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To most of us hunger pangs are that happen when our lunch is delayed by one hour… Have you imagined a situation where

  • People don’t remember when they had their last meal? And don’t know when the next one will come?
  • There is no food grain in the house for the next meal?
  • A meal comprises boiled roots, so bitter that they have to be cut open and washed in running water for a day before cooking?
  • Labour contractors feel the muscles of labourers standing in the market (in a main square in Ranchi) to ascertain their ‘working’ ability? Slave market anybody?
  • People DIE just because they have no food? Last year 13 people DIED, yes DIED, in this district of hunger. Administrative Nero’s are fiddling to determine whether the death was due to starvation or illness!

I came face to face with this situation (and worse) over the last week when I was moving around in the Lesliganj block of Palamu district in Jharkhand. A quick demographic calculation with a local activist group showed that

  • 30% of the people in that area got 2 meals a day irrespective of what was happening around them… a large proportion of these were government servants, traders, money lenders and landlords.
  • 30% of the people could manage 2 meals a day by slogging it out.. small rain-fed farmers, rickshaw pullers fall in this category.
  • 40% went routinely hungry every day, 365 days a year, all their lives… most of these landless labourers, marginal farmers.

I heard about an old woman dying of hunger while her land (2 bighas) was mortgaged to a local money lender against a loan of Rs. 500/- A rickshaw puller dying simply because he was ailing and unable to work…

Even in this poverty, one section of the population stands out.. These are the Mushahars (rat (mushak) eaters (aahar))… This caste has gained a reputation of being worthless, lazy and untrustworthy. As a result they do not get work. They live by begging or catching and displaying snakes.. A typical Mushahar home (!) is a 5 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet structure of branches.. plastered with Palash leaves. This is a family dwelling! School, sanitation, food, drinking water…. are unknown concepts… it is said that a Mushahar will gladly write his life away for a full meal and ½ a bottle of hooch! This is one caste that still has no concept of tomorrow. These are our brethren… citizens of our nation.. 59 years after independence and self rule.

If you don’t feel that this situation is appalling, wait to hear more…. What can be worse, you may well ask… read on…

What is worse is the fact that very few people CARE. Fewer know about it and even fewer try to find out and understand. Let us look at how the system reacts… (I hope that for the sake of the poor, hungry these are only aberrations and that the normal situation is not as bad (wishful thinking?))

A BDO (for the uninitiated this person is a very important government officer in charge of ‘development’ at the block level ) was sitting on stocks of grain that had come as relief for the hungry because he did not have ‘explicit written orders’ to distribute it!

An NGO working on the issue of ‘food security’ reported that one very remote adivasi village, around 30 households, had only 9 kg of grain left! When asked whether he had DONE something about it, the answer was that he had ‘informed’ the local government officer… a week ago… When was he going to act? After people died?

A local politician sitting with a group of villagers was pointing to them one by one, smiling all the time, while saying “this one hasn’t eaten for 3 days… this one for 2 days… this one for a week”…

Where is the sense of responsibility? Accountability? Sympathy? Humanity?

I do not intend to arbitrarily spread gloom by writing this… I wish to share with you how a large part of India lives. I wish all of us to do something about it… to be sensitive and not ignore this reality… to open our eyes and spot opportunities to contribute… to be less profligate… to not haggle with small vegetable vendors and rickshaw pullers over a few rupees while spending a fortune elsewhere without a thought… to demand more accountability from officials…

All of us could say “There, but for the grace of God, go I”