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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 9, February 20, 2010

Right to Food: Some Issues and Challenges: A Case Study of Kalahandi

Monday 22 February 2010, by Suranjita Ray


”It is our ardent desire that not even a single citizen of India should ever go hungry …. It is also our national resolve to root out malnutrition from our country,” said the Prime Minister in his speech on August 15, 2009. This reinforces the pro-poor mandate of the government based on expansion and deepening of the inclusive growth and programme the most dramatic promise made is the proposal to enact a National Food Security Act, which promises every family below poverty line (BPL) in rural as well as urban areas to be entitled by law to 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs 3 a kg.

The proposed Act to guarantee food security to the poor is an important step as more than 200 million people in this country are denied the right to food. India ranks 66 in the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Global Hunger Index (2008) of 88 countries (International Food Policy Research Institute). Because of the lack of adequate nutrition, 57 million children are under-weight which is one third of all underweight children in the world. (Shiva, 2009: 4) Therefore, ’the promise of food security law under which every family living below the poverty line will get a fixed amount of foodgrains every month at concessional rates’ is an important step given the fact that hunger is chronic and pervasive in many parts of India. Chronic hunger kills larger number of people over a longer period of time and has wider consequences than famine. (Dreze and Sen, 1989: 267) The catastrophe of famine may occur through widespread breakdown of livelihood for specific social classes, castes, communities and occupational groups, but chronic hunger arises through a continuous failure to generate sufficient livelihood. Therefore, hunger poses a greater challenge to the policy-makers as it is systemic deprivation of the basic need to survive and violation of human rights.1

This paper is based on my understanding of growing hunger in many parts of rural India, and particularly in Kalahandi, which has been synonymously used for starvation and hunger. It is critical to raise some vital issues and challenges which need to be addressed when the proposed draft of the National Food Security Act is being debated all over the country. Though this is based on my study in two blocks of Kalahandi, the experiences drawn from the study of hunger at the micro-level is important as it provides insights into the wider phenomenon and similar experiences elsewhere. This paper is broadly divided into two sections. The first section focuses on the relevance of the proposed Act and the critical questions that need to be posed and reflected upon. The second section looks at why the state has failed to eradicate hunger and its persistence in such a large magnitude in the specific context of disentitlement, deprivation and marginalisation in Kalahandi despite its intervention and the implementation of the Long Term Action Plan (LTAP) for more than a decade.

The Proposed Act: Some Concerns

The very proposal of the draft on right to food has raised several issues and challenges, which have initiated debates in different forums. Most of these debates have focused on what the Act should include to control food crises and ensure food security. Some of the suggestions pertain to the need for breast feeding, clean drinking water, preserving bio-diversity, farmers rights over land and productive resources, promotion of organic farming, advocating the case for food sovereignty and a universal and more decentralised Public Distribution System (PDS). (see also Shiva 2009: 4) A comprehensive Food Security Act is important and the government needs to have a three-pronged strategy of social assistance, proper nutrition for children and universal PDS. (Dreze, 2009: 20) The targeted approach of the current PDS is strongly rejected by the petitioner (Kavita Srivastava) in the right to food case. Besides a universal PDS, a multiplicity of vehicles to deliver in order to have a wider reach and equitable supply of food-grains to the needy is important. (Sen, 2009:20) Those who are put outside the system and various schemes must be included. (Mander, 2009:20) It is likely that a large part of the vulnerable population will be excluded if targeting of food security is narrowed on the basis income poverty and therefore ’the key to an inclusive approach to food security is universal access rather than target groups’. (Hasan, 2009:10) The draft of the Right to Food (Guarantee of Safety and Security) Bill has been widely criticised as there is excessive focus on freezing the number of poorest-of-the-poor who need guaranteed food entitlements. (Ibid.) In addition, the Supreme Court-appointed panel on food security’s report says the number of people without food security is larger than the number of poor (officially declared). There is also a consensus that the existing schemes should continue such as Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS) Mid-Day Meal Schemes (MDMS), Anna Antodaya Yojana (AYY) but certain changes need to be incorporated to make it effective. (Also see Khera, 2009:40-43) The recent rally by more than 5000 concerned and active citizens from 18 States in the Capital on November 26, 2009 to demand immediate passage of the National Food Entitlement Act under the banner of the ”Right to Food Campaign” signifies the urgency of securing entitlements based on a wide range of needs and demands of diverse sections of society which must be consolidated in the Act.

Debates all over the country have alarmed that food prices have gone up with a 50 to 100 per cent increase between 2003 and 2008 and they still continue to rise as the food system is increasingly being controlled by corporate players in procurement and retail. (Shiva 2009: 4) Therefore the assurance by the Prime Minister that there are adequate stocks of foodgrains and that all efforts will be made to control the rising prices of foodgrains, pulses and other goods of daily use is crucial. He appealed to all State governments ’to exercise their statutory powers to prevent hoarding and blackmarketing of essential commodities which results in increasing prices of foodgrains’. (Extracts from the Prime Minister’s speech).2 Keeping in mind the large number of cases of farmer’s suicide in different parts of the country, it is crucial for the government to take necessary measures as drought has been declared in 278 districts of the country and 11 States have been worst affected. Though drought leading to a major crop failure may lead to price rise, prices have been steadily rising for the last five years despite good monsoons and recorded production of food grains. The prices of rice went up by 46 per cent, wheat by over 62 per cent, atta by 55 per cent, salt by 42 per cent and prices of pulses and vegetables etc have risen over the past few months. (Sainath, 2009: 10) (Despite the Prime Minister’s assurances, there has been increasing price rise of essential foodgrains and vegetables during the last two weeks.)

