While India Hankers For Global High Table, Many Struggle For A Decent Meal

06/07/2016 7:00 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Jyoti Malhotra

Bindeshwar Sahu, a grain dealer, lives in Nauhar village in the Barheta panchayat of Bihar’s Banke Bazar block, a couple of hours away from the Buddhist township of Bodh Gaya. In early June, economists Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera, actively campaigning for the Right to Food Act, and their team of surveyors requested the Block Development Officer (BDO), Sanjay Kumar, to look into Nauhar’s persistent complaints of irregularities into the Public Distribution System (PDS). When questioned, Sahu admitted as much. “Sir, jhoot nahin bolenge, hum do mahine ka khate hain.” (Sir, I’ll not lie. I keep two months worth rations for myself.)

The survey team was stunned. From the bottom of the food chain, a private grain contractor had admitted to stealing the people’s rations. He had probably been doing this for a while and, of course, believed he would get away with it. But now the people had gathered the courage to complain against him. He was not only over-charging them for their subsidized grain – 5 kg per person for wheat and rice, ideally priced at Rs2 and Rs3 per kg respectively--but also keeping some of it for himself. Some months, he would simply shut shop and not give out any grain at all.

From the bottom of the food chain, a private grain contractor had admitted to stealing the people’s rations.

At a public hearing that followed the survey on June 13, at the Jagannath High School in Banke Bazar, villagers from Nauhar led the clamour. The grain dealer must either go or reform himself. Several people had been left out of the new lists that promised them subsidized grain. In other villages in Gaya and Jamui, districts where the survey had taken place, local officials had been found to be turning a blind eye to grievances. BDO Sanjay Kumar, who left a job at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to join the state administration, said, “I am promising you I will take action against [Sahu].”

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Public hearing in Bihar on 13 June. Photo credit: Adithyan PC.

As I travelled across southern Bihar to attend the public hearing in Gaya, school was out for the summer, but the big cobwebs on the benches and desks at the Jagannath High School indicated that the rooms hadn’t been used for a while. Slowly, the shamiana put up for the public hearing filled up: curious young students, village women who had been part of the survey and now wanted to make their voices heard, and men who bore the brunt of the cycle of farm life.

Asked why their classrooms had so many cobwebs, the boys said cheerfully, “Classes are held once or twice a week, and that too only for a couple of hours. Just one bell, then we are free for the day,” said Pappu, a student of Class IX.

“School opens for the whole day only when money needs to be distributed for (chief minister Nitish Kumar’s) cycles,” added Shiv. He was referring to one of the state’s most popular programmes, which gifts a cycle to every student who has completed Class IX. Ramadhar Paswan, an ex-student now studying in the Laloo Mandal College in Gaya, pointed out there is “absolutely no teaching” in the college too. “We go for admissions, exams and to get our certificates. The rest is self-study,” he said.

This litany about teachers who refuse to come to class, and when they come at all, barely condescend to teach for a couple of hours, sounded like the cry from an older era, from another Bihar. Hadn’t Nitish Kumar swept a big broom through the state in his last ten years of power?

"Classes are held once or twice a week, and that too only for a couple of hours."

Drèze, who, along with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, wrote a classic on India’s socio-economic development, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, pointed out that Bihar has, indeed, done significant work since Kumar came to power in 2010. But compared to states like Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and even West Bengal, it remained a laggard.

“Ten years ago, you couldn’t hold a public hearing like this in the Gaya region, which used to be a hotbed of caste wars as well as state repression; certainly not have 500 people attending. So while Bihar has done quite well on promoting democratic interventions, especially in the run up to the October 2015 elections, the problem is, since the elections, the state seems to have gone to sleep. Nothing much seems to have happened at all,” said Drèze.

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Block Development Officer of Banke Bazaar, Sanjay Kumar. Photo credit: Adithyan PC.

According to a sample survey carried out by Drèze and Khera’s team--in 3,600 households across six states, from three randomly selected villages in two districts in each state--Chhattisgarh performed the best, with 95 per cent of households surveyed saying they had ration cards (against 81 per cent before the National Food Security Act 2013) and 96 per cent purchased foodgrains against their entitlement in May 2016.

Odisha came second, with 86 per cent of households having ration cards (against 62 per cent earlier), and 96 per cent claiming they were buying grains. Madhya Pradesh came third, with 85 per cent of households having ration cards (compared to 55 per cent earlier) and 100 per cent households collecting grains.

West Bengal, which received a dramatic push by chief minister Mamata Banerjee in the run-up to the elections this summer, scored 86 per cent (compared to 51 per cent before the National Food Security Act), with 95 per cent purchasing subsidized grains.

On food security, Bihar remains a “troubling exception” in the company of states determined to succeed.

Jharkhand and Bihar were the worst performers. In Jharkhand, only 76 per cent households had ration cards (compared to 50 per cent earlier), while in Bihar that figure was 83 per cent (compared to 64 per cent earlier). Only 55 per cent had lifted grains in May in Jharkhand, while an abysmal 15 per cent had lifted grains in Bihar in May.

According to Biraj Patnaik, advisor to the Supreme Court commissioners on food security, Bihar remains a “troubling exception” in the company of states determined to succeed. Raman Singh’s Chhattisgarh implemented the Food Security Act in 2012, giving 7 kg of grain per person, more than the 2 kg mandated by the Central Act, monitoring the distribution of grain through GPS and other technological solutions. Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik had outsourced the PDS to a handful of able bureaucrats and they seemed to be doing the job well. Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan said he wanted to reform the system and showed political will.

