Because Hunger Doesn’t Sell

Hunger is a cliché from the past which no one wants to talk or write about, or show on screen. It is as if it does not really exist. Except in annual global reports, where the statistical index is too impersonal and distant. This is authentic alienation of the post-modern kind.

Even in the social media in India, this huge human crisis suddenly erupted when the desperate mass exodus of tens of thousands of migrant workers was out there on the highways and streets, like a scene from an old war movie, or Partition, or, simply, as the aftermath of a famine. For the mainstream media and society, hunger is hidden and invisible, like these great mass of workers, their faces, bodies and families, and their imagined homelands and infinite struggles, stoicism and suffering. It is hardly listed as one of the top stories in any daily editorial briefing, least of all in contemporary times.

Post liberalization, it  has been, in a systematic way, turned into a remote abstraction, as if it does not exist, with prime time TV shows, shopping malls, fast highways and flyovers, and swanky cars capturing our gaze. Hunger is neither a priority nor an attractive oral or textual narrative. It does not sell.

There is hardly any reporter’s notebook, camera or statistics which is choosing to capture the cracked mirror of emaciated intestines, or measuring the abysmally low calories, the mass stunting of children due to malnutrition, the wasting of bodies, and abject and rampant malnourishment or undernourishment, especially that of girls and mothers in poor households. Neither the hunger of the body nor the hunger of the soul is indeed measured by the post-modern measurements of progress and development.

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Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati was not only about exploitation and feudal oppression in an entrenched casteist society loaded in favour of the upper castes. It was also about hunger, fatigue, prolonged malnutrition, hard, bonded labour. Ray’s Pather Panchali, also a story of stark poverty and forced displacement and migration, is also about food snatched from nature, just that bit to eat, and a sweet loving home full of memories given away to its ravaged future, even as a snake enters the empty house while their bullock cart moves away into the grey horizon. This was the cinema of realism, like the early cinema in Bollywood and its soulful lyrics and songs — life on the streets, homeless and hungry, life inside slums, sanitary pipelines, on footpaths. In black and white.

A still from Do Bigha Zameen

One decade before Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, the Bengal famine across both sides of the undivided border, in 1943-44, and killed around 3 million people. If you see the pictures of the times, you might just about end up not eating for days. Indeed, there was relentless starvation, and universal injustice. However, there was also mass displacement and forced migration, huge unemployment and scarcity in both rural and urban areas, homelessness, and lack of sanitation, a slow and steady death.

So how are the vast millions of the jobless, migrant workers, the homeless, the landless labourers, daily wagers now living hand-to-mouth, their children, mothers and daughters in the unorganized sector of 93 per cent workforce in India without any trade union or fundamental rights, majority of them Dalits, poor Muslims, from extremely backward castes, and adivasis — how are they coping with the post-lockdown, pandemic reality? For all you know, hunger might kill more people than the disease, thereby becoming yet another invisible epidemic in countries like India. The slow, silent, unseen killer.

The central government, which cared little for the millions walking under a scorching sun after the lockdown, has declared that it has no real data on the migrant workers. Indeed, it says that it has no real data either on health workers, doctors and nurses who have perished as frontline Corona warriors. So when the government does not have data, how shall we document the local hunger index among the vast population of the poor and jobless?

The Global Hunger Index 2020 report released recently has ranked India at 94 among 107 countries. It was ranked 102 out of 117 countries in 2019. One year earlier, India was 103 among 119 countries. It is difficult to confirm if these statistics or rankings are based on empirical surveys. And, yet, this is widely recognized as an important indication of global hunger. China, Ukraine, Cuba, Kuwait, Brazil, Chile, Russian Federation, even Bosnia Herzegovnia, which were ravaged by war and genocide, are at the top in terms of successfully tackling hunger. Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan have done much better than India.

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The Global Hunger Index is a categorical indictment of modernity’s alleged progress. It points out that so many human beings are hungry and malnourished — 690 million people. Globally, 144 million children suffer from stunting. At least 5.3 million children died before their fifth birthdays because of malnutrition.

Almost 40 per cent of children in India are stunted, a large number of them ‘wasting’ due to malnourishment. Almost 14 per cent are undernourished, says the report. Surely, the mid-day meal schemes in schools have played a role in reducing malnourishment and hunger, or MNREGA, during the UPA regime from 2004 onwards. However, the public distribution system (PDS) has been demolished, post liberalization – and it started under Manmohan Singh and the Congress regime. Economist Utsa Patnaik’s seminal study, ‘The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays’, is a testimony to this bitter realism. Surely, the current impasse of thousands of tonnes of food-grain holed up in the FCI godowns, is as much a ‘policy failure’, as was the Bengal famine under the British.

Several states in India have moved with positive measures. Kerala delivers food kits to poor households, post pandemic. In Bengal, before and after the cyclone, the government provided food across the spectrum during the pandemic. The civil society pitched in. The successful health and social security experiment in Dharavi, Mumbai, perhaps the largest slum in the world, is a paradigm shift in terms of efficiency and optimism.

