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INDIA: Letter To Little Jigar

Jin Ju

Dear Jigar,

It has been already a year since I met you in Anei village, in the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh, India. You were suffering from severe hunger and malnutrition and your whole body was swollen.

As your condition got worse, your parents decided to take you to the hospital with the help of a local human rights activist who was visiting your community at that time. A few days later, you were admitted to the district hospital for a medical check up and to receive proper treatment.

I remember it was a long, long way to the hospital; and longer still, to get you treated and to save your fragile life. However, your story was the beginning of change to your village. We even published your story in the Asian Human Rights Commission’s Hunger Alert Programme (found at: http://www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2007/2683/)

A few months later, people world over were discussing issues such as the ‘global food crisis’ and ‘food sovereignty’.  Simply explained, major food and grain exporters such as China, India and Vietnam were turning to a domestic consumption oriented policy that caused food prices to increase.

Then began the discourse on 'food sovereignty’—that each country had the right to decide its national policies on agriculture and food. In the process, each country was also examining its degree of food self-support. So, once a country boosted its food self-support capacity to 100%, could it protect its domestic food industry and ensure food security? It certainly is not that simple.

For instance, France has a degree of food self-support that is almost 200% and is famous for its beautiful agricultural lands. However, many small-scale farmers commit suicide due to debt. This illustrates the French government’s failure to protect the food producers. In fact it has been estimated that about 1,000 small farms around Europe are disappearing every day. Small-scale farming is being wiped out while big farm industry continues to develop and prosper.

If you think France is too far away from your country, let us come closer, to Asia. In South Korea it was recently exposed that subsidies for farmers—paid directly by the government have been going to land owners who neither lived there nor farmed. The degree of food self-support in South Korea is currently about 25%. The main reason for this is that the government has not been promoting agriculture but concentrating on developing manufacturing industries for exports.

Many farmers in South Korea, who are in fact landless tenants, face similar fates as those in France and Europe. They are killing themselves due to inability to repay their debts. For instance, Lee Kyoung-hae who killed himself while demonstrating against the WTO in 2003 shouted that: "one farmer’s death is much better than ten farmers dying everyday." Through his death, he wanted to raise awareness and cause alarm about the farmers’ plight, around the world.

A country closer to India is the Philippines. The degree of food self-support in the Philippines—winner of most food importing country in the world—is currently almost zero. The farmers harvest cash crops such as banana or pineapple; but these plantations are owned by multi-national companies. Many of these farmers remain landless agricultural labourers.

This illustrates the Philippine government’s failure to implement agrarian reform. Last July, the president of the Philippines announced that the degree of food self-support would be increased by a special law—but little if any part of that law, has been implemented so far.

These stories and concepts such as ‘food sovereignty’ or ‘food self support’ are common topics today—although their precise definitions remain somewhat hazy.  You may ask some day "why did I suffer from hunger and malnutrition when I was three years old?” Or you may not, if you are still hungry; and hunger has become so routine, that your body has by now grown accustomed to its pangs.

Your country, India is one of the major food exporting countries in the world and together with China, Egypt, and Vietnam, occupies one third of the total global rice exports.  About 70% of it population is engaged in the agricultural industry. Many farmers are either small scale farmers or landless agricultural labourers including your father and grandfather.  And this fact is likely to be repeated for generations. 

No one in the Mushahar community of Anei village—from where you come, has enjoyed land for agriculture. The fifty families in the community barely manage to obtain sufficient food in winter.

Your grandfather, father and mother work in the fields whose owner is from the upper caste community in the village. All your family members are engaged in that paddy field during harvest season. In return, your family gets about 2.5 kg of rice a day. Most of the landless agricultural labourers in the Mushahar community get 25% of the output from the field. This has not been improved for decades.

For the entire family, your grandmother and mother cook rice twice a day. Rarely, do you get vegetables with your rice; usually it is rice with salt. When your father has no work in the field, he works as a carpet weaver in a neighbouring village, but this work is not frequent either.

Most of the Mushahars in your community have nothing different. Only 1 in 5 Mushahar families have a ration card—issued to the poorest of the poor—by the  Public Food Distribution System (PDS).

Mushahars hardly have ten rupees in their pockets. They get grains in exchange for working in the fields. The meagre cash earned from any other work done goes to the PDS shop or market to buy food for the family. Jigar, I wonder how the government calculates the annual income of one family in the Mushahar community, to make a judgement for issuing PDS card.

When ‘Mushahars’ with ration cards go to buy rations at the shop assigned by the PDS, they are only permitted to visit the shop on one or two days in a month. So they have to buy rice and wheat for the whole month, based at total cost. Frequently, some ‘Mushahars’ are forced by the shopkeeper to sign on the ration card without purchasing anything from the shop. Eventually, the grain not collected by the card holders finds its way to the black market and enhanced profit to the shopkeeper. Ironically, the government calls the shop "fair price shop".

Thus, it is little wonder you suffered from malnourishment. In addition, when you got sick, no one from the village Anganwari Centre (in charge of the care of children under six years and pregnant women by providing foods and vaccine for immunisation) came to check your nutrition and physical condition.

As you can guess, your parents could not afford to take you to the private hospital that is so costly. It was a long, long way to take you to the hospital to get medical treatment, as I said. It was not easy to get a vehicle to take you to the Primary Health Centre (PHC). The driver refused to take you and your parents simply because your family belonged to the Mushahar Community.

Some people in your country are very proud of the intelligent medical doctors, high quality medicines at cheap prices and health insurance. However, when we took you to the PHC and the Varanasi District Hospital, doctors, nurses and sufficient medicines were hard to come by. All we found were unhygienic facilities at the hospital.

However, a few days later, the district hospital officers changed the bed sheets and old lights—not for you, but as preparation for the Chief Minister’s visit.  Incidentally, you were diagnosed has suffering from grade IV malnutrition and weighed only 4 kg—several days after the medical check up.

Why do I keep calling you a 'Mushahar' and what is wrong with that? No doubt you will soon discover—that Mushahars are not given land for agriculture, don’t have proper jobs, are not allowed to go to the ration shop when they want, are refused to be taken in a vehicle and so on.

Your grandfather once told me that the members of the upper caste community in the village have not permitted the Mushahars to own agricultural lands for generations. It must be remembered that Mushahars are Dalits or belong to the Scheduled Castes (SC; known also as 'Untouchables'),

The land in the village is the most important asset for upper caste persons to preserve their economic power, control the labour force and augment their political power. The rule of discrimination based on caste can be more easily found when government policies are put into practice. Eventually, discrimination, corruption and starvation reproduce one after another in your country.

People seem to be very sensitive to the practice of caste discrimination against Mushahars; to a point that they are indifferent even to a dying child’s plight.

Immediately after your hunger story was exposed, the local government officials and medical officers visited your community and promised to provide land, medical services, and ration cards to every Mushahar as soon as possible. It seems they were more intent on escaping blame for neglecting their responsibilities than anything else.

However, no one has been punished for corruption or neglecting his duty as a public servant. Until I left your village, I had not heard that land for agriculture was distributed to all Mushahar families. Government officials only continued to make empty promises. 

Lovely Jigar, I remember your grandfather saying: "If we had proper land for agriculture, you would see something new in the land next year." The next year has already come. I really want to see the day when all Mushahars are given what is rightfully theirs. If not, all the global issues are meaningless for the hungry as of now.

Sincerely,

Your Korean Friend

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