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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 26

On Poverty, Food Inadequacy and Hunger in West Bengal

Tuesday 19 June 2007, by D. Bandyopadhyay


The National Sample Survey Organisation of the Government of India published a report entitled “Perceived Adequacy of Food Consumption in Indian Households 2004-2005”. This is based on NSS 61st Round, July 2004-June 2005. This report has made some damaging disclosures regarding non-availability of food to the rural households throughout the year in various States of the country. It has made a very short and pithy analysis of the food availability status of different States.

It has observed: “The percentage of rural household not getting enough food every day in some months of the year was the highest in West Bengal (10.6 per cent) followed by Orissa (4.8 per cent) and the least affected by food inadequacy were Haryana and Rajasthan. The proportion of those households who did not get enough food every day in any month of the year was highest in the State of Assam (3.6 per cent) followed by Orissa and West Bengal (1.3 per cent each).” If we get the two figures together—of food inadequacy in some months of the year and every day in every month of the year—West Bengal’s will be the highest with 12 per cent of the rural households facing occasional or continuous hunger and starvation followed by acute morbidity and mortality. The comparable figures of the other two poor States of India, that is to say, Assam and Orissa are six per cent and seven per cent respectively. The Table in the following page gives the full picture:

When the news of starvation deaths of five members of the primitive tribe family in Amlasol, a distant village of West Midnapore District, shot into the headlines of the print media, many thought that it was an aberration and a particular event not associated with any trend of non-availability of food to different segments of poor and destitute families. Thereafter, reports of isolated starvation deaths came out in the print media off and on. In 2006 there were reports of large scale starvation deaths in North Bengal among the tribal tea garden labourers of the gardens which were abandoned or closed by the management. The Left Front Government, of course, consistently denied all such cases of starvation deaths. But in some cases it conceded that these deaths arose out of diseases associated with malnutrition. Habit dies hard and administrative tradition never changes. So at the beginning of the Great Bengal Famine, the then Bengal Government and the Government of India ignored such deaths till starvation deaths took such a horrendous proportion that they had to swallow their pride and admit of famine conditions prevailing in the Bengal Presidency. It will be interesting to quote a short paragraph from Amartya Sen’s The Great Bengal Famine: “When the existence of the famine was eventally acknowledged officially in Parliament by the Secretary of State for India in a statement in October 1943, the influential Calcutta daily The Statesman wondered why ‘the speech contained no direct admission of grave misjudgement on the higher authorities’ part or even of error’, overlooking ‘previous official assertions in London and New Delhi that there existed virtually no food problem in India.” (“Poverty and Famines” in The Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze Omnibus, Oxford 1999, p. 79)

INCIDENTALLY, when the current Governor of West Bengal visited one of the closed tea gardens of Jalpaiguri district and met some of the hungry unemployed tea garden workers and commiserated with them about their plight, there were snide and sarcastic comments from the leaders of the Left Front in West Bengal. To them, a Governor should be an automaton without any head and heart, eyes and ears with only the right hand to sign papers submitted to him by “His Government”. One finds a very similar statement made about his Majesty’s Government in 1943 by no less a person than Lord Wavell, the then Viceroy of India. When he was struggling hard to augment the food supply of India by importing food from outside he felt that “the vital problems of India are being treated by His Majesty’s Government with neglect, even sometimes with hostility and contempt”. (Ibid. p. 79). Does it not ring a similar tone in someone’s ears? British might have left India but their hallowed tradition of administrative insensitivity and indifference are kept intact with greater embellishment by the “revolutionary” Left Front Government of the State.
61st Round NSS Consumer Expenditure Survey

Table: Statement 2 : Statewise Food Availability Status

No.per 1000 of households no.of
Adequate food throughout the year getting getting households

States as ascertained as judged All inadequate inadequate
question by the food some food all n.r akk estimated sample
investigator months of month
the year

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Rural India
Pradesh 526 467 993 6 0 1 1000 137707 5555
Assam 562 378 940 17 36 6 1000 44428 3350 Bihar 579 388 967 20 8 6 1000 126734 4354 Chhatisgarh 534 440 974 26 0 0 1000 36435 1997
Gujrat 498 500 998 3 0 0 1000 65950 2320
Haryana 265 735 1000 0 0 0 1000 30954 1680 Jharkhand 433 560 993 6 1 0 1000 39297 2379 Karnataka 619 378 997 3 0 0 1000 72557 2880 Kerala 420 555 975 22 3 1 1000 54738 3300 Madhyapradesh 400 579 979 15 5 0 1000 87996 3838
Maharashtra 388 602 990 10 0 0 1000 119552 5014
Orissa 725 209 934 48 13 5 1000 67821 3836
Punjab 396 595 991 8 1 0 1000 30936 2433 Rajasthan 234 765 999 0 0 0 1000 78694 3541 Tamilnadu 599 399 998 1 1 0 1000 91609 4159 Uttar Pradesh 328 653 981 14 3 3 1000 232575 7868
West Bengal 582 298 880 106 13 2 1000 126886 4988

I must give here kudos where such praise lies. According to the NSSO surveys, between 1983 and 1993-94 rural poverty ratio sharply dropped in West Bengal from 63.6 per cent to 41.2 per cent. There was a drop of 22.4 percentage points in ten years resulting in an annual deceleration rate of 2.24 percentage points—a remarkable achievement by any standard. This period coincided with the upsurge in agricultural production that followed particularly the Operation Barga which was done between 1978 and 1982. From the middle of 1990s the rate of growth of agriculture started sagging. Therefore, one finds that between 1993-94 and 2004-2005 the rural poverty ratio came down from 41.2 per cent to 28.5 per cent, a drop of 12.7 percentage points. It meant an annual average rate of drop of 1.15 per cent. Thus, between the two decades the annual decline of poverty ratio was reduced to half.

There could be various reasons but one obvious reason is the lack of State’s endeavour to push up agriculture production and growth further which was clearly showing signs of deceleration. There was hardly any public investment in agriculture during the period. The Extension Services totally collapsed. The market was operated by the predatory manipulators denying the actual farmers their rightful price. The process of land reforms was halted. There was no regulation of any sort on the prices of inputs. Seeds had to be purchased in open market from big firms whose quality was not always certified and growth of rural wages also got stalled. Therefore, diffusion of income in the countryside was restricted causing distress, food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition, destitution and morbidity. The NSS Survey Report really captured the truth of the situation prevailing in the State of West Bengal in the decade of 1994-2005.

The author is a former Secretary, Rural Development as well as an erstwhile Secretary, Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance. Subsequently, he was the Executive Director, Asian Development Bank, Manila. Earlier as an administrator in West Bengal he played a crucial role in implementing ‘Operation Barga’, the Left Front Government’s biggest achievement in its 30-year uninterrupted rule in the State that vastly contributed towards changing the face of rural West Bengal. He is currently the Executive Chairperson of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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