Birbal Tudu came with severe head injury and narrated experiences from his forest trip near Sarenga, Bengal. He belongs to the Santhal tribe and there is an event that unites men of this community once every year. They gather with weapons mainly bow and arrows, knives and sickles, take bath, chew beetel leaves, remove their wives-bangles symbolic of their marriage before they leave for the big hunt. On their successful return the women get to wash their feet and the lucky ones get to wear their bangles again. This time they managed to get wild rabbits and some snakes. ‘We don’t like eating snakes but killing them helps us with our safety. Also it is for the tradition that brings our clan together -a reason to stick by our ethnicity. This year few people from Kakradhara Gram that worship snakes decided to oppose and beat us’. Accompanied by a shepherd Hirdhan Soren who differed in opinion and smilingly replied to why they would kill to eat, ‘What we manage to earn is 1500- 2000 rupees a month for a family of 5-6 gives us the privilege to eat and rest are indulgences either for gatherings like these or waiting for a Bie Baari (wedding parties)!’
Point is definition of food, motivations behind procuring it and the choice of eating may not be same for all. Considering the present upturn of events it wouldn’t be incorrect to say it’s faith that feeds a nation and anyone opposing the belief howsoever rational must face the wrath of pseudo-nationalism. If we are to believe Indian democracy and fundamental rights there will be a long chaotic debate as demonstrated in our parliamentary sessions. Land and language divides gave us the diversity that we have been rehearsing in the essays about national integrity since school. It is only when the jobs made us scour different parts of the country, we meet people, their culture and food in particular to get acquainted with a place. However this enriching variance lives in feared clustered communities protecting state values and not ready to mix even an upper class Hindu to that of their sub-caste (forget separating speckles of Hinduism from Islam). Religion, gender, caste, socio-economic status were good enough for categorizing but now using food as a tool for divisional politics is objectionable.
Milking public health concerns
American author Michael Pollan mentioned in his book ‘The omnivore dilemma’ that most of the world’s grain goes to feed animals, not people and meat is an inefficient use for that grain because it takes ten pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. By that idea he suggests vegetarianism because there would be surplus grains for the world’s hungry. If developed America questions consumption of beef, it was because of the environmental stress and given that 2,400 gallons of water is needed for one pound of beef (25 gallons for one pound of wheat). But here half-starved population incited by illogical religious beliefs seem to outweigh ecological considerations. Cattle culling, banning slaughter, illegal trafficking of milch animals are serious issues that are correct in their sense but the activities undertaken in the name of cow-protection and resorting to violence against Muslims and Dalits is distressing. Flaring the unutilized Hindu sparks has driven the much needed young forces to exhaust their energy on such nonsensical matters. The cow-snake religious irrationality should address education-employment rationale and cater to actual needs of the people. Does choice of food justify in a country where tackling hunger should have been their first concern? Fact is government is in denial of facts and fabrication of rising India has almost got people to believe that building secular tastes is necessary for a healthy India. Political interference in public health has turned into a grave concern. India has failed to achieve infant mortality rate (IMR) target of 30 deaths per 1,000 live births set in 2012 by National Rural Health Mission launched in 2005. It is not only about targets but the sad reality that children dying comes last of all priorities.
Images of severely malnourished three year boy and a six year old girl screened in Nutrition Rehabilitation Center, West Bengal. Courtesy: Sneha Rout
Art of politicizing food
Uttar Pradesh ex-chief minister Akhilesh Yadav in previous election campaign distributed his image and party symbol stuck to every mid-day meal plates, Samajwadi Namak (fortified salt with his party name). Data suggests that government spends an average per child expenditure of INR 5000-10,000 crore for two crore children on supplementary nutrition program alone. Quality of food, actual outreach and pilferages in between suggest that if these amounts were to be paid to the families of children directly the nutrition levels would have automatically bettered.
Madhya Pradesh co-anchors the scene and last year Chief minister Shivraj Chauhan fussed over eggs given to feed malnourished children in ICDS Midday meals. They proposed rice-pulse combination of humble khichdi to cure protein energy malnutrition. For a state with infant mortality rate is 50 deaths per 1,000 live births which is marginally better than disaster stricken Haiti and Zimbabwe, Project Shaktiman (star from popular children’s serial) was launched with distribution of superhero dresses for awareness against malnutrition. Alongside are the recent killings at Mandsaur that show how farm distress is handled by government wherein farmers from Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) were protesting against implementation of Swaminathan Committee’s report of 5o% profit over input cost of goods. Yoga was suggested by ministers as solution to these farmers who were fighting to get better rates for their produce.
Tamil Nadu aced with Amma’ canteens that gained popularity to feed breakfast and lunch of 6 idlis, two plates of sambar rice and a plate of curd rice for 20 rupees. That translated into her vote banks as she won 37 of 39 seats. It was a hit amongst daily wage laborers as the PDS option of buying grains, pulses, oil, fuel and then cooking involved time and more money. It was a political masterstroke that set an exemplary standard for public services but according to health experts consumption of an idli weighing 100gms per rupee and 350 grams of rice per plate in 3-5 rupees are large portion sizes for an average Indian and manifests in adverse health parameters like obesity.
