Postcards from the Republic of Hunger

People of Balangir district of the infamous KBK region of Odisha want food, not government schemes to provide food


Prasanna Mohanty | March 29, 2010

Starvation deaths and Orissa have become synonymous. It does not raise eyebrows anymore. Nobody loses sleep over them, least of all the local administration. A series of reports has appeared in a national daily pointing out that about 50 people have perished to hunger in Balangir (one of the three districts infamous as KBK, along with Korapur and Kalahandi) alone in the past two to three years. Not even a perfunctory inquiry has been ordered. The local media has, more or less, ignored the tragedy. If at all, the issue is being debated by civil society groups but the bone of contention is that the figure might be exaggerated. The state human rights commission has made a bold move to visit the affected areas but its report will take some time.

A quarter of a century ago, when starvation deaths first shook the nation’s conscience, big plans were made and a lot of money was pumped in to provide food and reduce poverty in the KBK region. A long-term action plan (LTAP) was made, which was then rechristened with some modification as a Revised LTAP plan. Then came the Biju KBK plan. The KBK districts were reconstituted into eight districts to improve administration. All that planning is meaningless now because all that has been done on paper. There is nothing on the ground to show.

The KBK region continues to languish in poverty, particularly Balangir. A huge chunk of population migrates out every year in search of work. Though there are no official records, civil society groups put the figure at 100,000 (of a total population of about 15 lakh). Most of them go to Andhra Pradesh to work at brick kilns. They go half-fed, suffer from various diseases because of poor nutrition and die young. According to Umi Daniel of a non-governmental agency, Aide et Action, South Asia, who studies problems of migration and related issues, the average life expectancy of the migrants is 40 years.

The government has various schemes to ensure that nobody goes hungry. Subsidised ration is provided to BPL and APL families. Then there are ICDS, mid-day meal scheme, Antyodyaya Anna Yojana and Annapurna Yojana to take care of the needy. But a large number of these migrants, who qualify as BPL families, don’t get any benefit. The BPL list has not been updated since 1997. No BPL also means they are denied other benefits like pension for widows (one has to fill in the BPL card number in the form), Indira Awas Yojana and other such schemes. The food-for-work carried out under the KBK plan has been discontinued. Work under NREGS is hard to come by because the average number of days of work is less than half the mandatory 100 days. And since the migrant families are mostly landless and the state has poor irrigation facilities, it is that much harder for them to work in the fields as farm labourers. Months leading to the monsoon are, therefore, the toughest to survive.

The central government may be working towards a right to food bill but these migrants of Balangir are doomed to die young--to disease and starvation, thanks to an inept government and years of negligence and absence of alternative sources of employment.



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