Variety

Endless struggle

Ritika Tewari | Updated on April 14, 2011

From hand to mouth: Unlike China, India’s higher growth ratehas not led to hunger reduction. Residents of Nirashithara Parihara Kendra (Beggars' Rehabilitation Centre) on Magadi Road, having their lunch, in Bangalore (file photo): K Murali Kumar   -  Business Line

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Watching Roman Polanski's classic movie The Pianist, the only thoughts that crossed my mind were revolting ones — how could this happen? Were there no limits to suffering? I tried to disbelieve any real-world relevance of the ‘fiction' — but I knew the truth. My heart ached at the torture to the Jews and I marvelled at their survival instincts. In situations such as these, when you are stuffed in dingy rooms or tunnels, with brutal living conditions, competition and limited access to food, only the strongest survive.

But the scenes on my screen seemed pathetically familiar. Take away murder and slaughter, the rest of it is a common sight in India: the struggle for food, ghastly living conditions and inadequate protection from the harsh weather.

Such scenes can be spotted in almost any urban slum in the country, or the villages in Orissa, Bihar, UP or Rajasthan, or city traffic lights, where it's common for half-naked children to touch our feet, as they beg for money or half-eaten food. We frequently ignore them or give them a few rupees, blame the government, and having unburdened our conscience, get back to our lives.

Obsessed with double-digit growth targets and the misplaced hunger to be an economic powerhouse, we estimate the number of years it will take us to displace the US as the next superpower, or replace China as the next international manufacturing hub. That, by itself, may not be a terrible thing. But when we ignore those half-naked children who are struggling to survive, we are creating an India with an exaggerated focus on the lives of the prosperous. We forget that with growth, we face a growing impoverished population with neither interest nor a stake in the spoils being flaunted by the rich.

Unlike the actors in Polanski's movie, for our protagonists (the deprived class) the ‘torture' is not temporary; they seem condemned to their lot forever. For the Jews, the suffering ended with death. Will this be the only redemption for many Indians?

Consider the following statistics: in February 2010, around 50 starvation deaths were reported in Balangir district of Orissa…just one district of one State. India ranks 67th in 2010 Global Hunger Index of 122 nations and has the lowest rank among all its neighbours (China is 9th, Myanmar is 50th, Pakistan 52nd and Nepal 56th). India is placed in the ‘alarming' category, a notch above the ‘extremely alarming' bracket. Unlike China, India's higher growth rate has not led to any hunger reduction. This low rank is mainly due to inadequate investment and negligence of important social sectors such as health, water, sanitation, education and women's social status. India is home to 42 per cent of the world's underweight children. Prof Amartya Sen has demonstrated that hunger in India is a governance, rather than a production, problem.

Since governance issues will take long years to be resolved in India, let's not wait for more Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi social schemes to resurrect lives blighted by poverty and hunger. Come the next election, and the government will perhaps announce more programmes, ostensibly meant for the poor (wonder where the money ends up!). But what we really need is civil society intolerant to poverty and corruption. There are no easy solutions; as individuals we have to take initiatives and not just blame the government. We need to open our hearts and minds to remedy this evil.

As fellow humans we do have responsibilities towards the starving, begging poor in those dingy slums… ‘the modern ghettos', else the Polanski movie will continue for them in real life forever.

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Published on April 14, 2011
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