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Endemic Hunger in West Bengal

The problem of chronic hunger that afflicts around 10 million rural people in West Bengal has largely been ignored. What is the Left Front government doing to alleviate the situation?

COMMENTARY

of the governmental apparatus in place,

Endemic Hunger in West Bengal

which includes the much celebrated threetier “panchayat” system. Despite repeated warnings issued by its own departmental Rajat Roy reports and independent agencies about

The problem of chronic hunger that afflicts around 10 million rural people in West Bengal has largely been ignored. What is the Left Front government doing to alleviate the situation?

Rajat Roy (royrajat@yahoo.com) is a journalist based in Kolkata.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 3, 2008

W
hile Nandigram and Singur have monopolised-political and media attention of society, a long-standing problem – the problem of hunger affecting a large section of the rural population of West Bengal – continues to be ignored by all. The West Bengal government admits that around 10 million rural people (around 1.95 million rural families) do not get two square meals a day throughout the year; another two million people (0.55 million families) do not get one square meal a day. The rural poor of Purulia, Paschim Medinipur, Bankura, Birbhum, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Maldah, Murshidabad and Jalpaiguri are the worst effected.

The failure to take any effective measure to combat hunger on a war footing raises serious questions about the efficacy the gravity of the situation, the government is still busy finding ways to identify hunger victims in rural Bengal [Government of West Bengal 2007a]. The inability to take up any effective measures to combat hunger and poverty in these areas points to the lack of interest, amounting to wilful negligence on their part.

Chronic Hunger

In the last rural household survey [Government of West Bengal 2006] conducted by the panchayats and rural development department of the government of West Bengal in 2006, 3.5 per cent of the population has reported that they are not assured of even one meal a day. Another 16.5 per cent face difficulties in arranging two square meals a day for all months in a year. According to the census 2001, the

COMMENTARY

rural population in West Bengal stands at

57.7 million. Thus, around 10 million people are chronically suffering from hunger. In 2004, in order to focus on the fight against poverty, the government declared that it identified 4,612 villages as “backward”. Most of these are located in the districts of Purulia, Uttar Dinajpur, Maldah, Dakhsin Dinajpur and Paschim Medinipur. The criterion for selecting a village as “backward” is itself quite arbitrary, as only those villages were taken into consideration where the female literacy rate is less than 30 per cent and marginal workers and non-workers constitute more than 60 per cent of the village population, mortality rate, family income, etc, were not considered at all. A recent survey [Government of West Bengal 2007b] conducted exclusively in the state-designated “backward villages” by the panchayats and rural development department reached the same conclusion that at least 20 per cent of the people in those “backward villages” get only one meal a day. The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), through a recent survey (61st round), assessed that around 9 per cent of the (total) population of the state does not get adequate food.

Early warnings were issued by the Pratichi Trust, a research institution founded by Amartya Sen, to intervene with quality research in the area of health, education and gender inequality in society. In its very first report the Pratichi Trust (2002) drew the attention of the administration to the widespread hunger prevailing in the backward areas of the rural Bengal. It cited the case study of a village called Khuditar (Puncha P S) in the Purulia district, where people were chronically suffering from hunger. Earlier, in 2001, the media reported a starvation death in Amlashol (Binpur P S), a remote village in Paschim Medinipur. Barring a few ad hoc measures like rushing food to Amlashol, the government did not do much else to tackle the greater malady.

The findings of the latest survey conducted by the panchayats and rural development department throw up some important facts, which are crucial for understanding the causes of their neglect by the state. The survey conducted in 92 blocks of six districts (Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur, Murshidabad, Birbhum, Purulia, Bankura and Paschim Medinipur) reveals the following:

  • (a) There is a disproportionately high percentage of scheduled tribes (STs) in these villages. While the percentage of ST population in the state is a mere 5.5 per cent, 30 per cent of the population of the backward villages is from STs. The percentage of people from the scheduled castes (SCs) in these villages is 28 per cent, against the state average of 23 per cent;
  • (b) The case of Muslims is in keeping with the general trend; 27 per cent of the population of those villages are Muslims (against their overall average of 25.25 per cent);
  • (c) While the overall literacy rate in the state is 68.64 per cent, the percentage of
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    may 3, 2008

    COMMENTARY

    people in the backward villages who neither can read nor can sign their names is as high as 70 per cent in Uttar Dinajpur, 65 per cent in Murshidabad, 62 per cent in Dakshin Dinajpur, 55 per cent in Bankura, 50 per cent in Paschim Medinipur, 48 per cent in Birbhum and 36 per cent in Purulia;

  • (d) An overwhelming majority (64 per cent) of the people work in the agricultural sector;
  • (e) Thirty-two per cent of the population are landless, 17 per cent have land less than 0.4 ‘bigha’ (1 acre = 3 bighas), and another 30 per cent have 0.5-2.0 bighas of land;
  • (f) Eighty-two per cent of the population is totally dependent on monsoon; and
  • (g) Fifty-one per cent of the families have a monthly income of Rs 500-1,000, another 26 per cent of the families’ monthly income is in the range of Rs 1,000-1,500.
  • The abject poverty of those villagers, as depicted in the government survey, brings us to the basic question – why they are being continually neglected by the Left Front government? The government claims that panchayati raj institutions are implementing various poverty alleviation programmes with an objective of ushering in economic development and social justice. One of the major expectations from these interventions is that every individual living within the respective area of a gram panchayat must be totally free from hunger and brought above the level of destitution. From their own findings it is clear that these noble gestures remain on paper only. But why has it remained so?

    Lack of resources cannot be the reason as a number of centrally funded programmes, such as Antyodaya and Annapurna Yojana, are specifically designed to ensure food security for the poorest and the weakest sections of the rural population. There are

    1.9 million Antyodaya and another 60,000 Annapurna cardholders in West Bengal. That means around two million people are entitled to state support in obtaining at least two square meals a day. Obviously, there is an urgent need for bringing a much larger number of rural people under these schemes. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) is there to help the rural poor generate

    Economic & Political Weekly

    EPW
    may 3, 2008

    some income. But West Bengal’s poor implementation of this project left at least Rs 650 crore unspent (Anandabazar Patrika, February 3, 2008; Dainik Statesman, February 11, 2008). A great number of people are not given job cards, those who have jobs are given (on an average) 12-14 days work. In backward villages, a government survey shows that only 38 per cent of people got work under the NREGS. Under the backward region grant fund (BRGF) for the year 2007-08 Rs 245 crore has been allocated to 11 districts. Every year, more than 50 per cent of the state’s plan expenditure is being pumped into rural Bengal through various departments and the panchayat administration. According to government sources, the total amount already allocated and which is required to be utilised under various schemes before March 31, 2008 is more than Rs 900 crore.

    Role of Panchayats

    It cannot be denied that the delivery mechanism set up by West Bengal is by far the most democratic one. Since 1978, every five years, rural Bengal has been electing their representatives to all three tiers of the panchayat by direct vote. The elected representatives in the gram panchayats, panchayat samities and zilla parishads have a role in deciding how to spend the funds allocated to them. But meetings of the gram sansad – the village assembly of the people of the panchayat – in which all adult villagers can participate and plan future development works, hardly take place. The record shows a dismal 11 per cent attendance, just about sufficient quorum to make the meetings valid. The malady is deeper since the gram sansad decides who should get the benefits of food and social security programmes. The first ever comptroller and auditor general (CAG) audit of panchayat accounts in West Bengal was done for 2002-03, and the observations made by the CAG in its report give a disturbing picture. One or two cases would be pertinent here to illustrate the point. In one year, 774 gram panchayats spent Rs 2.4 million on building houses under the Indira Awas Yojana, but not a single beneficiary was from the below poverty line (BPL) category, whereas the project was designed specifically them. Again, the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) rule stipulates that people belonging to the BPL category should be engaged to create man-days against physical work. But the CAG noted that a number of panchayats in Hoogly and Burdwan spent the fund under EGS by handing over work orders to contractors. One can cite many more cases of similar nature.

    It seems that in the last two decades of panchayati raj, a new class or group of people has emerged in rural Bengal, which has gathered sufficient social and political clout to corner these development funds for its own benefits. The traditional power structure in rural Bengali society has undergone major changes in the last 30 years. The first panchayat election in 1978 definitely brought about a change from below when a number of landless and marginal peasants were elected to the panchayat system. A substantial presence of the rural poor in the elected bodies of the panchayat system gave it a welcome pro-poor bias, which came handy for the government when it started its Operation Barga movement and pursued its land reforms programme. The panchayats, through their collective initiatives, helped the land revenue department to identify the ‘bargadars’ (sharecroppers) and surplus land of the landlords. This new power equation upset the age-old power structure and the big landlords lost their surplus land and political clout as well; in their place, elected members of the panchayats with their newfound identity started wielding power and influence.

