Foreign Policy Blogs

‘Starving in India’ series opens eyes

“Starvation is a brutal but little-discussed reality in India” is the summary offered to describe the impetus behind the six-part series from The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog, called “Starving in India.”  The series, based on research conducted by journalist Ashwin Parulkar and a colleague from the Centre for Equity Studies, profiles cases of starvation deaths in India and the effectiveness of the Indian government’s response.

The first part, “The Forgotten Problem,” addresses the disparity between the image of India as both an economically rising country and a “food surplus nation” with the reality that deaths caused by starvation persist.

“India is a nation that prides itself on having been self-sufficient in food production for decades and having leaped forward economically over the past 20 years. So it isn’t surprising that public officials and even many in the media are reluctant to face up to the painful reality that hunger persists in 2012. Starvation doesn’t fit neatly into the story of a ‘shining’ India.

The second part, “A fight for life in Bihar,” Parulkar profiles “a family catastrophe” among  members of the low-caste Bhuyia community in the impoverished state of Bihar.  In the profile of Tulsi Manjhi’s family, the men work for a daily ration of rice, no enough to keep the family from an enduring cycle of poverty and a susceptibility to starvation deaths.  In fact, his wife, daughter-in-law and granddaughter die in childbirth, weakened by hunger, in one night.

The third part, “Surviving on toxic roots” looks at how people of another vulnerable group in Indian society, indigenous tribes, face dire choices to avoid starvation.  In this case, members of the Birhors tribe must choose between eating roots of poisonous plants rather than starve outright.  Poverty and a lack of access to food are major factors, but the story deepens into how federal government policies to provide for hungry are rendered ineffective by the incompetence of local officials.

Part four, “It isn’t all about food” offers an example of how the starvation deaths in one night of the two men of the Lohra family from the village of Heta illustrate how public programs and the officials charged with delivering them can mean the difference between life and death when chronic hunger conditions are present.

“In 2007, several factors conspired to precipitate the household’s tragedy. First, the government’s ‘public distribution system,’ which is meant to give out discounted grains to the poor, was hopelessly defunct in the area. The local ration shop was closed most days, even though the Supreme Court has ruled in its landmark ‘right to food’ case that shops should be open every day. When the shop was open, the dealer claimed he didn’t have grains to distribute, local villagers said.”

A profile of journalist Amit Kumar is the subject of part five of the series, “A scribe tries to save a life, ” reinforcing how journalists in India play an important role in drawing attention to starvation deaths and problems with the government programs intended to prevent them.

“In our travels, Mr. Kumar was the one journalist who stood out. Based in the Barachatti region of Bihar’s Gaya district – not far from Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha found enlightenment – the 31-year-old writes about people who are chronically ill and starving. He reports on their struggles and how the ‘right to food’ the Supreme Court says they enjoy is violated in myriad ways.”

In the final article in the series, “Legislating food security,” Parulkar observes that the cases outlined in the previous five articles underscore the need for  a “new legal framework for dealing with chronic hunger and starvation” to be adopted by India.  Parulkar analyzes the proposed National Food Security Bill making its way through India’s Parliament.

Finally, in this video, Parulkar talks about his reporting on the series.

Image credit: Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog