(Info) Food Insecurity in Bundelkhand

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Bundelkhand

Food Insecurity in Bundelkhand

Food insecurity exists in a particular location when all people living there do not, at all times, have 'physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs' according to a definition of the Food Aid Organisation (FAO) of the UN.

Food insecurity in India has been mapped by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai and World Food Program (WFP) of the FAO, which have drawn up food insecurity atlases of rural and urban India.

The mapping does not look only at availability of food, which is the primary but not sufficient criterion. It also looks at access to food, which is determined by purchasing power, and can be severely affected by disasters like floods and drought. Purchasing power is in turn determined by access to livelihood opportunities.

Access to food is also affected by caste and gender discrimination. Another basic factor to consider is utilisation of food - the body's ability to absorb food, or the health status of an individual, which is determined at the very basic level by access to safe drinking water, health services, and sanitation facilities.

Food insecurity is thus a complex issue, and the rural India food insecurity atlas uses 19 indicators, including per capita consumption of food grain, percentage of population consuming less than 1890 calories a day, percentage of drought-prone area, poverty line, percentage of population dependant on labour and rural and health infrastructure index.

Based on these indicators, the states of Bihar and Jharkhand were classified in 2004 as 'extremely  (food) insecure' and UP and MP were deemed 'severely insecure'.

In this 'severely insecure' area, we get a more detailed picture of MP Bundelkhand districts from the Food Insecurity Atlas of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh prepared earlier, in 2000, by WFP.

The objective of the study was 'vulnerability analysis and mapping' of food insecure areas in these two states. The 20 indicators chosen, under five broad categories, were related to the three basic aspects of food insecurity mentioned above, namely food availability, accessibility and utilisation.

A composite vulnerability index, derived from category-wise indexes, showed that the most vulnerable district of MP was Jhabua, with a score of 1.61. The least vulnerable of the districts was Neemuch with a score of 0.61. Within MP Bundelkhand, the most vulnerable district was  Panna (1.23) followed by Damoh (1.02), Sagar (0.80), Datia and Chhatarpur ( 0.79), and Tikamgarh (0.76).

This objectively deduced vulnerability assessment reflects the food insecurity assessment made by households themselves: the 2002 BPL Survey reported that over 85% of rural households in Panna and Damoh, and around 80% of households in Chhatarpur and Tikamgarh districts said that they did not have enough food throughout the year.

It is no coincidence that Jhabua, Panna and Damoh have a high ST population. Irrespective of everything else, ST groups of  peninsular India, are the most food insecure section of the country's population, suffering the most under all three aspects of rural food insecurity: they have poor quality of agricultural land, have very little purchasing power and have low health status and access to health facilities.

In UP Bundelkhand, ST groups (though not recognised as such by the state government) are found in Chitrakoot and Lalitpur, and it was from the latter district that the first report of 'hunger death' in Bundelkhand in recent times, made national headlines, in 2001.

Subsequently, in  2003, there were reports about poor families forced to survive by 'eating grass', following media visits organised by Bundelkhand Sewa Sansthan (BSS), an NGO associated with ABSSS, to the interior regions of Madawara block of Lalitpur district, where Sahariyas live in large numbers.

Following the reports, the district collector and magistrate (DM), Umesh Kumar Mittal, and his colleagues were moved to action. They decided to visit a few villages and the BSS organised a public hearing. Sheelrani, a woman from Badwar village, showed the DM rotis made from the flour of seeds of a grass called samai. 'The officials then entered our houses and saw the gunny bags in which we store the seeds,' she revealed. 'Only then were they convinced that we make rotis out of it.'

The DM immediately ordered the distribution of Antyodaya ration cards, which enabled families living below the poverty line to buy 20 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice a month at Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg respectively. This had only limited impact. In many Sahariya households, there are just too many mouths to feed. Said Sheelrani, 'Earlier we used to eat chappatis made only from grass seeds. After we got the Antyodaya food grains, we mixed the flour of wheat with the powder of grass seeds in equal proportion.'

This practice was also reported from Tikamgarh, during the 2003-2007 drought. As Sushmita Malaviya reported in December 2006 for the Hindustan Times, the grass is washed and its seeds (grains) are pounded and the mixed with wheat flour. The mixture fills stomachs, but is difficult to digest and causes constipation.

The 2003-2007 drought in Bundelkhand led to a situation of 'nutritional emergency', described in some detail in a report by Arundhati Dhuru and others, submitted to the Supreme Court as part of the 'right to food case' (writ petition 196/2001, People's Union of Civil Liberties [PUCL] v. Union of India and others). The team led by Dhuru visited a total of eight villages in Lalitpur, Mahoba and Banda districts, in January 2008.

The first person they met was an old Sahariya woman sitting outside her locked house in Dhamna  village, in Lalitpur. She was abandoned by her family which had migrated to Madhya Pradesh in search of work. She could barely crawl and survived seeking alms from her community, which itself had little to share. On further probing, the team found that around 250 Sahariya adults out of a total of 450 in the village had migrated to Indore, Bhopal, Delhi and Gwalior for work. Other members who could not migrate were aged, single women and children. 'Only a few able bodied persons were around.'