In Maharashtra , Tur farmers were promised to be paid 50% of their cost of production and above the minimum support price(MSP) as their profit in 2014 at an election rally. After three years of struggling, the prices of tur dropped to INR 4000 per quintal from INR 9000 in previous season. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis went quick in imposing of beef-ban (fines and jail term) but it took several agitations and suicides to recently manage a historic loan waiver for ‘genuine farmers in distress’ that has several irregularities pointed by Comptroller and Auditor General. However, the reasons for farmer’s crisis all over the country is due to not ensuring timely implementation of existing support systems and policies unfriendly to farmers, unaddressed drought affected farmers badly hit by demonetization and that would continue the trend of debt-ridden farmers in future.
In Odisha, 57% of tribal children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition. According to Antyodaya Anna Yojana all vulnerable tribal groups are entitled to 35kg of rice per month. But some families in Juang are listed under ‘Priorities household’ by National Food Security Act where the quantity of rice is determined by number of people in household-5kg per person per month. So a family of four is getting 2o kg of rice where ideally under Antodaya Anna Yojana 35 kg was supposed to be given. Clearly faulty surveys conducted by the government deprives many families of not just food grains but services that they were meant to receive.
As Gujarat Chief Minister, once Modi had explained data of malnutrition among girls as a fallout of ‘’fashion consciousness’’. Tight lipped witness of rising atrocities in the name of cow protection, only ascertains the UNDP reports that claimed how Gujarat covered up the real indicators of poor conditions of those socially and economically marginalized which applies to healthcare sector as well.
In West Bengal there is a scheme for every cause and all you need is a packet of biryani, booze and a hundred rupee to get any length mass procession on celebrating days that concerns them the least. After Nandigram feat at regaining agricultural land undertaken by Tata Motors forcing them to Gujarat; people have hardly moved forward strikes and political backlashes. Industrialization without violation of human rights is necessary for an agrarian state to balance other development parameters. Even Chief minister Mamata Banerjee facing her share of scams after winning is calling for industries to trust and invest in Bengal again.
Bihar survived a multi-crore fodder scam involving Rashtriya Janta Dal president Lalu Yadav that saw deaths of most convicts involved during trial before Supreme court could reopen the case. Jharkhand High court decided to drop all charges in an alleged 9.4 billion fraudulent provision of fodder, medicines and husbandry supplies for non-existent livestock. Why don’t politicians or people get to streets demanding explanation for the money embezzled in the name of fabricated divine creatures?
From Himachal Pradesh, the consumers from tribal belt had accused state agencies for sub-standard and expired food stuff at mid-day meals in Lahaul- Spiti.
Manipur apart from being a northeastern state and known for Irom Sharmila’s 16 yearlong hunger strike against Armed forces special Act; there is much worse happening here. According to CAG reports there were 40,855 HIV positive cases in 2012, data suggests 2,971 children being infected at that time. Indian government provides Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) through centres which is not a cure for HIV but inhibits replication of the virus thereby lowering chances of infection and diseases like tuberculosis and diarrhea. However ART can only work if patient taking drugs get a nutritionally adequate diet. These people generally take ART because it’s free but food and that too nutritious is impossible for majority of them are poor. An article from north east daily mentioned about the rising malnutrition and death of children due to HIV, how AIDS has gone beyond a medical problem and it’s need to be addressed in a war footing.
Top north from Jammu and Kashmir where children amidst violence are protesting for their rights to education (a few topped all India civil services) while ministers like Ramesh Arora consider talking of Momo as a controversial solace. Such logics of Burmese or Bangladeshi food stuff running health scare is just a threat for sane Indian politics. Forget much hyped Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and lead contend of Maggi, many small brand of junk foods, unhygienic street food, packaged chips-biscuits, breads and local foodstuffs are sold openly in every remotest village to almost every school going child and not only do they miss mentions of food safety authorizations but date of manufacturing and expiry are outlandish details that should worry leaders of real faith.
Children eating midday meal at ICDS. Courtesy: Sneha Rout
Soul Searching: Political & Public
Respecting our nation for the services it provides should make us gratuitous but pointing the loopholes or mistakes is simultaneously necessary for national self-reflect. We are surprisingly aware nation where majority of populace unapologetically resort to open defecation and that too in the fields where every known crop is grown. Our vegetables and agricultural produce come right from there. So can these pious heads justify such unreligious sight of cattle grazing on human-filth. If they consider that offensive it would call for serious sanitation work as compared to lynching people! A holy cow minds its torture of hormonal injections and below standard feedlot to procure milk as much as their killing for flesh. Slow torture versus quick death- is it the only righteous animal concern leaving behind the poor goats, chickens and even mollusks, fishes that will bear price rise in near future. But that is logic being talked of that doesn’t blend with terms of faith and religious tolerance and in the age of environmental concerns we have religious attributes governing over food choices, right? Current response to malnutrition would need politicians doing the field work, spend even ten percent of their travels to villages within country for framing policies that fit on table but not practice.
As for us we do call ourselves liberal when it comes accepting no non-veg on Thursdays, vegetarian to eggitarian, early 7 dinners for Jains and to Chinese weekend escapades and many more? If we have embraced one of these in our lives as a privileged Indian; accepting humans and their ways of eating then what is stopping us now from understanding several Birbal and Hirdhans. If we cannot uplift them we shouldn’t interfere in their lifestyles either. Food politics as an election tool might get votes even power but the deprived, sick and those fighting odds; whom government is supposed to represent will figure ways to challenge their dissatisfaction in future.