In Bihar, Patnaik said, the problems were so deep and the system so structurally flawed that until ten years ago, before Nitish Kumar came to power, only 30 per cent of the households were lifting grain. Unlike the other states, which worked closely with civil society campaigners and NGOs, Nitish Kumar never seemed comfortable involving them in governance.

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Bihar remains one of the laggard states in terms of India’s socio-economic development. Photo credit: Adithyan PC.

As for the lack of significant progress since Nitish Kumar won a third term in 2015, political observers, including members of his own party in Patna, say he has his hands full dealing with the fallout of his alliance with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Drèze pointed to another survey his team conducted in Bihar in 2011, when they asked people if they went to sleep hungry. As many as 70 per cent of the ‘Below Poverty Line’ households said “Yes”. “If the states have political will to implement the PDS, they will do well. That is the lesson we clearly see,” he said.

Banke Bazar is part of the Imamganj constituency, recently won by former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi of the Hindustani Awam Morcha. The local MP, from nearby Aurangabad, is from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Sushil Kumar Singh, while the state is run by Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United).

Clearly, none of the three parties has taken the initiative to come together and fix the problem of leakages, food corruption and injustice in this Bihar backwater.

***

Underneath the shamiana at the Jagannath High School, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. The men are stick-thin. The women suckling their babies shift uncomfortably in their polyester saris – nobody wears cotton anymore. They seem anaemic, as do the babies. There is no starvation, but hunger seems omnipresent. Everyone is far too thin.

The only well-fed people under that shamiana--apart from city-slickers like us--are the BDO, the marketing officer and a couple of grain dealers. The contrast is overwhelming.

"When the elections come, they come to us and say, Vote do, vote do!”

Perhaps this is how it has always been in Bharat. The southern states, like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, seceded long ago, when they eliminated malnutrition through the proper distribution of foodgrain, pulses, eggs, and so on. Alongside, village communities were empowered through the political parties they elected to make anganwadis (government-sponsored child- and mother-care shelters) effective and deliver nutritious food to pregnant and lactating mothers as well as ensure hot midday meals were given to all school-going children.

Bhanumati, from Nauhar village, is complaining at the public hearing that her grain dealer is fleecing her – she pays Rs 3 per kg for wheat to her dealer, when the rate is Rs 2 per kg. Ramvati has the same problem, so Drèze and Khera’s team go through her monthly budget in front of the audience. Turns out she is paying Rs 90 to the grain dealer, when she should be paying Rs 69. A third woman tells the crowd her dealer insists on keeping one kilogram of grain as commission every month. A fourth man says he has to give the Marketing Officer (MO) a commission.

The hearing is properly underway. Only a few minutes ago, the women had been amused when one of the student volunteers, Rashi, exhorted them to shout along with her, “Hum sab ek hain!” (We are all one, together!) As the complaints came in thick and strong, and the BDO and the MO were forced to respond, the crowd seemed excited that what they say might really make a difference after all.

One middle-aged woman is now pushing herself through the crowd to stand in front of the microphone. “We don’t get the kind of rice we want to eat through the PDS. When we say grain hasn’t come, the MO says there is no lapse. And when elections come, they come to us and say, vote do, vote do!”

The hearing ends after three hours. The MO seems quite chastised, and the BDO, who once worked at JNU, has been forced to admit, “Mujhe bahut dukh ho raha hai yeh sab sunne main.” (I’m sad to hear these things.)

Perhaps one way of explaining the grave nature of the malnutrition crisis is to put it into statistical perspective. India ranks 55th among 76 emerging economies on the 2014 Global Hunger Index, worse than Ghana, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Nepal. As many as 195 million people are undernourished, more than the population of Pakistan. The number of underweight children under the age of 5 did come down from 43.5 per cent in 2000 to 30.7 per cent in 2014, but that is still 2.3 crore children (out of 8 crores) who attend anganwadis.

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Underneath the shamiana at the Jagannath High School, the anecdotal evidence was overwhelming. Photo credit: Adithyan PC.

Biraj Patnaik points out that governments have not only failed to understand the complex problem of malnutrition, but also not bothered to measure it since 2006. “Unlike hunger, which can be dealt with by the provisioning of food, malnutrition requires taking care of other social determinants including access to potable drinking water, sanitation, quality health care, women’s literacy, and so on. In other words, we need coordinated actions amongst various wings of government, instead of passing the buck.”

During his recent visit to the US, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to buy six nuclear power plant reactors at a cost of $8 billion. His government allocated only $5.3 billion to the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme as well as the National Health Mission, $700 million short of target.

Government officials say the Centre is handing over responsibility to states for social policy, but civil society practitioners worry that the sums don’t add up. Moreover, they fear that the Central government’s determination to implement cash transfers instead of food and health entitlements may mean that male heads of households will spend the money on alcohol and other wasteful items.

“The government says it has no money, but what is that supposed to mean? When the fiscal deficit is said to be closing, revenues are going up, and India is supposed to be the fastest-growing country in the world, why is there no money for its people?” asked Patnaik.

Back in Delhi, the newspapers are full of stories demanding that India take its rightful place at the global high table, alongside the US and China. I wonder if Banke Bazar will ever comprehend the choices Delhi makes on its behalf, leave alone agree with them.

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