’Food security has been seriously undermined by economic reforms which promote export oriented cash crop at the cost of food crops. A non-sustainable corporate driven production model threatens small farmers who produce more food than large farmers.’ (Shiva 2009: 4)3 Three major reforms that prevented famine in independent India have been reversed by economic reforms: land reforms have been undone for a new zamindari through SEZs, food system of public procurement and minimum support prices to the farmers has been handed to corporations and universal PDS has been dismantled allowing prices to rise and take food beyond the reach of the poor. (Shiva, 2009:4)*. These are important issues and need to be addressed. The emphasis by the Prime Minister to make more efficient use of scarce land and water resources, attention to be paid to the needs of those farmers who do not have means for irrigation, new techniques to increase the productivity of small and marginal farmers is therefore vital. But, another Green Revolution to achieve a four per cent annual growth in agriculture in the next five years might not necessarily lead to food security of the deprived and marginalised sections of society.

A great merit of the Act is that it aims at securing right to food to the BPL families as target groups. But surveys and studies conducted all over the country show large scale exclusion and inclusion errors in the methodology used in the BPL Census in 1992, 1997 and 2002. Arbitrariness and manipulation in the implementation of BPL surveys is a major impediment in excluding the deserving as beneficiaries of various programmes and schemes. Targeted programmes against universal entitlement are easier to be assessed, but the successes and failures of any targeted programme would require correct methodology to decide the inclusion of target groups and exclusion of non-target groups.4 Therefore, the strategies to map poverty must be corrected to achieve the objective of the National Food Security Act. (We hope some of these errors will be addressed in the census to be carried out in the latter half of 2009.) (See also Santosh Mehrotra and Harsh Mander, 2009: 37-44)

Despite correct strategies to decide the target groups, the latter will not benefit from policies because of several loopholes in their imple-mention.5 But the target groups will benefit least from policies which are not free from flaws. And the proposed Act has several flaws as it proposes a cutting of 10 kg in the quota and an increase by Re 1 or Rs 2 per kg since many States implementing the AAY provide 35 kg of wheat/rice at Rs 2 a kg (in Andhra Pradesh) and Re 1 (Tamil Nadu). In some States the PDS have included larger number of population and not just the BPL families, such as tribal and women headed families in Chhattisgarh; tribal, Dalit and all families of fisherpersons in Kerala and all families in Tamil Nadu who get 16 to 20 kg of rice at Re 1 a kg. (Karat, 2009:10) Can food requirements be met with a low spending capacity as assessed by the Arjun Sengupta Commission on unorganised sector, where 77 per cent of India’s adult population spends less than Rs. 20 per day? And a more vital question which needs to be posed is: can food security be understood only in terms of purchasing power?

Therefore, the mid-term appraisal of the 11th Plan should include strategies which focus not only on the need to plug the loopholes in implementation of various poverty alleviation programmes and schemes but also analyse the approach of the state in addressing issues of concern to the ”aam aadmi”. The law to secure right to food, if passed, will be another landmark legislation to keep up promises made to the poor in terms of its rights based approach. (This will strengthen the ”Jai Ho” claims of the Congress for its victory in future as it has in the recent elections.) Prioritising the basic needs of the deprived and marginalised in the agenda of development provides legitimacy to the state as responsible and pro-poor, but has the state structurally intervened to bring about changes in terms of equality and justice in society? How different is the rights based approach from the relief measures taken by the state such as MDMS and ICDS? Can the law to secure right to food eradicate hunger amongst the vulnerable sections of society who are the worst victims of the food crises?

It is important to analyse the approach of the state at this turning point in the history of development and growth of this country which illustrates high rates of growth as our economy grew at a rate of about nine per cent from 2004-05 to the year 2007-08. Though this growth rate has come down to 6.7 per cent in 2008-09 due to the global economic crisis, ’every step to restore growth rate to nine per cent will be taken; redouble efforts to remove regional imbalances in the level of development by taking care of the special needs of the backward regions besides paying special attention to some sections of society’. (Extracts from Prime Ministers’ speech)

’Freedom from hunger’ would make our country the true India of the Mahatma’s dreams but ironically these years what we come across is reports on deepening hunger, malnutrition and starvation, increasing violence based on class, caste, gender, ethnicity, religion, community and increasing violation of human rights. One can see increasing paradoxes such as scarcity amidst plenty, hunger amidst food surplus, inequities, disparities and divides between the rich and the poor growing deeper despite high economic growth. Of course, the Act is a step in the right direction, but the problem of hunger and under-nutrition are not simply neglect of lack of food and entitlement. Food production and food prices are important determinants of hunger and malnutrition, but can right to food be secured only in terms of its availability at a subsidised rate? This is a critical question to be posed and analysed. Subsidised food will benefit a majority of the poor, who lack purchasing power to buy food from market-a space of exclusion for the latter. If food insecurity is to be mapped only in terms of decline in food production/availability of food and lack of purchasing power, then the provision to supply cheap foodgrains alone was adequate. But food insecurity is not only lack of purchasing power; nor can it be measured only in terms of fewer nutrition intakes. Will the subsidised foodgrains ensure that women and children consume the required amount of nutrient? The structural inequalities and biases are major impediments which need to be removed. Where people have no access/entitlement to any kind of food for bare sustenance and eat edible roots and wild plants which have toxic elements, where no health care and no drinking water facilities exists, focus on micro and macro nutrients/calories and the provision for subsidised foodgrains will barely benefit the target groups. Therefore, what pose an even greater challenge for policy-makers and need to be addressed to guarantee an basic right to food are the conditions which generate and perpetuate hunger and starvation for some sections of society irrespective of the levels of food production, food prices, growth and development.

