Hunger should be a thing of the past in India. I mean, the kind of real endemic swollen-belly, no-energy kind of hunger that I remember seeing on the streets of Bombay in the 70’s.
What is it doing in a country whose economy has been steadily growing over the last couple of decades, which considers itself a superpower, which has a space programme and more billionaires than any other country in the world? (47, according to Forbes). A place where a man can build himself a skyscraper for a home and give his wife a plane as a birthday bauble.
But India still tops the world when it comes to numbers of people living in a constant state of malnutrition – between 220 and 300 million depending on the source. And the latest images from Ganne, a village in UP reporting on children eating mud are only the stories that have made it to the media. How many Gannes are there in India today that will never reach the news?
Arundhati Dhuru was sent by the Supreme Court to investigate what had gone wrong in Ganne. Like every rural community in the country, Ganne should have a cloak of functioning programmes to avoid exactly this kind of thing. There should be a midday meal available to school children, nutrition supplementing programmes, employment programmes for the adults. But what she found was a systemic corruption from top to bottom in the government distribution structure.
“You can’t change a system that’s been going on like this for years, suddenly overnight” she says, and even though Ganne has grabbed the attention of the world, of the highest political and judicial structures of the country, it seems unlikely that its people will get any short term relief. The summer drought months are coming in an area with serious water shortages, and 90% of the children of the area have been officially diagnosed as being malnourished. But the food supplement programmes are still being run by the same people who’ve been mismanaging and stealing from them in the past, and it looks like the children of Ganne must continue to eat mud until they die.
Devlali in Maharashtra stands in direct contrast – where one businessman called Maharaj Birmani decided that nobody would sleep hungry at least in his town. So he started a food distribution centre. Its premise is simple – anyone who’s hungry can come twice a day for puri-bhaji. If the can pay the Rs 4 (10cents), they do. If they can’t, then they get it for free. The centre runs on the goodwill of volunteers like Muridar Sahani who hasn’t missed a day in 13 years. And it also employs six women who can make a phenomenal 25 puris an hour.
It runs on a monthly deficit of Rs20,000-30,000 which Mr Birmani’s electronics business covers.
“Its’s such a small sum for what we actually do – why can’t we have schemes like this throughout the whole country?” he asks.
Is there anyone who can answer that one simple question?