The hunger games

A mother of five watched two of her children die of hunger! I wonder if you can even begin to imagine the pain and total helplessness of this woman. We are of those who run after our kids with plates of food, willing to conjure anything alternatives treats should our brat refuse the fare of the day. We are of those who move heaven and earth should our child get a minor scratch. We are of those who have never experienced hunger pangs or seen our child hungry. So how can we even begin to feel the agony of that mother. The authorities with their art of splitting hair  and their misplaced wisdom declared the children had died of diarrhea as they always do to keep their statistics clean. According to them few really die of starvation. For us it is just a news item, if we are one of those who switched on the TV at the opportune time.

Starvation is something we prefer ignoring as it shows us in a poor light and is not in sync with the image our rulers and many of us want to project. But starvation is real even it we want to look away. It is a terrible failure on our part and is partly if not mainly due to our inability to ensure that social programmes are implemented properly and not hijacked by the corrupt ways of some and the total indifference of others. Grains rot as we can't put a distribution system in place and most of all the really poor slip out of the net of obtuse paper work. The equation is skewed to favour the administration not the beneficiary and thus the real poor get left out.

Starvation or near starvation exists in XXIst century India. It is not all about food but about systemic failure and the failures of all programmes that could have helped the poor regain ownership of their lives. The proposed Food Security Bill solution to starvation is that all those people who are identified would be guaranteed two free meals per day for six months. My question is: what happens after 6 months, provided of course that persons identified are true beneficiaries.

In Ash in the Belly the author recounts how mothers ferret rat holes for grain to feed their children! I do not think anyone of us can understand the pain and desperation of these mothers and yet they do the best they can even if to many it sounds degrading and unacceptable. These are true stories you can read if you have the heart.

A Food Security Bill, no matter the flaws, was introduced in Parliament in December 2011. One would have thought that the 500 odd representatives of the people would at least come together and pass this bill swiftly. But they did not. For them hunger is just a game to be played at the opportune moment, let us say before elections. No one really cares about those that are dying simply because we have not been able to implement programmes meant to alleviate hunger. For our lawmakers these are just gimmicks to make them look good, and once the law has been passed, then ways to enrich themselves.

The amount of food that is wasted is humongous from the grains that rot for want of space, to food thrown at parties, weddings, religious feeding etc. Our children throw food and we say nothing. Respect for food is not instilled in our young ones. I do not know if you have seen the ad for a food supplement for children, where a brat pushes away a plate of healthy food with distaste. I shudder each time I see this ad. Such representation should be banned! It is time we taught our children respect for food and told them about the starving children. It is not right to hide realities from kids. Compassion and concern should be taught to children at a young age.

But let is come back to the Food Security Bill. I do not know if it will really bring the change it meant to. It is likely to go the way all social legislation have. And that is often because of our indifference. A recent article published in a weekly traces the chronicle of the Integrated Child Development Services  ICDS, a scheme launched with great fanfare way back in 1975 to improve the nutritional and health status of pregnant and lactating mothers and children in the 0-6 years age group, to reduce infant mortality, morbidity, malnutrition and school drop-out rate and to lay the foundation for the proper psychological, physical and social development of the child. Had the scheme been well implemented India would have looked different. As we all know it is 9 months and 1000 days that are the most crucial to a child. The article aptly entitled Privatising the ICDS once again proves the way our rulers like to take each and every time be it education, health, midday meals or any other programme that benefits the poor. The well run pilots proved that the scheme were successful but the Government was extremely lethargic in moving to universalise the scheme, and provided only pathetic amounts to finance it and enable it to function properly and this even after a Supreme Court Judgement noted that the ICDS was very important in the overall development of children in India and ordered the Central government to universalise the scheme to cover all children in the country. The State did but a recent report shows that 61 per cent of the AWCs  (creches) did not have their own building, and that another 25 per cent were functioning out of kuccha/semi-pukka buildings or partially open structures. Between 40 and 65 per cent did not have separate spaces for cooking, storing food items or separate spaces for children’s activities. Fifty two per cent of the AWCs did not have their own toilets, and 32 per cent had no drinking water facility. Functioning weighing machines for children and adults were absent in 26 per cent and 58 per cent of AWCs respectively. The State promised to change things and now proposes to hand over the running of the creches to NGOs and private parties. You can imagine the consequences.

I said earlier that the change we would like to see, as I presume that even if we are cynical, the idea of children dying of malnutrition is preposterous and unacceptable, needs us to take a proactive role. I am sure many of you would be thinking I am mad. Our political duty does not stop at casting a vote but should also extend to asking questions and giving a voice to those who have none. We have a wonderful legislation in the Right to Information, and how many card games or kitty and other parties we would have to miss were we to take a sheet of paper and file an application under the RTI Act asking let us say for example how many Anganwadis there are in a locality, maybe the one where those who work in our homes live, where they are situated, what nutrition is give, does their weighing machine work. Or why could we not ask our maid to take us to an Anganwadi and see for ourselves the reality on the ground and then write to our MP or MLA. If we did, then believe you me things would be different.

This may sound like wishful thinking, but is is time we took ownership of things that shock us and lend our voices to straighten the tort.

Will we? That is the question!