In this paper an attempt has been made to understand if the approach to food security has the potentiality to intervene to bring about structural changes, without which freedom from hunger will only remain rhetoric. While food security by definition involves every individual gaining physical, economic, social and environmental access to a balanced diet that includes the necessary macro and micro nutrients, safe drinking water, sanitation and environmental hygiene, primary health care and education to lead a healthy and productive life (see also Swaminathan, 2009: 13), it is imperative to locate the problem of hunger in the structural process that has denied access to such needs. The Act will become yet another relief measure if it fails to address the structural causes of deprivation which deny the poor control over the productive resources, labour and produce of their labour.

The Kalahandi Experience: Understanding and Mapping Hunger

In Kalahandi access to food is denied not because of lack of livelihood opportunities and purchasing power alone, but in a majority of the cases hunger is the consequential effect of the process conditioned by power structures that reflect socio-economic and political contradictions in the community. An overall position in the existing hierarchical social class-caste structure, patriarchal structure and feudal and semi-feudal agrarian relations compels us to understand food crisis as a process rather than an event associated only with price rise, lack of purchasing power, loss of production or mortality. The high magnitude of poverty and hunger in Kalahandi is a cumulative result of underdevelopment and the iniquitous socio-economic and political structure. The Relief Manual of Orissa has no means to address these pressures and the State has failed to eradicate hunger from pockets of the district.

Kalahandi, which was known as rice bowl of Orissa, has become her history. Today it conspicuously figures on the map of poverty and hunger and is synonymously used for terminologies like starvation and starvation deaths. The irony is that despite starvation the district continued to be a net exporter of paddy during the 1980s and 1990s, which not only illustrates the paradoxical situation of scarcity amidst plenty in a famine-stricken region but also makes it hard to explain hunger. Poverty and hunger in this region are not only spatially located but certain sections of society are worst victims of hunger, starvation and ’near-famine’ conditions even when there is no drought and no crop loss. It is always the marginalised landless tribals, lower castes and women amongst them who are vulnerable to processes of famishment and impoverishment. It is important to analyse the process of famishment itself which has an onset, a gradual loss of access to food and maturing process that culminates in mortality. The persisting phenomenon of poverty and destitution, inequity and regional disparity, increasing alienation of land, land fragmentation and land encroachment in Kalahandi provides an understanding to large-scale deprivations, distress conditions and experiences of hunger. Together they represent acceleration and deceleration of starvation and the battle to survive. These need to be perceived in terms of pressures that are firstly, regular and seasonal, and secondly, the consequences of cumulative distress. Therefore, I dissociate from the classical conception and conventional theorising of food security that sees the basic right to food only in terms of its availability/ purchasing power to buy food.

Measuring hunger in terms of calorie intake or malnutrition alone does not explain scarcity, deprivation and distress implicit in conditions of famine that exist in Kalahandi. When deaths, in strictly clinical term, cannot be related to starvation, the tragic reality remains that the latter often die of prolonged malnutrition and continuum distress which renders their inability to withstand common diseases like malaria and diarrhea. (Rangasami, 2002: 17) ’Seasonal Hunger’, a regular experience of tribals, has been documented in terms of eating famine food (wild roots, leaves of wild plants, powder of tamarind seeds, mango kernels, edible roots and tubers), which have toxic elements, as identified by Indian Famine Code 1880, distress sale of labour, land and produce, distress migration, pawning of children, malnutrition and cases of starvation deaths. ’Periodic Hunger’ in this district has very little to do with trends of production precisely because while drought is declared on the basis of 50 per cent crop loss, the loss of minor millets, mostly consumed by tribals, is not taken into account. Though tribals depend on agriculture for minor millets such as raggi, gurji, kodo and suan during certain months of a year (between January and March and between August and December), their ’food calendar’ indicates dependence on forest for livelihood. They collect food, fuel, fodder, fibre, small timber, manure, bamboo, medical herbs, honey, bahada, harida, spices and mahua flower from forest which provides them subsistence during most part of the year. Food habits not only vary across communities, regions, class, caste, gender, religion and ethnic identities but are also important dimensions to be taken into account to understand the food crisis. Since food requirements and food habits for different sections of society vary across regions, communities, age-groups, caste, class and gender, it is important to include minor millets, pulses, oil besides wheat and rice in the PDS basket, which has been limited only to cereals in most of the States (also suggested in the debates on the Act). Therefore, widening the food basket by including local grain varieties like raggi, jowar and minor millets in the PDS, legumes and tubers, and the establishment of community kitchens modelled on the Indira Gandhi Community Kitchen are important suggestions made by scholars and policy-makers. (see also Swaminathan, 2009: 13)

Hunger for tribals, between April to September, is largely associated with decline of forest-based products. They exchange forest products for essential items such as vegetables, oil, salt, and spices in the local haats. While in the past collection of forest produce was their natural right, over the years various Forest Acts has led to disentitlement and denial of access to support system of their livelihood. Loss of grazing and gathering rights on common lands and forests has left them in a state of deplorable condition which further accentuates in a drought. They depend on wages and loans between March and August when they get no minor millets from agriculture and between May and October when they get very little from forest. The survey of 100 households in 2003-04 on the average per capita weekly consumption expenditure on food indicates that almost 60 per cent landless spend less than Rs 35 and only 21 per cent spend between Rs 35 to Rs 50 on food.6 Similar response was seen in the case of marginal, small and middle farmers. But, the average household consumption expenditure on food does not explain the intra-households inequalities in terms of nutritional in-takes. Women and children eat less than their male counterpart and less than what they need physiologically. While consequences of eating less is more serious in households with insufficient food entitlements, vulnerability of women to famine and under-nutrition is not necessarily the inevitable result of underfeeding alone, but a bundle of reciprocally causing variables, in particular economic burdens, reproductive burdens, work burdens, lack of sanitation and treatment of disease. In most cases where the male migrate, the incidence of poverty amongst women is higher in female-headed households because of increased economic as well as social burden. Breast-feeding counselling and support along with the existing law are important measures for the nutritional requirement of children, but steps should be taken to enable mothers working in the unorganised sectors and agricultural fields/ construction sites to breast-feed their children. A majority of women who work in the unorganised sector cannot avail maternity leave and depend on supplements for the child. Even when children accompany their mothers to the place of work they survive in extremely unhygienic conditions.7 Women face triple burden-belonging to lower caste/ethnic community, being poor and being a woman, which demonstrates the phenomenon of ’feminisation of hunger’. Therefore, it is vital to examine processes of systemic deprivations to underline the underlying causes of hunger and food insecurity.

Understanding the boundaries between hunger, starvation and famine through narratives of tribal experience illustrates the growing battle for survival and denial of basic rights. Narrations become critical for our understanding and the case study uses ’vernacular’ terms in order to (i) unmask the nature of starvation that has been rendered chronic, (ii) locate the phenomenon of hunger in the structural process which generates and perpetuates conditions of hunger, and (iii) these testimonies are valid as they explain the wide gap between terms of cognisance of the affected people and terms of cognisance of the State Government. The folk-lore of starvation, usually expressed by tribals, is ”ghar nein, dih nein, bada nein, kam nein, dhanda nein, po nein, jhi nein, khai bake nein, gulgula hauche, marijuche agyan”, which means ”no house, no homestead land, no agricultural land, no work, no business, no son, no daughter, no food to eat, with agony and pain, we are dying, sir”. (Jena, 2001: 19) They often refer to their suffering and distress conditions in Kui, the spoken language, as “durbhikha”, which is famine and its consequences of starving without food, ”marudi”, is drought, dryness and absolute scarcity of water, ”kalbal”, is agony and pain of hunger and starvation, depression, torture, helplessness and distress, ”kichi khaibaku na pai marigala”, is starvation and starving till death when all coping strategies fail, ”kuli bhuti, thika bhuti”, is working under contractors as wage labourers often associated with lower wages, more working hours and distress sale of labour, ”kadho bikri”, is distress sale of land, productive and non-productive assets’, ”laag”, is credit with high rates of interest, which over a period of time leads to debt trap and loss of labour, crop, land/productive resources and other assets. These living conditions, narrated by tribals, are not just temporary phenomenon associated with drought and famine but are regular which occur and recur every year.

The narratives of women are different from that of men and thus gendered narration of hunger is important not only to explore unequal relations in society but also to confront unequal impacts of hunger. Understanding the phenomenon of hunger through primacy of testimonies of its victims provide explanations of conditions that accentuate the process of famishment and measures food crisis beyond decline in food availability and mass mortality. Therefore, the social relations in terms of class, caste, gender and ethnicity, the economic relations in terms of relations of production and exchange relations, especially the land relations and the political relations, in terms of intervention of the state and the local institutions should be analysed in a specific context. Food security needs to be seen as an affirmation of the political condition of human existence involving a struggle against class/caste/gender exploitation and oppression. This study attempts to understand these relations at the micro-level and relate them to the macro-level. The experiences drawn from the study of hunger at the micro-level is important as it provides insights into the wider phenomenon and similar experiences elsewhere.

The historical perspective of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods illustrates two important processes: (i) encroachment of tribal (Kondh) land by Kultas, which led to the control of productive assets by gountias, money-lenders, traders, middlemen and rich farmers mostly belonging to higher castes, and (ii) disentitlement, which deprived tribals of their rights over land, forest and water. Food crisis is not always owing to a differential drop in the purchasing power, but the nexus between landlords, moneylenders and middlemen has contributed to the vulnerability of STs, SCs, artisans, weavers, small and marginal farmers (chasas) and landless labourers (sukhabasis) to hunger, malnutrition, starvation and epidemic diseases. Women, children and old-age people are worst affected during the food crises. Therefore, hunger and malnutrition occur even without any shortfall in food production and its availability.

