A stark image, casting little glory on Indian democracy, was of the chief minister of Orissa, Naveen Patnaik, asserting that the tribals of Orissa were dying, not because of starvation, but because of their ignorant and backward habits of eating poisonous mango kernels. It was not the lack of food but the ignorance of people that was killing them. The attitude of the CM and his ministers brings the rulers’ callousness into sharp focus. Our rulers have been unable to shift public attention away from the grossly flawed food policies, whose worst effects are now being felt in Orissa. The media gave voice to this by advertising the fact that 40,000 tonnes of paddy rotted in the FCI godowns while poor farmers and Adivasis in western Orissa starved.
While growing public outrage compelled the government to introduce some short-term measures for relief to the Adivasis, the problem of a dysfunctional food distribution system is only the tip of the iceberg. It does not touch the core of the problem that lies in the structural changes in Adivasi society and economy in the last 50 years that have destroyed the security of food and livelihood in these regions. More recently, the crisis of Adivasi survival has been further deepened by the structural adjustment policies adopted by the union government with the endorsement of a large part of the political and business elite.
That is perhaps why the media do not seek the answer for inconvenient questions. For instance, why does a rice-surplus district like Kalahandi have one of the highest mortality rates (140 per thousand) in the country and the most frequent instances of starvation? Or why are predominantly tribal districts like Sarguja in Chhattisgarh or Mandla in Madhya Pradesh vulnerable to chronic disease and malnutrition despite their rich forest, mineral and agricultural resources? The answers to these questions are disturbing for the sections that dominate our democracy. This is because any long-term remedy for the situation would require the reversal of the policies impacting on natural resource management and agriculture, particularly the policies initiated since the liberalisation process. In this sense, the hunger in the Adivasi areas is a phenomenon that has a systemic link with the suicides of small farmers in Maharashtra, Andhra and recently Karnataka.
The spectre of starvation in western Orissa has its roots in the growing inequalities in the agrarian regime. Fundamental changes have plagued the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) belt since the late colonial and early post-colonial period. The first scarcities were seen as early as 1954-55; thereafter there was hardly any decade without scarcity, the worst coming in 1965-66. But despite these scarcities, a report on paddy production in Orissa recorded that Kalahandi had 1,18,731 tonnes and Bolangir had 66,036 tonnes of surplus paddy. Between this period and the 1990s, rice production in the KBK area suffered while the oilseeds and pulse production reached a new high. These are points made in Bob Currie's latest work The Politics of Hunger in India, which also shows that paddy may have been replaced by ragi, a subsistence crop of Adivasis and other small farmers. Changes of this type in the cropping pattern in Adivasi areas are evident in Chhattisgarh also. In the post-1991 period, an area, which has over 10,000 indigenous varieties of rice, has been busily engaged in the promotion of soya bean, a crop with a major potential for rise in productivity. This was prompted by a sharp rise in soya bean prices in the world market. Facts such as these bear out Utsa Patnaik’s thesis that liberalisation will lead to a shift to commercial crops and thus to a contraction of area under subsistence and food crops.
The phenomena described above is not merely a result of the current liberalisation process, but also an impact of the Green Revolution on the Adivasi areas. As these areas provided cheap land and labour, the shift to cash crops also implied that big farmers came from outside, bought tribal land and made the Adivasis work on their farms at low wages. For instance, there was an influx of Punjabi landholders into the heavily forested area of Shivpuri in western Madhya Pradesh. Some of these farms (owned by prominent bureaucrats and freedom fighters) were built on land bought from the Adivasis at throwaway prices in the late 1960s, which then put the same Adivasis to work as landless labourers. Such a differentiation is also evident in the KBK area where there was a sharp increase in the number of landless labourers and small and marginal farmers. From 1971 to 1991, the number of marginal farmers with landholdings of less than one acre increased from approximately 17 to 39 per cent of the total agricultural workforce whereas the number of large farmers (owning above 10 acres) declined from 4.7 to 0.9 per cent. However, the starkest trend is the decrease in the importance of middle peasant (with 4 to 10 acres of land) from 30.4 to 9.9 per cent in the same period. Since the number of small peasants (owning 1 to 4 acres of land) did not increase in the same proportion as the decline of large and middle peasantry, it can safely be assumed that many of the middle peasants may have been reduced to landless peasants or marginal farmers. In this context, Currie’s work and Gail Omvedt’s fieldwork in 1996 show that most Adivasis and Dalits (comprising about 47 per cent of the population) have been divested of "good and fertile" lands and have become marginal farmers or labourers. In contrast, the low lands with high productivity and fertile lands are controlled by fewer than 10 per cent of the people, most of who are non-Adivasi absentee landholders.
The pauperisation of Adivasi peasants has had a detrimental impact on the livelihood security in Adivasi areas. Most Adivasis survive on a combination of forest gathering and agriculture work as labourer. They also form a major part of the workforce in the mines. But most of this work is seasonal in character and migration out of the area is not uncommon. The rate of this migration increases manifold in times of scarcity and drought. This season, 21 out of 30 districts were under severe drought in Orissa and consequently the number of migrants was estimated at 100,000. Chhattisgarh too witnessed its worst drought in the last 50 years and activists in the region estimate that a large part of the population has left the region. But these were not the only regions that faced the drought. So what is it that made these predominantly Adivasi and Dalit areas prone to migration and starvation?
