The narrative of hunger

Updated: Dec 21, 2010, 00:56 AM IST

The stomach knows nothing when it comes to hunger. But a humble meal is something not everyone can afford to have. At times even chilli mixed with a little water is not enough to put down the hunger.

For the people of Gautam Nagar, one of 300 slum settlements in the city of Bhopal, the fate surrounds cramped quarters on wasteland, and only plastic sheets to protect them from the wrath of nature. This is the story of more than 60 families whose children are seen wandering along the roads with swollen bellies, begging from the passer-by.

Despite nutrition rehabilitation centres and ration shops, malnutrition in India is on the rise. "Indicators of urban food insecurity ... reveal an alarming picture," says the Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Urban India, published by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and the World Food Programme. The Congress party is drafting a revolutionary Right to Food bill. After it returned to power in 2009 Congress promised to lift the country out of poverty.

It appears as though distress has no address other than that of the inhabitants of Gautam Nagar. Having access to rice, sugar, wheat or kerosene via the PDS system is a dream for these dwellers. The ration shops, which are supposed to distribute rice, sugar, wheat and even kerosene at subsidised prices to anyone in need does not open for the people of Gautam nagar.

The story of Munna Lal, tells you how ration cards are mortgaged. Munna had to give up his ration card two years ago. He was arrested by the police after a violent dispute with his cousin. The cops demanded more than 600 rupees as bail for his release, and 2,500 as a bribe. Munna had to give his ration card as security to the owner of the ration shop to obtain the loan for bribing police. Some ration cards are no longer used to obtain food but as collateral for debt and many shopkeepers have become money-lenders. Having a ration card for the seasonal migrants is impossibility since they even don’t have a fixed address or an identity card.

Munna sets out to pick up waste every day at 4am. Food is expensive. "It`s not like the forest here; you always have to pay to eat," says Munna. Economic growth has created work in the city but most jobs are casual: you only eat what you can earn. After collecting enough shoe-soles and plastic bottle-tops he can feed his wife and seven children. Munna barely earns 100 to 150 rupees a day. "At every meal we eat chapatis with salt, chili and sometimes, on good days, onions and vegetables," his wife says.

In theory, their children qualify for access to one of the nutrition rehabilitation centres. The government has set up more than a million such centres nationwide for malnourished children and pregnant women. But here the nearest one is a kilometre away and the parents, at work all day, do not have the time to take their children there. "Above all, people from the slums feel excluded, often complaining that they are not treated with respect," says Maheen Mirza, the author of several articles on malnutrition in Bhopal.

Seema Deshmukh, of the Muskaan NGO, who works with Bhopal slum dwellers says, "Some people can only buy their periodical allowance of food at one time. Day workers often cannot save enough to buy 20kg of wheat or 3kg of rice in one go". So having a ration card is not of any use for such people. According to a 2004 study by the Planning Commission, only 40% of the food allocated to the poorest people by the public distribution system reaches them. The rest ends up on the black market or rots in warehouses. But more than two-thirds of children under the age of five in the towns of Madhya Pradesh are anaemic despite the nutrition centres.

The nutrition centre nearest Gautam Nagar is in a stronghold of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, which governs Madhya Pradesh state. Parvati Khatarkar, a primary school teacher, hands out food to the children every morning in a tiny room, and teaches them to read and write. She also records their weight and height, checking that they correspond to the average figures marked in her notebook. If not, she must tell their family and the health service.

Arguing on the role played by public distribution system (PDS) in giving subsidised food for everyone, some economists advocate nationwide deployment of PDS to stamp out hunger. But others argue that such a system would cost around $20bn. In October the National Advisory Council, chaired by Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party president, recommended extending the existing system to three-quarters of the population, with just two categories of beneficiary – priority and general.

Government is also planning to computerise the distribution system, and hand out electronic ration cards, to prevent fraud. However the Right to Food campaign, an informal group of NGOs, expressing disappointment said, "We are shocked that the expansion of food entitlements for all is not even being considered".

"Arguments of lack of resources cannot be accepted where, on the other hand, the same government provides tax exemptions and rebates of over $115bn [in 2009-10] majorly [sic] to the corporate sector." The Indian parliament will debate the Right to Food bill in spring.

The story behind hunger might be different in different corners of India but the narrative remains the same.

Adaptation from an article which originally appeared in Le Monde.