Hence, to understand the phenomenon of poverty, hunger and food crisis it is important to examine the formal and informal relations between different categories of landholders and between the landless and landholders. Relationships between ex-gountias and Tenants (landlords and tenants) ex-gountias and sukhabasis (landlords and landless), Sahukars/ Mahajans and the indebted tribals (creditors and debtors), Thikadars and Halias (contractors and bonded labourers) through which many transactions involving land, cultivation, credit and labour is carried out needs to be analysed. The land relations, relations of production and exchange relations need to be explained to understand the relationship between tenurial insecurity and food insecurity mainly in terms of land rights. Procurement of labour in exchange of subsistence and disentitlement in relation to labour, transfer of land and productive as well as non-productive assets to moneylenders is a common phenomenon in this region. During periods of famishment large transfers of assets take place. Transfer of assets and consequent decline in economic conditions is not a one-time impact of a phenomenon. It is important to map the trends in such transactions, which results in consistent decline in the proportion of cultivators and corresponding increase in agricultural labourers, increase in alienation of land and disentitlement to forest and water for the marginalised and increase in control over productive resources by the powerful sections of society. An analysis of the land rights in both pre-independence and post-independence period explains the trend which has contributed to the emergence of a new class and further exploitation of the landless. Thus, the need for structural intervention in terms of land rights and land relations should be prioritised in the agenda of development policies of the state.8

Assessing State Initiatives

Kalahandi has been brought to the centre of discourse on hunger and poverty by media reports, writs in the Supreme Court and High Courts, debates in the Orissa Assembly and campaigns by social activists. It has led to the intervention of courts, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and governments have allocated increased financial grants and welfare and developmental programmes to the KBK (Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput) region. While adhoc approaches in the past to develop the poorest region did not yield the desired results, a Special Area Development Approach was adopted launching the LTAP during the 1990s. The LTAP had focused on two principal objectives—(a) drought and distress proofing, and (b) poverty alleviation and development saturation. The core element of development saturation included poverty termination by implementing various schemes such as beneficiary oriented schemes, infrastructure development schemes and social welfare schemes.

The nature of the state’s intervention is important to analyse the role of democracy in practice. The existence of democratic institutions create new possibilities for placing on the agenda a right to subsistence, but it remained the prerogative of the state to redress want through measures which it may consider practicable, affordable/expedient. (Jayal, 2001:96) While the national state primarily involved itself as a fund-giver and enlisted several programmes, the local state involved in implementing the target oriented policies/projects and at the intermediate level, the State Government played a mendicant role, seeking funds and assistance from the Centre on the one hand and denying hunger and starvation deaths on the other. An analytical study of some of the policies reveals that in practice the themes and parameters are laid down from above, which are not in accordance with local conditions. Though micro-level planning linked local governments with local resource based plans to benefit local people, the tribals in several villages of Lanjigarh and Thuamul Rampur Blocks stated that Gram Sabha and Palli Sabha meetings reflected the interest of dominant castes of the village. The dominant landowning caste had an enormous hold on political parties and also influenced the decisions of the panchayats. Party affiliations are not very strong at the grassroot level but political parties favoured their supporters in panchayats, particularly after their involvement in the panchayat elections.

It is precisely because of manipulation by vested interest groups, that tribals have lost interest in the attending Palli Sabhas. Most tribals and even many Ward members were unaware of the eligibility to avail benefits of poverty alleviation schemes. Women panchayat members and villagers had no information about various government schemes and programmes. Despite initiating participatory approach in managing environmental resources such as Pani Panchayat, Joint Forest Management and Watershed Management, involvement of local people and communities is only techno-managerial in nature. Though the Gram Panchayat is an elected executive body to implement public policy, working of the panchayats illustrates its failure to enable participation of poor in terms of access to policy formulation and its implementation. In fact the focus has shifted from struggle politics to NGO activity. (See also M. Mohanty, 1998: 86) Most of the relief measures taken by the State are often implemented with the help of non-government organisations. Unfortunately many NGOs have benefited the same vested interest groups which play a significant role in denial of democratic rights to the deprived. Therefore, we need to look beyond institutional reforms to understand what prevents the political agency of the poor.

The Orissa Relief Code (ORC) has replaced the term ’famine’ by ’scarcity’ and ’distress’ caused by natural calamity. It has no provision to provide relief when there is no natural calamity. The State has no means to map distress conditions in terms of distress sale of crop, labour and land. The legal and institutional apparatus of the State is not equipped to respond to recurrence of hunger and starvation in this region. Even when large sections of the tribal community live in starved conditions, famine is not officially declared. In fact, for policy-makers a particular figure of mortality becomes the deciding criterion for recognition and declaration of famine. It is here that formulation of famine by the victims is a departure from its official definition. Famine needs to be understood as a long drawn process, which has biological, economic, social, political, psychological and cultural dimensions. Biologically it renders one weak to such an extent that he/she is unable to exchange labour either for wages or for food. Collecting firewood or other forest products also becomes difficult. Putting in labour for road or earthwork of Employment Assurance Schemes (EAS)/ National Rural Employment Act (NREGA) becomes impossible. Thus, hunger further worsens one’s socio-economic conditions.

The agrarian economy, characterised by abysmal poverty, landlessness and extreme inequality in land structure, questions implemen-tation of land reforms in this district. Agriculture being seasonal, a majority of the households surveyed is employed between 60 to 90 days. The number of workdays in the non-agricultural sector varied between 20 to 50 days. Lack of alternative sources of employment continues to be a major structural constraint of this region. The phenomenon of seasonal unemployment is common to all households but its percentage is highest in the case of the landless.

The NREGA 2005 is a positive intervention of the state as it aims at enhancing the livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. The guaranteed work also aims at serving other objectives such as generating productive assets, protecting environment, empowering rural women, reducing rural-urban migration and fostering social equality. One of the positive aspects of the scheme has been the provision of social audit which can be carried out by the CSOs to access the working of the scheme. This has forced transparency and accountability on the local politician and administration. By guaranteeing work to at least one person from each family who applies for it and providing minimum wages (now the promise is to guarantee a minimum of Rs 100 a day for rural employment), the poor landless men and women have got the opportunity to earn a fair wage which has given them a hand to fight against exploitation, sub-ordination and age-old biases.