The answer to this question can be found in the precarious livelihood strategies that are dependent on seasonal work. For example, most Adivasis collect tendu leaves for 40-60 days a year and work on the big farmers’ lands at the sowing or harvesting time. For the rest of the year, they may work in the mines or go off with the contractors for construction work, or simply send one member of the family to the town to find work. After the regular tendu work is over, people walk a distance of 350 km from Mandla, all the way to the mines in Bastar to get seasonal employment that earns them between Rs 2000 and Rs 5000 over a three or four month period. Young men from Kalahandi go to Raipur and pull rickshaws; Chhattisgarhi men and women provide a large portion of the manual labour force in the big cities.
If they stay at home and remain dependent on seasonal work, they earn a pittance and can barely make two ends meet, leave alone save for bad days. On an average, a woman labourer in Kalahandi gets Rs 5 a day for weeding while a man gets 5 to 6 kg of rice. For sowing and harvesting they may get anything from Rs 30 to 40 a day. Small and marginal farmers are forced to the distress sale of their paddy at as low as Rs 1 to 2 per kg in order to meet the other meagre needs of oil, clothes, salt, etc. The story is much the same regarding regarding tendu work. P Sainath has shown how difficult it is for a beedi leaf gatherer to make more than Rs 30 a day, even after collecting 100 bundles of leaves. These facts make us wonder whether there is any way at all of enforcing minimum wages and support prices for the poor of this country.
The lack of purchasing power to buy food even at the PDS rates and the distress sale of whatever food surpluses exist are the main reasons for starvation deaths in the KBK region. This is because the government-trader nexus determines the entire network of procurement of grain and then its distribution. For example, the peasant gives his rice to the merchant at Rs 2 per kg and the merchant sells it to the FCI at the minimum support price. When they need to buy food in times of scarcity they buy it at double the price, the targeted PDS being one of the worst targets of this nexus. A survey done in Kashipur after the reports of starvation deaths, showed that the poorest tribal families have been declared above the poverty line (APL) even as a clique of local government and traders siphoned off the grains which were supposed to be distributed to BPL (below poverty line) families under the targeted public distribution system (TPDS). This is even more shocking when we consider that the number of BPL cardholders outstrips the number of registered BPL families by 8.5 lakhs in Orissa.
The lack of food through the TPDS is compounded by the fact that Adivasis have no rights to forest lands that used to provide them food and shelter in times of distress. Adivasi oral traditions from many areas in eastern and central India recount how the mahua tree or ripe fruits, seeds and leaves from other plants were an essential dietary supplement, especially in times of famine. The denial of rights in the colonial and then in the post-colonial period was motivated not only by the need to maximise revenue from forest timber, but also to harness forest produce for industrial purposes. Of these, mahua and mango kernels were some of the most valuable species in the KBK area and were therefore appropriated by traders and the state. The Adivasis were included in the system only as labourers who had no rights over the produce and would be paid less than the minimum wage for the collection of the mahua seeds or mango kernels. In the KBK area, the "legal traders" buy mahua seeds for Rs 2 to 3 per kg whereas the actual market rate is Rs 6.50 per kg. In some cases reported, women labourers barter mahua and mango kernels for a paltry amount of salt. Given this desperate situation, it is not surprising that the only food the local Adivasis can access at the time of scarcity is poisonous mango kernels and roots (kanda).
The problem of hunger and malnutrition in Adivasi areas is clearly linked to the inequalities and threats to livelihood in these regions. They are then accentuated by the lack of proper infrastructure and services, most of whose benefits are appropriated by richer farmers and traders. In this context, providing food for work or free food would only take care of the immediate needs of the Adivasis, but will not provide a long-term solution. Preventing starvation deaths in the Adivasi belt requires an integrated development of the area. Jagdish Pradhan of the Paschim Orissa Krushijeevi Sangh voiced this sentiment when he argued that lack of attention to local systems and conditions by the government was the main issue in the KBK belt. If the problem is to be tackled, we need to seriously look at the government policies and programmes that define the people’s access to their local resources. So far, few steps have been taken in this direction. The enormously funded Orissa Hunger Project is mainly using the oft-failed but popular-among-officials strategy of distributing high yield seeds and "educating" the people in "improved technology" for better agricultural production. It is promoting potatoes and giving credit to farmers for growing vegetables in the area.
There is great irony in the efforts to teach the methods of agriculture to the people who have for decades produced surplus foodgrain. New crops are being promoted under the garb of people’s welfare (through self-help groups and other such methods) without looking at the totality of their possible impact on the region’s ecology and economy. The strategy fits in well with the prime minister's statement in Haryana a few months ago that the farmer has to adjust and respond to the growing pressures of the world market. He should do this by producing less food and more of other crops, especially after the removal of quantitative restrictions under the WTO regime. Only then, said the prime minister, will we able to benefit from the free market.
But experience clearly shows that this strategy is only likely to increase the misery of 90 per cent of the people and produce more hunger. We need true economic democracy to remove hunger: a strategy that promotes redistribution of wealth through land reforms, rights of ownership in forest produce, and decent labour rates. We also need people’s institutions to monitor schemes and programmes (as in the case of community-based public distribution systems), creation of community infrastructural assets (like local watersheds through food for work) and mechanisms of value addition at the local level. In short, we need a structural adjustment programme in favour of 90 per cent of the population and especially in favour of the Adivasis and Dalits.
(Archana Prasad is Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.)
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