Balangir (Orissa): As one of India’s 300 million officially poor people in one of its most impoverished districts, Kantamani Nag bought 25kg of rice every month at Rs2 per kg—five times cheaper than market rates—a fine example of the world’s most sprawling subsidised foodgrain network.
Of the cradle-to-grave national anti-poverty effort on which the Centre will spend at least Rs1.18 trillion in 2010-11 to create a more inclusive, just India, the food subsidy was the only scheme that worked for the Nags—sort of.
Nag, 40, kept half the rice for his wife and three children. He sold the rest, creating what is now unofficially called “subsidized-rice income” for the poorest in this western corner of Orissa, where the official poverty line is Rs356 per month, or around the cost of an appetiser in a metropolitan five-star hotel. When Nag, wizened beyond his years, sold his subsidized rice (sometimes tea leaves and soap as well), it sent him into a death spiral that appears to play out like this across Balangir:
• The rice that isn’t sold typically lasts 10 days or less
• The family works odd jobs or begs the rest of the month
• Weakened without enough food, they fall ill for around 100 days each year
• They borrow money to pay medical expenses
• To repay the loan, they join the 100,000 who migrate to brick kilns and stone mines in Andhra Pradesh
When they return, they are weaker; many die, not by starvation, but from chronic hunger and malnutrition.
Nag’s family ended up working in the kilns and mines for six months every year. These trips took a toll on their weakened bodies. They took more loans to meet medical expenses. The last loan was Rs20,000 at 10% interest.
“After a time they found it difficult to repay,” said Kasturi Nag, 42, Kantamani’s sister-in-law, who narrated their tale on a warm spring day in their western Orissa village of Kurenbahali. “As a result, they started eating less food.”
A growing hunger
Breakfast for the Nags was a handful of puffed rice and locally brewed red tea. Lunch was pakhal, watery rice, with an onion. Dinner wasn’t very different—on the few days the Nags had any.
The Hindustan Times (HT) recorded similar patterns in journeys to 55 families across 27 villages in Balangir, where 62% of all families officially live below the poverty line across 6,575 sq. km.
In interviews, officials in Balangir confirmed the deepening cycle of poverty.
It could explain how millions of hungry people are slipping through the cracks nationwide; how shoddy implementation imperils well-meaning, ambitious national anti-hunger programmes; how mothers become malnourished, giving birth to more malnourished children than anywhere else in the world.
Every year, 3,000 pregnant women are admitted to Balangir’s hospitals. “More than 50% are anaemic, malnourished,” said Purnachandra Sahu, Balangir’s chief district medical officer.
Theoretically, help is available, through the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the world’s largest programme for nutritional and school needs of children younger than six, administered through 1.4 million centres nationwide. Though 80 million children are theoretically covered, one in two Indian children is malnourished, the world’s worst rate.
In Balangir, there are free vitamins, proteins and medicine available. The Nags appear to have used these centres at some point. The evidence: Their children are alive (though their condition isn’t clear). For severely malnourished children, there’s Rs500 to be had from the chief minister’s relief fund.
Sahu opened registers of Nutrition Day—held on the 15th of each month to provide dietary support to children— to show how about 3,000 malnourished children under age six are brought to Balangir’s 14 primary health centres every month. Sahu said 53% of all children at his centres are malnourished.
In 2009, official ICDS figures say 87 children, or 0.04%, suffered the most severe malnourishment, grade IV, which means they needed urgent medical attention. The death rate of children under six is worsening. In 2006, 48 children in every 1,000 died, rising to 52 the next two years; in 2009 it was 51, according to district health records.
Stopping migration would certainly help already weak villagers. Theoretically, the Nags need not have migrated.
The world’s largest jobs-for-work programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), is supposed to help people like them, assuring them 100 days of employment every year.
The national NREGS budget for 2010-11: Rs40,000 crore, more than one third the size of the defence budget.
Here in Kurenbahali, there were no NREGS jobs in 2009. Thus far, there’s no sign of work this year either.
Instead of the required 100 days, Orissa has provided no more than 35 days of work each year. Across most of Balangir’s 1,792 villages, NREGS work isn’t available for a full month in a year, HT’s enquiries revealed.
Sanjay Kumar Habada, project director for the district rural development agency, has another set of figures to share: NREGS projects across Balangir employ at least 30,000 people, whom the administration pays. “We pay them Rs30 lakh every day,” said Habada. It isn’t much use to the poorest.
Of the 240,000 people registered under the NREGS in Balangir, only 476 (0.2%) live below the poverty line, according to the website of the Union ministry for rural development.
Like a number of Balangir villagers dying in their 30s and 40s—the exact numbers are uncertain — Nag died in February 2008, officially of fever. His wife Kulbati, 32, lived for 18 months more before dying of tuberculosis.
The statistics will not record the chronic hunger or malnourishment that possibly made the Nags susceptible to disease. Officially, they died natural deaths.
Theoretically, the Nags’ children should, even at this stage, have been able to claim help from the state.
When the sole earning member dies, the family is eligible for Rs10,000 under the National Family Benefit Scheme, created after a Supreme Court order. The grant is supposed to be paid within four weeks of death: At least 15,000 applications are pending with the Balangir district administration “over years”. No one can say how many years. Nag’s sister-in-law, Kasturi, has never heard of such a scheme.
“I gather that many people fail to provide death certificates,” said Balangir collector Sailendra Dey. “I have instructed officials to help people in submitting the death certificates so that the amount can be disbursed to the beneficiaries.”
When HT contacted Orissa planning and coordination minister and Balangir member of legislative assembly A.U. Singh Deo, he said: “I am in Chandigarh,” and disconnected the phone. The mobile phones of his son, Balangir member of Parliament Kalikesh Singh Deo, were switched off.
Back near the Nags’ abandoned hut, Kasturi explained why a severe pain in her leg didn’t allow her to join her husband, son and daughter-in-law in the desperate migration south.
Where are the surviving Nags, the two daughters and a son, aged from seven to 16?
Gone, said Kasturi, to that brick kiln in Andhra Pradesh.
For another generation, Balangir’s death cycle has started.
Tracking Hunger is a joint effort of the Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger. If you have any suggestions, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org