India’s safety nets collapse in Balangir

India’s safety nets collapse in Balangir

Balangir (Orissa): Her face shrivelled beyond her 50 years, Jire Bhoi narrates how her sister-in-law Alekha, 40, and niece Ghasena, 10, died of “stomach ache".

A rash of deaths by “stomach ache" across this impoverished western Orissa district of Balangir is revealing a slow cycle of poverty, debt, malnutrition and death that is allowing Orissa—and India, as the Hindustan Times’ Tracking Hunger will explain in the days ahead—to get away with a growing, chronic hunger.

It is an indication of the challenges to a new food security Bill being readied for Parliament. In its present form, the Bill—an important element of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s push for a more inclusive India—is being criticized for failing to adequately address such widening challenges of poverty and hunger.

The Hindustan Times visited 55 families where people, mostly below 40, had died over two years across 27 villages in Balangir and found malnutrition is causing a lifelong cycle of fatal weaknesses, disease and death.

Every day, four children below six years die across a district where the death rate in that age group has risen from 48 per 1,000 in 2006 to 51 in 2009, according to district health records.

Every national anti-poverty and anti-hunger plan, on which the Centre has budgeted Rs1.18 trillion nationwide in 2010-11, is in place in Balangir. It is enough to stave away famine and official starvation deaths, but the cracks are widening:

• Many of those who died could not make do with 25kg of subsidized rice per month; the Supreme Court has ordered 35kg, an order commonly violated by states

• Meanwhile, Orissa’s food-subsidy programme allows even ministers, officers and legislators 25kg of subsidized rice at Rs2 per kg every month, under an “above the poverty line" programme

• Many in Balangir earn less than Orissa’s poverty line of Rs356 per month, but they are not officially classified as below the poverty line (BPL)

Orissa civil supplies and consumer affairs minister Sarada Prasad Nayak acknowledged the last BPL survey, in 1997, was “faulty". A later survey in 2002 still hasn’t been implemented.

Officials blame New Delhi, which records 65 million poor nationwide. The count by states is 108 million, which if accepted will further push up India’s Rs56,000 crore food subsidy bill.

Most of the deaths HT investigated are officially attributed to tuberculosis, diabetes, diarrhoea, peptic ulcers or other stomach-related ailments—the most common complaint being “stomach ache".

“Chronic hunger can cause stomach pain. In most cases, people suffering from chronic hunger are so used to the pain that they do not complain of it," said J.N. Pande, senior consultant (medicine) at Delhi’s Sitaram Bhartia Hospital. “Disorders and infections, however, can compound it. The malnourished are immunosupressed (they lose immunity) and get frequent gastrointestinal infections, as they live in homes with no safe drinking water or sanitation."

In the ultimate twist to India’s food subsidy programmes, HT found that the 25kg at Rs2 per kg is now the only “income" for many families: Distressed families resell up to half their foodgrain to buy other essentials, including medicines for their failing bodies.

Sanchita Sharma contributed to this story.