But in our recent visit in 2008 to the two villages (Tikrapada and Kerokuda in Rishigaon Panchayat) near the district headquarter Bhawanipatna, we found that despite the claim by the panchayat officials and bureaucrats that there is wide publicity of the NREGA, the local villagers were not aware of various provisions of the Act. There were many villagers who did not have job cards. The deciding factor to possess the BPL card was in accordance with the 1997 census and not the 2002 census, which excluded many families from the BPL category. We found that not even a single adult member of 80 households surveyed has been employed for more than 20 days during the last financial year. We also found involvement of contractors in such works, which is a violation of the Act. Despite money being invested in road works, lack of communication facilities continues to remain a major obstacle to avail employment opportunities. Even when work is offered within five km from the village, the villagers remain unemployed despite possessing job cards as it is difficult to reach the work site. Since work is offered they are also deprived of the unemployment allowances/ compensation. The most wanting demands of the local villagers are Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) and Old Age Pension Scheme. Mostly the elderly women and widows complained that they did not benefit from such schemes. The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) is not operational and there are no health facilities available. The school infra-structure and educational facilities are poor. The MDMS operating in the schools is insufficient to meet the nutrition requirements of children. The Kalahandi experience tells us that very few villagers are beneficiaries/passive recipients of policies but majority are deprived of the benefits.

Several data on land holdings, assets, incomes, consumption expenditure on food and non-food items, indebtedness and migration illustrate the vulnerability of the landless, marginal and small landholders, particularly belonging to the STs, SCs and OBCs. While programmes for health and nutrition are more readily perceived in the development goals, greater redistributive land reforms are yet to become a necessary component of targeted programmes for the poor. Land reforms continued to figure in chapters of the revised LTAP, but had not been prioritised in strategies of the plan. While the LTAP was a pre-election campaign for electoral gains of politicians and a post-election campaign for businessmen, traders and middlemen, poverty and hunger had never been issues in the panchayat elections nor discussed in the Palli Sabha meetings. Access to land, forest, water, credit and employment opportunities to eradicate poverty and hunger have never been issues of the election campaigns of political parties. There has been little attempt to bring about structural-political changes by empowering the poor in terms of control over land, means of production and control over the produce. The Palli Sabha meetings primarily focus on development activities and selecting beneficiaries of poverty alleviation scheme, which is often manipulated by supporters of political parties. Therefore, the institutionalised pattern of power relationships is an important determinant and needs to be analysed in understanding who starves and why. It is important to relate hunger and famine to patterns of food consumption besides relating it to food production or procurement. While people have very little recollection of who ate what in normal times, this is exactly what they do recall about a famine/food crisis. It is during a period of shortage that allocation of food within the community and within the family highlights the tensions and struggles which are invisible otherwise. Individuals who starve or go hungry are not simply non-receptacles of food but have distinct socio-economic identities. In our study we found tribals suffering from deprivations in multiple ways which should be located within the larger historical process of change in their economic role and social status. Vulnerability to hunger therefore implies understanding the processes of famishment.

Hence it is imperative to study if the schemes and policies have structurally intervened to eradicate poverty and hunger. It is even difficult to reduce poverty and hunger by half by 2015 as aimed by the Millennium Development Goals. The current paradigms for analysing the nature of the multifaceted problem of hunger and poverty should address some of the most controversial issues: is the idea of universality of the proposed Food Security Act consistent with the existing schemes/ respect for cultural difference? What are the underlying causes of violations of basic right to food? Has the availability of work stopped people to migrate? Has 33 per cent preference for women workers empowered women economically? Is the mandate for equal wages, the provision for worksite facilities like crèche, implemented to bring about gender equality at the workplace? The Kalahandi experience reflects that a strategy of development which fails to seriously question the existing unequal distribution and control over productive resources, political power and socio-cultural structures, which are hierarchical and exploitative, will be devoid of its purpose. Paradoxes of development have marginalised the poor who have been denied opportunities to struggle for their rights. The structural-political perspective enables an understanding of structures and relations where large disadvantaged and deprived sections of society are excluded from sharing opportunities and benefits enjoyed by a few.

Hunger is a collective experience which poses a threat not only to their lives but also their livelihood and offers insights to redefine basic rights. The nature of deprivation itself should be understood from a historical and structural perspective. Therefore, rethinking and rearticulating the right to food is significant to develop critical insights by raising certain vital issues related to the understanding of hunger and systemic deprivations such as the nature of political obligation; power relations in terms of inter-relation of equality, liberty, rights, justice, in the context of class, caste, gender, ethnicity, democracy and sovereignty of the nation-state which highlights the much debated questions about not only that there is a violation of the basic human right to food but also precisely why it is.

The concept of rights perceived as the process of liberation implies struggling against multi-dimensional domination and constantly grappling with arenas of human bondage. This is the process that progressively fulfils the urges of human creativity and gradually unfolds a society in terms of expansion of real freedom. However, in Kalahandi such a process does not exist as endemic poverty and hunger is not a sudden and dramatic aberration from the previously existing situation of near sufficiency to food insecurity. This illustrates that under-development in this region needs to be explained in terms of its continuity. Hunger is both a cause and a symptom of violation of the human right to life and its alleviation should be increasingly seen as an indicator and precondition for securing human rights. Measures to end dominations and oppressions based on class, caste and gender should be prioritised to empower the poor socially, economically and politically. Empowerment can only be ensured if they are not passive receivers of policies or its beneficiaries but have the freedom to think, exercise choice, bargain, negotiate, plan, decide, challenge and provide alternatives to development policies laid down for them. This necessarily requires structural changes. Elimination of destitution has to be considered in the context of three objectives—regaining control over one’s own labour, regaining control over land and other productive resources and regaining control over the produce of one’s labour. The Millenium Development Compact, presented in the Human Development Report 2003, addresses the problem of lack of access to land and insecurity of land tenure. (Human Development Report, 2003:4) But land reforms still suffer from comparative neglect though it continues to remain an integral part of the overall strategy of poverty alleviation.


