The recently released report of the National Human Rights Commission probing the deaths reported last year from Orissa’s Kashipur block has confirmed what the Orissa government had always claimed — that the deaths were indeed caused by “food poisoning and natural causes”, but were not induced by starvation.
The NHRC medical team was however unable to establish the mango kernel itself as a possible cause of poisoning. Rather, it came down heavily on the continued absence of any kind of healthcare facilities. Those that did exist, did not function satisfactorily, which in turn led to the poor resistance of adivasis to attacks of diseases like diarrhoea, tuberculosis and jaundice. The report also confirmed that there was “backbreaking poverty” in Kashipur. Most of the below-poverty-line families had no means to procure food, even at the meagre rates offered by the public distribution system.
To focus on the question of “starvation deaths”, however, is to skirt the real issue — that widespread hunger is endemic in the region, compounded by abject backwardness. The Nineties have witnessed a protracted crisis of traditional livelihoods in this part of western Orissa. It was sparked off by a ecological plunder of the region’s resources by the paper and pulp industry, the dismantling of the food security system and the impact of climate change leading to drought alternating with excessive, unseasonal rain.
Too many promises
Then came the giant mining companies to unleash a new kind of devastation. The adivasis’ access to the forests, to which they had natural rights once, is now greatly curtailed. One year on, many of the 31,000-odd families in Kashipur remain mired in poverty.
In January this year, the Union food minister had assured Kashipur of food subsidies worth Rs 137 crore. Besides, nearly 14 lakh families were to receive 25 kilogrammes of foodgrain per month under the Antyodaya scheme. But even as Food Corporation of India godowns overflow with foodgrain, the people of Kashipur had to eat the gruel prepared with fungus-infested mango kernel or inedible mushrooms. Many of the tribal people have mortgaged their ration cards for sums as paltry as Rs 50 to moneylenders. Many of those who possess cards still cannot afford to purchase the sanctioned amount of 25 kg, finding Rs 75 difficult to raise on a single day. Moneylenders, while willing to extend the necessary amount, allowed them barely 5 kgs, but sold the remaining 20 kg at Rs 7 or 8 a kg in the open market. All too often they also lent back the cards at higher prices to their victims.
And suggestions too
The NHRC report did lay down several suggestions for alleviation of the region’s backwardness. These include the need for allotment of land to the landless, development of irrigation through watershed projects, identification of moneylenders and their prosecution.
But more than doles or credit programmes, what is required are schemes that lead to a permanent alleviation of misery. The biggest bottleneck to development remains lack of credit. The long-term answer to poverty in the region, as has been suggested, is economic diversification. Government assistance must be timely and visionary to ensure that alternative economic activities develop fast.
Meanwhile, there are fears of another Kashipur being replicated in Orissa with the spectre of drought looming large. That the rural development ministry has done precious little yet to repair the defunct tubewells in most of Orissa’s 30 districts is symptomatic of the apathy that prevails in government circles. The Naveen Patnaik government has been demanding “special state” category for it. But most of Patnaik’s energies are frittered away in countering dissidence within his own party. And for all its claims of being a near bankrupt state, Orissa in February witnessed one of the most expensive panchayat elections ever.