Indeed, if anything, the deadly and deathly virus, should at least teach modern societies the importance of a healthy body and human being, who can withstand this killer disease. So how will the affluent society, the huge capitalist machine of excessive consumerism, and our mighty government, react to this hunger index?

Hopefully, with empathy, compassion, and a blueprint of effective praxis to end hunger once and for all.

PDS Failure Behind ‘Hunger Deaths’ In Jharkhand

By Smriti Sikri The failure of the Public Distribution System (PDS) has engulfed Jharkhand severely, resulting in non-availability of rations, administrative apathy and cries of hunger. Since September 2017, 12 cases of alleged hunger related deaths have been reported in the state. On 24th July, the 13th case was reported where Rajendra Birhor, resident of Mandu district was suffering from jaundice and after starving for three days, he succumbed to death. A recent report by News18 revealed that the entire village of Chandurpara in tribal majority Pakur district does not have ration cards.  The villagers claimed that they were excluded from enumeration under Census 2011 and subsequently from receiving rations under the PDS. India is a nation of contradictions where starvation deaths and budgetary allocation for bullet trains are imagined in the same space and time. This is an unfortunate and disturbing reality across the country now. Starvation deaths are the last straw of hunger insecurity that plagues the whole country.  As per the Global Hunger Index, India’s rank has gone down from 55th in 2014 to 100th out of 119 countries in 2017.  Among the BRICS nations, India ranks last and neighbors Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh fare better in the ranking. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, 35.4 % of women and 25% of men in rural areas have Body Mass Index (BMI) below normal in Jharkhand. In such a situation, the PDS which guarantees food grains to entitled families under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) is an important intervention to ensure that people do not stay hungry. With the introduction of biometric authentication through AADHAR, several difficulties have risen. The process, in the name of saving costs, is in fact excluding people who need it the most. The government’s agenda appears to project crores of savings as an Aadhaar revolution rather than saving lives. The first case of starvation death in Jharkhand came to light in September 2017, when Santoshi an 11 year old girl, died crying for rice in Simdega district. While the family maintained that she died of starvation, the officials insisted that it was due to an illness. This official view echoed with Santoshi’s neighbor who was noted saying, “Aaj ka jug mein koi bhookh se mare hao (Does anybody die of hunger in this day and age)?” which indeed is an eye-opening statement. The Jharkhand government officials have repeatedly denied the existence of hunger deaths. After the 12th case of death caught national media attention, the deputy commissioner of Giridih reportedly said, “If it was starvation, it should have struck all the members”. A statement like this, is clearly ill-founded and smirks of apathy, ignoring the stark structural realities of caste, class and gender dynamics at play within spaces of limited public resources.  This official apathy intensifies the vulnerability of already marginalized people where their issues remain unidentified and ignored in the dominant public policy framework. The leader of opposition in Jharkhand, Mr. Hemant Soren shared a comprehensive list of the 12 alleged deaths and the causes associated with them on his twitter handle. A detailed analysis of these case studies reveals that all of them were dalits or tribals and 9 of the 12 who died of starvation, were women. Most of them were old and frail who without any income means could not sustain without the entitled food (rice) under the PDS given that even their pensions were not disbursed. A paper on Gender and Food Security by the International Food Policy Research Institute discusses how the the problem of food insecurity is ‘multidimensional and interconnected’. In the context of India, gender intersects with caste, ethnicity, religion and also age, to shape vulnerabilities confronted by people and the opportunities available to them. Food insecurity then becomes a result of injustice based on social identity. During the Monsoon Session in Jharkhand, Mr. Jagarnath Mahtoa of the key opposition party Jharkhand Mukti Morcha raised questions related to the death of Savitri Devi from Dumri Block.  The minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Food & Supply Department, Mr. Saryu Rai, however out rightly denied hunger as the cause for death. The food minister also shirked any possibility of providing government compensation to the family. Several civil society organizations across the country including the Right to Food Campaign organized a protest meet on 13th July 2018 at Jharkhand Bhawan, New Delhi. They condemned these ‘hunger deaths’ and demanded ‘universalization of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and social security pensions’ and ‘withdrawal of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) for food security in favour of the earlier prevalent system of PDS’. Noted economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera along with other activists have discussed the problems with biometric authentication whereby almost 10-15% of the most vulnerable population in Jharkhand has been excluded from the system. On similar lines, Ms. Ankita Aggarwal, volunteer with the Right to Food campaign told the writer that ‘despite media attention on the issue of starvation deaths, there are many cases that still remain unreported. She also felt that linking of Aadhar to PDS, despite being a major reason for what is happening in Jharkhand, is not the sole problem. She says that ‘the exclusions within the PDS have led to cancellation of almost 11 lakh ration cards and that is portrayed as savings of the government.’ Given the already dismal condition of PDS and a further setback with the introduction of compulsory biometric authentication, it remains to be seen how political will and empathetic decision making results in some ground level change, specifically with the forthcoming Assembly elections to be held in Jharkhand in  2019. (The writer is a postgraduate in Social Work with specialisation in Criminology and Justice from TISS, Mumbai and is working as an associate consultant with the Policy & Development Advisory Group, New Delhi.)]]>