The experience of Kalahandi leads us to reconceptualise hunger as an interlocking condition of landlessness, lack of control over productive resources, economic vulnerabilities, social disadvantage and political powerlessness. Alleviating hunger needs to address multiple structural issues such as lack of access to land, forest, water, lack of control over other productive assets and even the food that is produced. Bringing tribals into the ambit of land distribution and empowering them to control productive resources can ensure food security to two-thirds of the poor. Provisions to check land encroachments and alienation of land, labour and crop, improve access to capital, market and credit system will prevent exploitations by moneylenders, landlords and middlemen. Despite local and contextual specificity of this case study, the analysis supports a common approach towards food security and development. While the state faces the challenge to eradicate hunger and bring about development in terms of its broader meanings as freedom, equality and justice, will the existing policies and proposed Act secure the basic right to food to the poor? Does decline in poverty in terms of headcount ratios ensure decline in vulnerability of the marginalised to the processes of impoverish-ment and famishment?

An analysis of the socio-economic and political dynamics at the micro-level helps us in understanding the underlying causes of hunger/famine, which can also be caused by deliberate political action. It further brings out an alternative perspective to eradicate hunger and destitution by raising issues of power in terms of class, caste, gender and ethnicity of the vulnerable groups. Freedom from hunger should be recognised not just as a human right but also as a political right and therefore it calls for structural intervention. The challenge is to pursue the people’s rights perspective in the context of globalisation and liberalisation in a new era of heightened democratic consciousness.


1. India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1949), Article 25 of the Declaration recognises the right of everyone to adequate food. Art 11 of the international Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and the general Comment 12 of the Committee on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights holds the state responsibile to recognise the right of everyone to be free from hunger. The Fundamental Right to Life under Art 21, includes the right to health including food. The Directive Principles of State Policy directs the state to provide adequate means of livelihood and improve public health under Article 39 (a) and Article 47 respectively (also discussed at the Global Conference on Meeting with Nutritional Challenges with Sustainability and Equity on August 2-3, 2009).

2. To deal with the rising prices of commodities, the Food Ministry has proposed revival of Open Market Sale Scheme (OMSS) for offloading certain quantity of wheat in the market. (Parsai, 2009: 1)

3. Linking India’s prosperity to the prosperity of farmers, the Prime Minister stated that waiving bank loans of lakhs of farmers and increase of the support prices for agricultural products are important measures taken particularly in the hour of distress. The President’s address on the eve of Independence Day also emphasised the need for refraining from making profit out of poor people’s entitlements. (See also Swaminathan, 2009: 10)

4. There are three different figures that tell us about the percentage of population below the poverty line. As per the Planning Commission it is 28 per cent, the Tendulkar Committee gives a figure of 38 per cent and the Arjun Sengupta Report states more than 78 per cent are BPL.

5. The Prime Minister in his speech on August 15, 2009 stated: ”However good our programmes and schemes might be, their benefit will not reach the public till the government machinery is not free of corruption and till it is not effective in their implementation. I would like our public administration to be more efficient so that programmes for public good can be implemented faster. We need to improve our delivery systems to provide basic services to our citizens. We will act with speed on the recommendations of the Administrative Reforms Commission to strengthen governance. Renewed efforts will be made to decentralise public administration through the Panchayati Raj Institutions and to ensure greater involvement of people in it. Initiative will be taken for a new partnership between the civil society and the government so that tax payers’ money is better spent. We have enacted the Right to Information Act to enhance accountability and transparency in public life. This law will be improved so that it is more effective. We have to make special efforts to strengthen the administrative machinery for our rural programmes. Those who live in villages and semi-urban areas should get services similar to the residents of urban areas. Communication and Information Technology can go a long way in achieving this objective. Recently, we have set up the Unique Identification Authority of India. This is a historic step to link up the whole country through a high quality administrative arrangement. We expect the first set of identity numbers to be available in the next one to one and a half years.”

6. The household survey was conducted in 2003 to study ”Poverty Eradication and Role of Local Institutions in Comparative Perspective: With Focus on Kalahandi, Bhojpur and Chittoor” in a project supported by Planning Commission. Hundred households from four villages (Sapmundi from Karlapat and Taragaon from Kaniguma Panchayat in Thuamul Rampur Block and Kirejhola and Chikelchuan from Boden Block) in Kalahandi were selected on the basis of stratified random sampling.

7. ”Good health is one of our basic needs. The National Rural Health Mission that we have started aims at strengthening the infrastructure for rural public health services. We will expand the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana so as to cover each family below the poverty line. In our journey on the road of development we will pay special attention to the needs of our differently abled brothers and sisters. We will increase facilities available for them. ……In this effort, special care will be taken of the needs of women and children. We will endeavour to extend the benefit of ICDS to every child below the age of six years in the country by March 2012.” (Extracts from the Prime Minister speech)

8. M.S. Swaminathan’s suggestion to take several steps to promote land care in its totality and to measure agricultural progress in its human dimension rather than statistical terms is therefore valid.


