Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Food for thought... soup kicthens

I have finished reading Ash in the Belly! It was an eye opener in more ways than one! It validated many notions that were quite nebulous. But what is more important, it gave a human face to  the very notions that were till then more academic than anything else. I have been writing about malnutrition and hunger for quite some time. But before Ash in the Belly, my writings were conjectural. True I quoted statistics of children dying but the pain and anguish of a moribund malnourished child, or the agony and despair of its mother were far removed. The true stories narrated by Harsh Mander have put an end to that supposed comfort. From now on a hungry child is no more an abstract notion but conjures the image of a woman foraging a rat's burrow or cow dung to seek a few grains that could quell the hunger pangs of her baby. I agree with the author when he says that every child who dies of hunger is an act or murder not only by the State but by each one of us who leave a grain of rice on our plates, throw a half eaten roti or waste any kind of food.

Hunger in a land of plenty is a true statement. From grain rotting in the open, to food wasted at weddings, parties and in homes, each act is nothing short of criminal, a crime that we carry on with impunity, perhaps because none of us has truly felt a hunger pang, the kind that robs you of everything, even your dignity.

This book requires several readings. I have just read it once. I wonder how many questions will come to mind when I read it again and again.

One thing that is clear when one reads this book is that as things stand now, none of the present schemes, however numerous, reach the poorest of the poor: the old, the disabled, the widows, the street child, the beggar, the dalits and tribals. These are and will remain invisible. The reason being the totally inefficient and absurd way of defining the poor. If we are to go by the preposterous figures our rulers brandish time and again stating that if you spend  20, or 32, or 28 rupees a day, then you are not poor. That amount is meant to suffice for all you need: food, transport, housing, education, health etc. I wonder if anyone of us would survive for an hour, let alone a day! Two young Indians did just that. Their experiences are worth a read.

Let me share some startling statistics. India is home to a quarter of the world's hungry! 40% of our children are underweight! About 5000 children die EVERY DAY of malnutrition in India. That is 1.7 million every year. Does that not make you sick, enraged and disturb you? No it does not but because there are not our kids. But these deaths are preventable. Clean drinking water and toilets are what is needed. But then who will raise their voices to demand these facilities. Those who suffer have no voice. They need someone to lend them theirs.

We are all set to see the passing of the Food Security Bill. Many of us will not bother enlightening ourselves about its content. According to experts , on paper the PDS meets the food requirement of 900 million people. If is true then there should be no hunger in India, yet we are rank 66th among 88 vulnerable countries. According to experts again the Food Bill will cost more and make no difference. What is needed is a multi pronged approach. Food security problems differ from State to State and one cannot have a one size fits all. What may happen is that the FSB will just be a big cash cow for the corrupt.

Hunger has to be tackled both long term and short term. One of the short term options that has been tried in some countries is setting up soup kitchens for the poorest of the poor. Just like the midday meals for children. But here again things may go awry if the community does not get involved. Instead of getting a hot meal, children may simply get some supposedly nutritive biscuit or supplement made by some multi national having greased the right palms. The idea of soup kitchens has been dropped. And yet it could have been a great option for the most vulnerable: the old and indigent, the disabled, the sick and so on. For me it is the only form of freebie that should be given.

We are a land replete with fabulous programmes and projects for the poor. They sound good on paper but that is where it all stops. We have a pathetic record when it comes to implementation and delivery. I for one believe that even if 50% of all the social schemes mooted over the years had been implemented, India would have been a different land.

Actually what one is compelled to think is that these fab sounding projects and programmes are introduced not for the benefit of the poor but for hidden political agendas by seducing the electorate. All the better if a  side effect being that they are manna  for the corrupt. These schemes also aim at keeping control on the masses. In an interesting article Gurcharan Das denounces the proposed FSB. According to him the food security bill, on the other hand, will condemn India’s poor to perpetual poverty. Giving people virtually free food will keep them dependent on a ‘mai baap party’, trapping them into a permanent vote bank. Had the same amount been spent on roads, schools etc to encourage people to start businesses and thus more jobs, allowing people to break the cycle of poverty in which there were born, things would change. But that is not what the powers that be want.

On startling example is education. Why oh why is it that  a Government that can run ace schools like the central school also runs schools that are nothing short of abysmal and where not even the brightest child can acquire learning of any kind. Why does compulsory education end midway, at 14 when a child has not even acquired a recognised certificate. With the no fail policy, you can spend the stipulated 8 years in school without even needing the 33% that is the ludicrous pass percentage again laid down by the State. All this is nothing short of phoney and leads one to believe that the State wants a large illiterate mass that can be an exploitable vote bank. Maybe the first honest thing to do would be to transform schools into an enabling space for children.

The RTE Act that prescribed that 25% seats in all schools should be reserved for the poor has again missed the target. The complex red tape required had defeated many aspirants. Furthermore the true beneficiaries do not even know about the scheme. I know many middle class families who have managed to get all the certificates needed - fraudulent of course - to avail of this facility. They now have kids studying in the best of schools at no cost.

The food security bill will go the way the PDS or ICDS schemes went. The true beneficiaries will remain invisible. As Gurcharan Das rightly says 83 per cent of Karnataka’s people call themselves poor based on BPL cards when less than a quarter of the state is, in fact, poor. West Bengal discovered last year that 40 per cent of its BPL cards were fake. A law that turns people into liars would have horrified our founding fathers. They had a profoundly moral vision of the Indian republic — so much so that they placed the wheel of dharma, the Ashok Chakra, in the nation’s flag. When a government forces people to become dishonest, it wounds public dharma and undermines the trust between the rulers and the ruled. I find it difficult to believe that a fairy will appear and with a flick of her wand turn  everyone into honest, caring and compassionate rulers. Far from that. All that will happen is that OUR hard  money will help line some more pockets!

We all agree that any self respecting country, particularly one that strives to become a world power can have a child dying every four minutes because of poor nutrition. A policy has to be put in place to prevent this. But highfalutin programmes controlled by the centre are not the solution. The solution is grass root interventions keeping in mind ground realities. But that is not the way things work in our land.

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