“There is absolutely no case of hunger deaths anywhere in the state”. At least that’s what one of the top officials of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh claims in a BBC report here.
Jatai, a resident of Ghoorpatti village, thinks otherwise. How does she know? Well, she’s lost five members of her family over the last 18 months — to hunger. But then, she’s not a wise state official. Just a mother trying to make ends meet while coping with her grief.
The state government has clearly stuck its collective head in the sand. “It is strange how the party which is in power denies there have been any starvation deaths, but as soon as they are in opposition, they start shouting about hunger deaths,” comments one human rights activist. It seems that India’s chronically poor are only worth noticing around election time.
What to do? Sort out the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for a start — too few poor people know their rights or receive any kind of help. Back in 2006, Jean Drèze in The Hindu commented: “There has been plenty of drum-beating but relatively little by way of effective action…. Sometimes the situation reminds me of a notice I saw once in a shop window, advertising a second-hand television. It said, “Sound only.””
So where’s the picture? Under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA 2005) any adult willing to do casual labour at the minimum wage is entitled to employment on local public works within 15 days (limited to 100 days per household per year). The Right to Food Campaign tracks progress (and read the ODI briefing paper by Disa Sjoblom and John Farrington here). Not enough funds are reaching the poor. And the scheme has also seen corruption — at least, that’s what we hear. Let us know if you think different.
Still, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of pessimism. And at least some of the criticism of NREGA is malign and by people who don’t give a damn for the poor. We need to ignore the spiteful and focus on the legitimate and constructive investigations — for, as Jean Drèze emphasizes in a January 2008 piece in The Hindu: “The extension of the NREGA to the whole country, just three months from now, is one of the biggest organisational challenges any government has ever faced. It is also an unprecedented opportunity to build the foundations of a social security system in rural India, revive village economies, promote social equity, and empower rural labourers. As things stand, however, this bold initiative looks like a political stunt, shorn of the far-reaching preparations that are required to make it a success”.
India can, and should, do better for Jatai.