    Shift in Power

    With the passage of time, however, a new group of people began to prosper in rural Bengal. With their proximity to the political establishment, these people started influencing the decision-making process in local developmental activities. It is difficult to accurately identify them without sufficient data but one cannot ignore the symptoms, which are indicative of this trend. Last year when food riots broke out, first in Bankura and then quickly spread to eight other districts, it was found that the local public distribution (PDS or ration) shop owners, against whom the people were agitating for corrupt practices, are

    COMMENTARY

    mostly aligned with the ruling political party. In one incident (in Barajora, Bankura district), when attacked by a mob, the ration dealer opened fire on them. This is to stress the point that, over the years, these shop owners have become a part of the rural power centre. Barring a few exceptions, almost all of them have built concrete houses, can boast of licensed guns, and are either members of the ruling political party or closely linked with them. It is true that at least three owners of ration shops committed suicide under pressure but others had bought peace by paying a hefty fine to the villagers.

    As is evident from the aforesaid survey, the poor inhabitants of the “backward villages” do not get credit from banks; large numbers of poor are still dependent on moneylenders (44 per cent get credit from moneylenders, while only 7 per cent have access to any bank). In many a village, one can find a new breed of moneylenders who are also local grocers or engaged in similar business. Behind them there is a rising section of school teachers-cumlandowners who are funding them with cash against an assured rate of interest. The third category of people is the small contractors and suppliers whose main clientele are the three-tier panchayats, particularly the panchayat samity and zilla parishad.

    One may recall here, how Benoy Chowdhury, one of the senior-most leaders of the CPM and minister of panchayat and rural development for the first 15 years, used to lament about the contractors’ growing influence in panchayat activities.

    Government Reaction

    But that alone does not explain the government’s indifference towards the plight of these people, especially, when most of them are from those districts (Bankura, Purulia, Birbhum, Paschim Medinipur, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur and Jalpaiguri), which are traditional stronghold of the Left. Year after year, these people vote in favour of the Left Front to keep them in power. Knowing the plight of these people who are their traditional voters, how can they ignore them? The simplest explanation would be that des pite their best wishes, the ruling political establishment cannot help these

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    people because of poor delivery mechanisms. But this argument does not hold good. When the government is backed by political will, they can definitely deliver. The recent example is the way they handled the food riot.

    The movement was led by CPM supporters in Bankura, Burdwan, Murshidabad and Dakshin 24 Parganas; Forward Bloc supporters took an active role in Birbhum and Purulia; and the RSP participated in Dakshin Dinajpur and Jalpaiguri. And the participants in the movement were mostly above poverty line (APL) cardholders, people who are relatively better off than the people belonging to the BPL category. Also, they have more power and clout to put pressure on the government and the party for their cause. To assuage them, the government took immediate measures and strengthened the PDS in the affected areas. The ration shops were ordered to be kept open for longer periods with sufficient stocks, and the agitation subsided immediately. Unlike the APL cardholders, the poorest of the poor do not have the required voice to make themselves heard by the government.

    may 3, 2008

    COMMENTARY

    In a functioning democracy, it is often the case that different social groups lobby hard to get a better share of the developmental pie. But the poorest of rural Bengal spread over the backward districts lack in that. Even if the poorest of the poor are unable to make their voice heard, the media could have come to their help. But it did not. Of course, in the case of the starvation death in Amlashol or in the closed tea gardens, the media played an exemplary role but never went beyond that to explore the extent and spread of hunger in rural society. The warning issued earlier by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (1989) is pertinent in this context, “Starvation deaths and extreme deprivation are newsworthy in a way the quiet persistence of regular hunger and non-extreme deprivation are not. Endemic hunger may increase the morbidity rate and add to the mortality rate but that is primarily a statistical picture rather than being immediately palpable and – no less importantly – being ‘big’ news...”

    The mapping of those 4,612 backward villages as prepared by the state government makes itself a political statement. The marginalised people are mostly concentrated in the districts of Purulia, Bankura, Paschim Medinipur, Birbhum, Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur, Maldah, Murshidabad and Jalpaiguri. Since they are denied any effective say in the decision-making process, they might feel tempted to look for options outside the democratic process. No wonder then that the Maoists are active in areas like Purulia, Bankura and Paschim Medinipur, where hunger is endemic among the people.

    References

    Government of West Bengal (2006): ‘Rural Household Survey 2006’, Department of Panchayats and Rural Development, Government of West Bengal, Kolkata.

  • (2007a): ‘Guidelines for Programme on State Action against Hunger and Inequity 2007’, Department of Panchayats and Rural Development, Government of West Bengal, Kolkata.
  • (2007b): ‘Backward Village Study 2007’, Department of Panchayats and Rural Development, Government of West Bengal, Kolkata.
  • The Pratichi Trust (2002): ‘The Pratichi Education Report’. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (1989): Hunger and Public Action, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

    Economic & Political Weekly

    EPW
    may 3, 2008

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