's response to the challenge of providing pre-school education on one hand and breaking the vicious cycle of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality on the other and was to reach all the children in India. Huge funds were disbursed and had the programme worked no child should have been hungry. But that was not to be. As all else in India, the funds were hijacked along the way with impunity to line pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. Come to think of it India is replete with fabulous social schemes that could make all the difference but never do as they simply become ways of enriching wily individuals. I have always held that even if these schemes had been half successful, India would be a different land.

Even today a shocking story was aired on national television. Food meant for children is being eaten by dogs! The reason: lack of storage facility. 50 million people in the state need the food, but bad planning has meant that dogs will eat it! I wonder why sufficient silos and storage facilities cannot be built, it would be better use of public money than beautifying cities for games extravaganzas! But then existent silos are used for stocking, hold your breath, booze!

One can open soup kitchens galore but they will never bring about the change we seek. Change will only come when we break free of the vicious cycle of corruption in which we are all held. Media helps, activism helps but these are simply band-aid remedies. We need to stem the rot and that can only happen when the poor are give a voice. And education is the only answer. Today the beneficiaries of social programmes are unaware of their existence or see them not as a right but as an act of largesse handed out by a local politico. You see we are still a feudal society where the erstwhile landlord has been replaced by the devious politician and the scheming official.

Change will only come when every beneficiary will be empowered enough to ask for his due and seek accountability, and the key is education. But that is the one thing the powers that be do not want. No, don't be surprised and read on.

Public education is in shambles and the princely pass percentage of 33%, prescribed by the State makes sure that no one from the lower end of the scale gets any proper education. Let me share an incident that occurred a few years back. At that time we use to teach in a reclaimed pig park under a huge tent.One fine morning a posse of officials came and told us to vacate the park. We soon found out that the authorities had decided to build a toilet block in what was once a children's park. We decided to protest and went to see the local Municipal Councilor. He is semi literate. He brandished a paper shouting that it was not a toilet block that was coming up there but a community centre. Raju, one of our class XI students looked at the paper and pointed out that it said public conveniences and that this meant toilets. You see Raju could reach English and the Councilor could not. From that day on I was branded enemy no 1 (apt title for a Bollywood blockbuster). The reason: I was committing the cardinal sin of empowering the poor and giving them a voice. In today's India you did not do that. The poor had to remain where they were.

But only if we do empower the poor can we bring about the change we seek. That was the message I was trying to give my young friend!

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