Documents and Reports:

District Census Handbook, Kalahandi (1991), Director of Census Operations Government of Orissa, Bhubaneswar.

District Statistical Handbook, Kalahandi (1997), Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Government of Orissa, Bhubaneswar.

Dreze, Jean (2009), The Hindu, August 10, p. 20.

Economic Survey, 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2002-03, Government of Orissa, Government Press, Cuttack.

Hasan, Zoya (2009), ”Legislating against Hunger” The Hindu, August 27, p. 10.

Human Development Report, UNDP, 2002-03.

Jena, Pradeep (2001), The Kalahandi Question: Some Answers, reproduced by Sahabagi Vikash Abiyan, October 15.

Karat, Brinda (2009), ”For Inclusive Approach to Food Security”, The Hindu, June 30, p. 10.

Mander, Harsh (2009), The Hindu, August 10, p. 20.

Mohanty, Manoranjan (1991), ”An Approach to Kalahandi in Hunger and Under Development. Is there a way out for Kalahandi?” Report of Workshop organised by Lokadrusti, December 28-29, Khariar.

Mohanty, Manoranjan, S.K. Aggarwal, G.N. Trivedi, Suranjita Ray and N. Sukumar (2003), Project Report ”Poverty Eradication and Role of Local Institutions in Comparative Perspective: With Focus on Kalahandi, Bhojpur and Chittoor” submitted to Planning Commission, Government of India.

Orissa Annual Plan, 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, Government of Orissa, Bhubaneswar.

Orissa Development Report, (2003), Planning Commission Government of India.

Parsai, Gargi (2009), The Hindu, August 15, p. 1.

Rangasami, Amrita (2002), Relief Administration in the KBK Region, Orissa Suggestion for the elimination of Starvation and Destitution, submitted to the NHRC.

Sainath, P. (2009) ” Drought of Justice, Flood of Funds” The Hindu, August 15, p. 10.

Shiva, Vandana (2009), (Extracts from the report released by her ’Why is every 4th Indian Hungry? The Causes and Cures for Food Insecurity’, Navdanya), The Hindu, July 31, p. 4.

Sen, Amartya (2009), The Hindu, August 10, p. 20.

Swaminathan, M.S (2009), ”Synergy Between Food Security Act and NREGA”, The Hindu, June 1, p. 13.

Swaminathan, M.S (2009), ”Drought Management for Rural Livelihood Security”.

The Hindu, August 17, p. 10.

Tenth Five Year Plan, (2003), Government of Orissa, Bhubaneswar.

Towards Faster and More Inclusive Growth; An Approach to 11th Five Year Plan, Planning Commission, Government of India, (2006).

Books and Journals:

Agarwal, Bina (1992) ”Rural Women, Poverty and Natural Resources: Sustenance, Sustainability and Struggle for Change” in Poverty in India: Research and Policy, Barbara Harriss, S.Guhan and R.H. Cassin (eds.), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Bardhan, P. (1984) ”On Life and Death Questions: Poverty and Child Mortality” in Land, Labour and Rural Poverty: Essays in Development Economics, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Currie, Bob (2000), The Politics of Hunger in India, Macmillan, London

Desai, M.B. and N.V. Namboodri (1998), ”Policy Strategy and Instruments for Alleviating Rural Poverty” Economic and Political Weekly, October 10.

Dogra, Bharat (2000) ”Hunger and Poverty in Kalahandi, Exposing Myths, Fighting Injustice”, Social Change Papers, New Delhi.

Dreze, Jean and Sen, Amartya (1989), Hunger and Public Action, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Jayal, Niraja Gopal (2001), Democracy and the State. Welfare State, Secularism Development in Contemporary India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Kumar, S.C, Das, Nilanian and Malik, B.B. (2002), ”Development in Distress: A Critique of Poverty Eradication programmes in Kalahandi District of Orissa”, Journal of Rural Development.

Khera, Reetika (2009), ”Right to Food Act: Beyond Cheap Promises”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No. 29, July 18-24, p. 40-43.

Mehrotra, Santosh and Mander, Harsh (2009) ”How to Identify the Poor? A Proposal” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol, XLIV No. 19, May 9-15, 2009, p. 37-44.

Mohanty, Manoranjan (1998), ”Orissa’s Tribal People: Politics of Disentitlement” in Contemporary Social Movements in India: Achievements and Hurdles by Sebasti L. Raj and Arundati Roy Choudhary (eds.), Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.

Mohanty, Manoranjan (1999), ”Kalahandi Destitution and under Development” in State, Development and Alternatives by Ambrose Pinto (ed.), Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.

Mohanty, Manoranjan and Bohidar, Bijaya Kumar (1993), Orissa Daridra Kahinki, Orissa Book Store, Cuttack.

Purohit, Hutason, Rao, R.S. and Tripathy, P.K. (1985), ”Drought and Poverty: A Report from Kalahandi”, Economic and Political Weekly, November 2, Vol. VII, No. 42, November 1985.

Sainath, P. (1996) Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Penguin, New Delhi.

Sen, Amartya, (1982), Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford University, Delhi.


Deo, Fanindam (1984), Tribal-Non-Tribal Interaction with special reference to Nuapada Sub-division in Kalahandi District of Western Orissa, M. Phil Dissertation, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Ray, Suranjita (2004), Politics of Hunger: A Case Study of Kalahandi, Ph.d Thesis, University of Delhi, Delhi.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at email:

*Shiva, Vandana (2009), The Hindu magazine, August 16, p. 4.

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