By Tavleen Singh
October 22, 2017
Photo of the deceased girl, who allegedly died of starvation.
There is nothing more horrible than watching a child die of hunger. The most horrible thing about it is that it happens so slowly. Children who live below the poverty line are used to living on a single meal of watery gruel a day, so it takes longer for them to reach the point when they can no longer walk or talk. By then they just lie around with distended bellies and glazed eyes and whimper pitifully as life ebbs slowly away. Having seen this happen more than once, I try to draw attention to starvation deaths every time they happen.
So this week I want to remember 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari who died in a Jharkhand village on September 28. Her mother says she died because they had not had any food grain in the house for six weeks. The village ration shop had refused to supply them with subsidised food grain without an Aadhar card. Officials deny this and deny that little Santoshi died of hunger. They insist that her death was caused by malaria.
Officials always deny starvation deaths because nobody is officially allowed to die of hunger in a country whose granaries are so full that food grain rots under open skies and gets eaten by rats. But, if the Prime Minister is sincere about his desire to build a ‘new India’, he must sack officials who tell lies about starvation deaths and chief ministers who allow them to do this. An inquiry has been ordered into the death of little Santoshi, but this is useless. What would be useful is to use the death of this child to order the termination of the utterly useless ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) and use the billions spent on it to ensure real services for India’s starving children.
The ICDS was started in 1975 with good intentions, but today it is time to admit that it has been a monumental failure. I have seen how it works in Maharashtra during a drought and in Odisha during a famine, and can report that its worst flaw is its disdain for hungry children. So in Maharashtra in a hospital in Akkalkuwa only children on the verge of death were admitted, and while in hospital fed Rs 40 worth of food a day under ICDS rules. As soon as the child stopped starving, it was sent home where Rs 10 a day was all that an entire family could spend on food. In Odisha’s famine in the Eighties, they set up feeding centres but only children under the age of five were entitled to food. Do six-year-old children not starve?
Indian bureaucrats love programmes of this kind because they are centralised, convoluted and leaky. So they never agree to change. They never admit that children would not starve ever if every village had an Amma Canteen or an Akshaya Patra kitchen. In Narendra Modi’s ‘new India’, these should be easy to build, especially in states governed by BJP chief ministers. So why has ‘Parivartan’ not already happened? Could it be because the Prime Minister’s faith in our bureaucrats has prevented him from ordering a total overhaul of Nehruvian socialist welfare programmes? When he first came to office, Modi openly expressed his contempt for MGNREGA, but then proceeded to increase its budget while Congress leaders sneered from the sidelines.
The ugly truth is that despite vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being poured into grandiose schemes to ‘alleviate’ poverty, children like Santoshi continue to die. And the truth is that nobody has questioned why this happens because us political pundits see starvation deaths as no more than a ‘human interest’ story. In the exalted realms we inhabit, we like to ponder over bigger issues of politics and governance. So we dwell upon such things as India’s potential to compete with China and become an economic superpower. We do not notice that there is not the smallest chance of this happening as long as even a single Santoshi starves to death.
The Prime Minister is now almost totally focused on winning a second term. But seems not to have noticed that the easiest way to win in 2019 is if he urges his chief ministers to do things that would make a real difference in people’s lives. One of the things that will make an immediate difference is putting our vast stores of food grain to better use. Instead of ration shops and subsidised grain what very poor people need are canteens that can provide them affordable cooked meals.
What the late Jayalalithaa did in Tamil Nadu with her Amma Canteens is a model that can be replicated easily across rural India and it would provide hundreds of thousands of new jobs to village women. Make this your personal cause Prime Minister and you could find winning a second term much, much easier.