Studying the survival practices of those who had stayed behind, the team found that some households mainly survived selling by minor forest produce and wood collected from the depleted forests; they earned on Rs.15-Rs 40 per day. Households with landholdings had generally leased them out to large farmers; in return, they earned up to Rs. 2,000 per year or an equivalent amount of grain. When asked what they ate, the general response of the Sahariyas was roti with salt and/ or chillis. At best, some families had roti and gur on some days.

The resultant poor nutritional status was reflected in haemoglobin levels ascertained of a small sample of 10 children and 3 adults. All the children and adults had haemoglobin much below normal levels.

Of the 110 Sahariya households in village Dhamna, also in Lalitpur, only half had BPL or Antyodaya cards, which made them eligible to some quantity of subsidised or free foodgrains. BPL/Antyodaya card holders were receiving their quota of grain but even in the drought conditions, they were being overcharged by the public distribution system (PDS) license holder ('kotedar') to the extent of 30%.

The Government of India has a major programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), to help rural households get minimum wages for 100 days a year. NREGS is particularly required during times of severe distress like drought, but in Dhamna, the team found, no Sahariya had got work under NREGS for more than eight days in 2007-2008. Worst affected were single women. None of the single women in Dhamna had BPL or Antyodaya cards. They had received NREGS job cards but none had got work though they had demanded it orally. It was not that no NREGS works being carried; the team visited a work site near the village where 180 people were employed. The workers included some children.

Coming to the overall food security situation in the surveyed villages of the three districts, the team observed that going by two major indicators, the body mass index (BMI) and the haemoglobin count, the surveyed population was 'severely malnourished'. Out of a total of 39 children studied, over 70% were found to be suffering from Grade II or Grade III low haemoglobin count, or anaemia. None of the children had a normal count. Among 23 adults studied, 96% had Grade II or Grade I anaemia. BMI studies of the same samples showed that only 15% of the children had normal or 'normal low' weight. Among adults, 60% had below normal BMI. 

The majority of the surveyed population was thus in a highly vulnerable position.. 'Shocks' like lack of food in the household for a prolonged period, illness, including minor ailments such as unattended diarrhoea and neurobiological disorders could drive people 'to the verge of death'.

This is what indeed happened in Bundelkhand in 2003-2007, according to several media reports on 'bhukmari' or deaths or suicides due to hunger.

A public interest writ petition filed by ABSSS in the Allahabad High Court in August 2007, drew attention to several such reported deaths. The petition also provided some details of four deaths reported in Nahari village of Naraini block of Banda district, which were investigated by an independent team of lawyers led by well-known Supreme Court lawyer Colin Gonsalves.

One of the victims Bhagwat Prasad Prajapati, 45, had owned a small plot of land, from which soil was excavated for making pots. The plot was grabbed by some 'dabangs' (village toughies). No action was taken by authorities. Bhagwat was left with no source of livelihood and did not even have a ration card to get PDS rations at subsidised rates. On July 29, 2006, he died leaving behind an aged father, wife and four children.

All the other victims were also marginal land holders. All had taken loans they could not repay and had been reduced to a state of absolute destitution. In all cases, neighbours testified that the families had little or nothing to eat, because of crop failure and lack of income earning opportunities following the drought.

Officially, there was no case of 'hunger death' in Bundelkhand during the 2003-07 drought , and strictly speaking, this could have been a correct surmise. 'Hunger death' is extremely difficult to prove. The way it is understood in India, traces of not even a morsel of any kind of food should be found in the victim's digestive system during a postmortem to establish that cause of death was hunger. This condition is rarely met. As a result, governments deny any incidence of 'hunger death', and this was what happened in UP and MP during the 2003-2007 drought.

The denial ignores the commensensical point that prolonged starvation or poor nourishment aggravates illnesses like TB, and leads to death. Instead of searching for morsels of food in dead bodies, a sensitive government would look at the larger issue of food insecurity, which leads to death.

Such sensitivity was displayed at least at the level of decision-making, in UP in 2007-2008. As an emergency relief measure, the state government ordered pradhans of villages in each of the region's district to store a quintal of rice and wheat, and use it to distribute it free among hungry people. Every hungry person was entitled to at least 15 kg of wheat free of cost, every month. The mid-day meal scheme of providing a wholesome cooked meal to schoolgoing children was extended to destitutes. They were also eligible for cooked evening meals during the winter and dry rations for the evening meal in other seasons, till such time as the drought conditions continued.

The scheme however received little publicity, till the release of the report by Arundhati Dhuru and others, which moved the government to tell officials to go from village to village, announcing the welfare measure.

Emergency relief measures would reduce incidence of 'hunger death' but are no answer to the problem of food insecurity. That problem can be solved only by systematic improvements in the quantity and quality of government services such as PDS and wage employment schemes, which can provide much-needed income in times of agriculture distress.

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Courtesy : bundelkhandinfo.org