No one starves in India. The poor drink, get sick and die

Being underweight is a “national shame” in India but starving to death, well, that just does not happen.

When a survey revealed that 42% of India’s children are underweight, Manmohan Singh called it a “national shame.”

But when a Gita Devi dies of starvation, the village council chief shrugs, writes Ashwin Parulkar, researcher at New Delhi think tank Centre for Equity Studies, in the Wall Street Journal's India Real Time. Read Parulkar's six part India Real Time series on Starving in India: The Forgotten Problem.

“Gita Devi,” he said between a gulp of tea and a bite of biscuit “died of tuberculosis.”

“These people are poor,” he explained. “They drink. So they have health problems. They get sick. And die.”

Bas. Case closed.

What the series, done in association with the Centre for Equity Studies, shows, is that we cannot admit to starvation deaths because it would mean admitting to an entire systemic failure up and down the chain.

Indian's starvation problem is not forgotten as much as it is ignored, shoved under the carpet or just blatantly denied. Reuters

It would mean admitting to negligence or corruption.

It would mean admitting to flouting the Supreme Court’s ruling that states have a legal responsibility to ensure that people have adequate food.

It would mean admitting to the fact that public distribution system was defunct.

It would mean admitting that the government mandated mid-day school meal, only happens four or five days a month because the school is closed the other days. It does not have enough staff.

It would mean admitting to prickly unpleasant questions about why the poorest of the poor, the ones starving to death in a food-surplus country, belong to the most backward castes.

It’s much easier instead to announce yet another Mukhyamantri Yojana (chief minister's scheme) that does not reach the people and dismiss the deaths that do happen.

Eight people died in Hindiyankalan village in Jharkhand in one night  in October 2008. The official verdict – they died of food poisoning from eating gethi, a toxic wild root. True. But the real question is – can we imagine the hunger that drives a family to eat wild roots it knows are toxic?

Read the India Real Time series because the stories, while bleak and heartrending, are not just an Arundhati Roy-esque rant against the system. They are stories about policy and policy failure but with the faces of real people.

“My mother died in the morning after drinking water,” he said. “The same night, my daughter passed away.  The next morning, my wife also died of starvation,” he added, straight-faced.

Vilas wasn’t done with the surprises.

“Now my second wife is ill,” he said. “And we don’t have enough food to give her.”

And once you have read the stories, read  some of  the comments to understand the scale of the problem.

Sosad writes, “This article, like many that can be found in the pages of western media, casually mentions the caste of the people discussed here. The clear implication will be that somehow upper caste folks are oppressing these people. And this type of reporting is pervasive, since many of the reporters doing these articles have clear left leanings and their own caste agendas.”

Ratnesh says, “Gita Devi died after giving birth to her SIXTH child….read that again….S I X T H child. A family that can barely manage to feed its existing members has no right to keep bringing in more hungry mouths into this world.”

Sorry, Sosad this is not about right or left and bleeding heart liberal handwringing versus tough free market policies. Sorry, Ratnesh, this is not about a failure of family planning.

This is about the utter failure of the safety net.

In that sense, the series is being too charitable with its headline – Starving in India: The Forgotten Problem. There is something benign about forgetting – like a missed birthday or misplaced keys.

The problem is not forgotten as much as it is ignored, shoved under the carpet or just blatantly denied.

Only one person uses the word “forget” in the story. It’s Paro Devi from Jharkhand whose husband starved to death after his construction jobs dried up.

“I haven’t tasted dal (lentils) in so long I forget what it tastes like,” she says.

Read the first three parts of the Starving in India series on the India Real Time blog here. Check out the video here.


Updated Date: Apr 11, 2012 13:16 PM

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