The Hungry belying the claims of a Resurgent Bihar
By Rajeev Kumar, Patna
Ever since taking over the reins of a second term in the Assembly the Nitish government has been at pains to establish the ‘Resurgent Bihar’. Official statements rely on data quoting the figures of economic growth from 3.5% in 2004-05 to 10.93%. 2010-11. There has also been ample evidence of massive infrastructure development; the roads notorious in Bihar’s hinterlands are now laid out impressively across. There is also been a lot of noise on serving and uplifting the most marginalised, defined by the government in a term it has coined ‘Mahadalit’.
However there seem to be black holes in the model ‘Resurgent Bihar’. Scores of people who live out their lives in the shadow of this painted picture of development speak of a different reality. Nowhere is this more stark than in the spectre of hunger and starvation deaths even while the government is totting up figures and facts to show how remarkable the policies are or how effective governance is. According to statistics, released by Advisor for Bihar to the Supreme Court Commissioner on Right to Food, 150 people died of hunger in the last 5-6 years. Global Hunger Report 2008 also confirms death of hunger in Bihar.
It is curious and perhaps even missed in the analyses of current polices that among those who are affected is the very constituency that the present government claims to be focused on, the Dalits and Mahadalits. These constitute 15% of Bihar’s SC population, among whom 22 sects were merged into the Mahadalit category. Bihar’s political scenario has conventionally been caste-based and the recent election was seen as a rejection of caste-based politics and a resounding call for development. However, it seems to be back on the same track. The people suffering from hunger and malnutrition are at the epicenter of Bihar’s politics are the same people who Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi wooed. And now the present government is focusing on them, ostensibly as a move towards inclusion but what is nearer the truth is because they provide a support base. The calculations are still caste-based but under the garb of development.
Let us examine what these policies and schemes that meant to reach the most vulnerable sections, aim at. There are a whole slew of them no doubt. There are about 22 schemes operating including Mid day Meal Integrated Child Welfare Project, Antyodaya, Annapurna, Vikas Mitra, Maha Dalit Poshak Yojna, Dashrath Manjhi Kaushal Development Scheme. What is unclear is how much of this reaches the ground, the excluded sections. Figures to show their success or lack of it are wanting. One of the biggest shortcomings in evaluating such schemes is the lack of accepted poverty figures to base all development schemes on. According to statistics of the state government, 1.40 crore people in Bihar are living below the poverty line while the Central government believe that the number is much less, 65 lakh.
The prevalence of hunger is situated in the midst of these policy gaps and implementation lacunas. In 2007, according to a study by the Mahadalit Commission 234 Mahadalit families out 250 had nothing to cook for dinner. These then are the ground realties, which need to be then taken as a base to work on policy and programmes. The reportage of hunger deaths is also shrouded in ambiguities. Recently in Vaishali, more than 20 Mahadalits reportedly died of ‘Kalajar’. It would be closer to the truth to say that actually they died of hunger. Their starving bodies had become so weak that succumbing to any disease was only inevitable. This pattern of showing hunger deaths in the garb of disease, of succumbing to malaria, to TB is an old game of political powers and those in authority to escape blame, side-step accountability. But it is a gross violation of the rights of these people, of the mandate received and the intent of food security that has taken top priority not only in the state but also across the country.
The spectre of hunger is compounded by the fact that Bihar is prone to chronic floods and to famine. Last year, there were numerous reports of hunger deaths from famine affected districts of Jahanabad, Gaya, Nalanda, Begusarai, Araria In such situations, accessibility to food, to services, to earning a livelihood becomes severely compromised. The government needs to factor all these specific characteristics if it is to come up with an adequate response to hunger and malnutrition.
What one needs to guard against is the tendency to see the situation from the standpoint of hunger deaths alone. Let us not forget that the lead-up to the death is actually the area of concern. This was amply evident in the hearing of a PIL, filed recently against hunger deaths. The judgment noted that with people in villages of Bihar are not dying of hunger, but they are living with it.
There have been several voices raised on the issue, reflecting different aspects of the situation. A recent investigation on the delivery of services under National Rural Health Mission in 4 states shows in Bihar, a huge chunk of Government of India’s fund is not used for providing health facilities, to make ICDS more comprehensive. For hunger to be eliminated, it is imperative that existing programmes, MNREGA, Anganwadi and others function well and provide services they are meant to.
The message is clear to those holding the reins of power. It is simply not acceptable to make statements about a ‘Resurgent Bihar’, nor is it enough to have the right-sounding policies for reaching the benefits of development to all. The government needs to pull out all the stops to ensure that its intent and all its programmes on the ground converge to make food in adequate quantities available to the people living on margins.