After Palamau (Bihar), Kashipur (Orissa) and Bundelkhand (Uttar Pradesh), it is now the turn of Baran (Rajas- than) to be in the news for the star- vation deaths of more than two dozen Saharia tribals, most of them children. While it was the consumption of mango kernels that proved fatal in Kashipur, grass leaves led to the tragedy in Baran. Starvation amidst plenty shows the complete lack of economic governance at the Centre.
The huge food subsidies have only benefited a section of big farmers, traders and food bureaucrats. Although approximately Rs 25,000 crore is spent annually on food subsidies, 50 per cent children in the country remain malnourished. The latest India development report of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, points out that a 10 per cent increase in procurement prices of rice and wheat means a divertion of funds which could have helped to irrigate 100,000 hectares — thus adversely affecting 80 per cent of the rural population.
The public distribution system does not seem to have helped the poor. Of the foodgrains meant for distribution under the PDS, only 55 per cent of rice and 39 per cent of wheat reach card-holders. The Supreme Court regularly directs state governments to ensure food security.
The starvation deaths of Sahariya tribals is the result of high-sounding “pro-poor” policies which never see the light of day. Successive governments both in the state and at the Centre have pumped money into various schemes of poverty alleviation. Yet, the intended beneficiaries are dying of poverty, hunger and nutritional diseases.
Leakage, inefficiency and corruption have resulted in the failure of many such schemes. With the disappearance of traditional livelihood sources like agriculture and forests, the poor spend around 70 per cent of their income on food. Even though the poverty threshhold has gone down by 10 per cent in 1999-2000, the number of people below the poverty line is still quite high.
The planning commission, after examining the integrated rural development programme, has blamed its failure on the inability to understand the environment-poverty link in villages.
Anantapur, the largest district of Andhra Pradesh, was once famous for pearls, diamonds, groundnuts and vegetables. Till the Sixties, around 5,000 tanks provided sufficient water for traditional agriculture. Now the farmers of the district are paying for the ecological devastation that occurred as a result of government control. The ground water level started to go down after the government took over the control of tanks from villagers.
Also, 54 per cent of the district’s areas, mostly agricultural lands, has lost soil cover and productivity. Anantapur has now been converted into a rallasima (land of rocks) from ratnalasima (land of jewels). Farmers are now victims of government-sponsored poverty.
There is evidence of the depletion and degradation of a wide-range of ecosystems in India and in other developing countries. The rural population is losing control over their resource base, which has been hijacked and over-exploited by the government.
In Orissa, Kashipur attracted media attention twice in recent times; in 1999 because of police firing on tribals agitating against bauxite mining; second, because of the starvation deaths in 2001. Here too, government control over land and forests led to the depletion of natural resources which in turn deprived the villagers of their livelihood.
Indian policy-makers do not have to spend all their resources to eradicate starvation, which results from the alienation of communities from their habitats. Food security for all can only be guaranteed when people within local and regional economies take responsibility for the maintenance and regeneration of ecological capital. The rural poor, mainly adivasis, women and Dalits, must be taught to create sources of livelihood.