Given the degree of the problem, government and civil society groups need to work much harder to respond adequately.
Mahoba, Bundelkhand: It is an openly discussed hypothesis that while widespread and chronic hunger, and malnutrition certainly exist in India, it is unlikely that large-scale famine deaths will take place because the well-established democratic processes, including an important role of opposition parties as well as the media, will ensure that effective steps will be taken in time to prevent the possibility of too many famine deaths.
Such an active role of opposition parties in exposing several shortcomings of the government can be seen today in Bundelkhand. The state government, on its part, has been particular about publicising its special concern about the serious conditions in the region. It has fixed the accountability of senior officials for any hunger death that may take place (or more accurately for a death that is accepted officially as a hunger death). The media, despite many problems and constraints, is largely seen to be playing a credible role in highlighting drought-related issues and problems.
Despite all this, however, there is an overwhelming sense of diminishing sensitivity to the problems of drought affected people not only on the part of the administration but more generally among all better placed sections of society. If the government response is inadequate, so is the response of civil society and citizens groups as very little drought relief or related work has been taken by them relative to the scale of the problem. Meanwhile, problems have increased much beyond what is admitted by the administration.
Visiting the Mahoba district on May 6, I held group discussions with people in three villages of the Jaitpur block – Mahuabandh, Bihar Village and Karharadang. An average of 35 persons were present in each meeting and we took care to include women in the discussion.
Every single person agreed that malnutrition had increased since 2015 as pulses and milk had steadily gone out of their diets. This is the staple protein which is fast vanishing as people have gone without pulses for several months. Karahra used to be known for its milch animals but former pradhan Rakesh Dwivedi said that the total yield of milk in the village was now just about five litres a day.
While everyone agrees that almost no one in these villages or just about 2% of the families are getting a balanced diet these days, there is more diversity of opinion about the extent of hunger. When asked how many villagers do not get even an adequate number of rotis in a day, the general consensus was that about 30% to 50% of the families in their village face this situation.
Second, I asked about health problems. Problems relating to contaminated water are common and may increase further. Heatstroke is also much feared. Mothers were very anxious that their children were getting weaker. They were more reluctant to talk about their own health problems but when questioned most of them mentioned a general feeling of extreme weakness and fatigue and loss of hope. They, as well as men, said that many ailments remained untreated as they had no money. In this context, it is very important to improve public health services.
In all the three group discussions I raised a question – are there any signs that during the last one year or so the death rate has been higher than the normal? In all the three meetings villagers said without any hesitation that yes, this has been higher.
So while democratic processes may be at work to help to keep down drought related distress, we cannot be complacent that we have a definite guarantee against higher mortality.
It is important to keep in mind that climate change is also at work and the adverse weather can linger on for a longer period. Hence much greater commitment and more longer term commitment is needed to devote more effort and resources for providing people adequate livelihoods in ecological rehabilitation of this badly ravaged region and for strengthening the base of eco-friendly farming.
This is the fourth of a series of reports on the drought in Bundelkhand’s Mahoba district. Read the third here.