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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Courtesy : bundelkhandinfo.org