By Sanjay Suri
This meeting at Parliament House in London brought a little change from the usual stories that do the rounds about all this promise leaping out of India’s spectacular growth – even if that growth has been a good deal less spectacular than China’s, and a fair bit less than it was a year or so back.
Talk here always was going to be different; none other than Dr Binayak Sen, that close and controversial pal of the Naxalites, and Bulu Imam, the campaigner from Hazaribagh against open mining practices, were to be honoured by the Gandhi Foundation. The foundation, set up by Lord Richard Attenborough, counts a rich representation of critics of India.
Call it inevitable ignorance in an Indian living outside India, but I was startled by Dr Binayak Sen’s assertion at the meeting that there is a state of famine across India.
Famine? Uneven growth, yes. That most people have benefited relatively little from India’s recent advancement, yes. That kind of criticism is familiar, and to me, not particularly bothersome. It stands against the impossible expectation that all of a billion people would, in the space of a few years, march with uniform strides into development and material comfort. The claims of lack of evenness are also less than convincing; percolation has been huge and undeniable, and a great deal more than the usual critics allow. But famine across India?
Dr Sen’s left-leaning credentials might invite a natural discounting of his suggestions. But he does have stronger credentials, and he was citing government data.
“I work in a common area between the practice of human rights and the practice of medicine, particularly the science of nutrition,” he told the meeting. “I’d like to draw your attention particularly to a situation that exists in India today regarding nutrition of which not many people are aware. There is a situation of famine, a chronic famine that is ongoing in India as we speak.”
Not of the apocalyptic type “with people falling dead on the streets,” he said, “but we do have a famine, and I can substantiate this with government figures…The National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) publishes repeated surveys, and their figures show that around 37 percent of Indian adults across the country have a body mass index (BMI) – which is a measure of nutritional adequacy – of below 18.5, which is held to signify chronic undernutrition.” So, famine he was saying, in that sense.
Besides, he said, “everyone knows that 45 to 47 percent of children in India below five years of age are malnourished in terms of weight for age. This is well known and well documented.”
To this Dr Sen added sinister suggestions. These figures, he said, are the average. But among tribal people, in certain regions, and among minorities, the incidence was as high as 60 percent. The claim that the good doctor was making at this meeting in the British parliament house was that a lot of India is starved of a proper diet, and that tribals and the minorities are in this way starved a great deal more than others. “This famine is not an accident,” he said. “It is a famine that is being induced by forces that are at work in society today.”
That BMI can be linked to famine of sorts – if indeed it can – was news to me, blinkered by city comforts as I no doubt am. BMI has always seemed to me a matter of concern for people with cars, who are inside them longer than they should be, in travelling spells between a generous intake of serial paranthas and their calorific cousins. BMI has meant to me the upper limits breached, never the lower limit not reached. But given Dr Binayak Sen’s natural and unalterable love for Naxalites – or the legitimately angry people we call Naxalites – I do ask also if the good doctor might be overstating this case for famine.
Many of the hawkish guests at the meeting were finding rich pickings here. As were a couple of ISI chaps (I suspect even they don’t believe any more that nobody knows them). But is it the case that the Hindus quite visibly swell past the upper BMI limit while most Muslims never make it to the minimum? Because this is about that 18.5 BMI, not the BMI issue in its late twenties. Such differences with the minorities are clearly not apparent. Or even perhaps with tribal people.
As a city chap I’d hesitate to say anything about those we call tribals, even to use that word ‘tribal’ for fear of being intrusively incorrect. But I do admit I always thought the people we refer to when we say tribals are not starving but just naturally slim, given a naturally active lifestyle unlike city folk – barring the naturally lucky, the particularly disciplined, or that tiny smattering that drives to a gym every now and then. That some tens of millions of tribal people in India could be thin because they might be short of food is not what I’d have thought possible. Not all of India is shining of course, but I wouldn’t have thought so much of it is starving.
Was Dr Sen speaking as a nutritionist or as Naxalite?
He ducked the Naxalite question when I put it to him. “I don’t want to localise what is happening to any particular group. I think that expropriation of resources is taking place across the country. And the resistance to that has to take place across the country, and involve all communities and peoples.”
But did he support Naxalites? “I would like this discussion to be on broader parameters. I don’t want to talk about just one particular issue…I am not here to answer accusations. I would like to discuss this issue in its totality. There is a famine going on as we talk, that is not being recognised by the authorities.”
We’d have to hear the NNMB on this.