The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Hunger deaths confirmed

New Delhi, Nov. 17 (PTI): After a confirmation report from a Central team about starvation deaths in Rajasthan, Union food minister Sharad Yadav has asked the state government to strengthen its public distribution system.

“Our team has upheld the veracity of starvation deaths. However, making the report public will only politicise the issue needlessly. The matter, therefore, is being directly taken up with the Rajasthan government,” official sources said.

To describe the deaths as due to malnutrition, improper eating habits or stomach-related diseases would be a case of semantics, they said. The deaths took place due to lack of access to food and that is why a proper public distribution system has to be in place, the sources added.

The Sahariya tribals were compelled to eat grass seeds that led to fatal ailments, the report said. Having to “eat grass” boils down to “starvation”.

“Call the tragedy by any name, ‘starvation’ or otherwise, the Central team has concluded it is due to improper running of ration shops, deficiency in providing ration cards and few or no food-for-work programmes,” sources said.

The team led by the commercial manager of the Central Warehousing Corporation, B.B. Pattanaik, had been on a “fact-finding” and not “fault-finding” mission, they added.

Yadav has sent a missive to the Rajasthan government asking it to take steps to ensure that the Sahariyas had better access to the public distribution network.

Sources said the Centre was refraining from making the report public as pinning the responsibility on the state in public might be construed as “passing the buck”.

“It is a systemic failure irrespective of who is in power at the Centre or states and has to be addressed by taking corrective measures,” the sources said.

Food insecurity and hunger is not restricted to Rajasthan and is an endemic problem with many families not having money to even purchase wheat and rice at the Antyodaya rates of Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg.

As a result, they mortgage their ration cards for a pittance and are deprived of access to public distribution while the Centre on its part is replenishing foodstocks in vulnerable areas at the cost of exports.

An earlier report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, in alliance with Sankalp and Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, found people in some Rajasthan villages were consuming sama (wild grass seeds).

People were also boiling phang (a wild green vegetation) and eating its leaves as they had nothing else to consume. Others were seen eating meat of dead sheep.

Only a lucky few got two chapatis to eat every two days while the rest did not have more than half-kilogram flour that they boiled to make lapsi and ate with one vatki of cooked or boiled water.

Offtake of grains under the distribution system has been very low and has added to India’s food insecurity. During the April-September period, this year, the offtake from ration shops for wheat was a dismal 18.09 per cent and only slightly better (25.75 per cent) for rice.

In September, the wheat and rice offtake was a mere 15.3 and 24.7 per cent. The corresponding figures for families above the poverty line is also dismal — 6.2 and 5.5 per cent — indicating the strata is hardly using the system.

In case of the below poverty line families, the figures were 45.5 per cent and 50.3 per cent for wheat and rice.

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