INDIA: Don’t preach awareness without remedies 

AHRC-STM-010-2012.jpgThe Prime Minister of India referring to the 42 percent malnutrition among children under-five in the country as a ‘national shame’ has created a flurry of reports and debates, most of them accusing the United Progressive Alliance government. It has been widely held, as a whitewashing exercise by the ruling coalition, before the elections. Some have blamed the state governments for the dismal state of affairs. None however views the issue as one that directly reflects the situation of the rule of law, particularly concerning the state of policing in the country.

It does not require much imagination to identify the direct link between the dismal state of policing and despicable malnutrition in the country. Malnutrition, particularly of such alarming levels as it is in India, cannot be addressed effectively without an effective rule of law framework. For instance, one of the most serious causes that result in acute forms of malnutrition is the leakage in the public food distribution system.

Leakage due to corruption in the public food distribution system could constitute a crime under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. It is for the state police to investigate complaints and initiate prosecutions in cases of crimes committed under the Act. The number of cases registered and/or prosecuted in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh for offenses punishable under the Act is a direct indicator as to what extent the police is responsible to the state of malnutrition in these states. The fact is, the number of such cases is alarmingly low in these states, which means that the police are either colluding with the criminals involved or have been inefficient, which has led to the despicable condition of food security in these states.

To argue that the police might not have received complaints to act is not tenable. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has informed the state authorities on many occasions about instances of black-marketing of commodities that are intended for distribution through the public food distribution system. In most of such occasions the state government or the police have failed to initiate actions. The AHRC is aware that its partner organisations working in these states, have on countless occasions, reported to the local police about the black-marketing of rationed articles. Instead of taking actions to investigate the complaints, the police often have colluded with the suspects and have taken actions against the complainants. In some states like Orissa, the police have registered false cases against the complainants, portraying them as suspected Naxalite activists.

The AHRC has noted that the role played by the District Collector/Magistrates in cases of acute malnutrition reported from a particular jurisdiction have been mostly disheartening so far. The AHRC has reported globally, that it is a common practice for the District Magistrates/Collectors to accuse those who are reporting cases of acute malnutrition from India as those who would want to tarnish the image of the country, for money. The AHRC is of the opinion that every single case of death from starvation and malnutrition is the direct responsibility of the District Collector/Magistrate having jurisdiction over the place where the victim lived before death. However so far the practice have been, that when a case is reported the attempt by the respective state government is to deny that there is malnutrition in the village from which the case is reported, and if at all an action follows, to suspend the Angawady helper or the Auxiliary Nurse-Midwife working in the village from which the case is reported.

It is just not the leakage in the public food distribution system that has led to the situation of food insecurity in these states. Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are also states from where a relatively high number of cases of caste-based and other forms of discrimination are reported. These are also states from where thousands of persons are forced to migrate to other parts of the country due to the depletion of livelihood options, not just when there is a drought, but also when they are forcefully evicted without adequate compensation on the excuse of development. States of Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are notorious for this phenomenon.

Land grabbing by the dominant communities from the Dalit, tribal and other minority communities and the practice of bonded labour is rampant in at least Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa. The dominant caste preventing access of the Dalits, tribal and other minority communities to government welfare schemes is a common practice in these states. Rajasthan is a state where the dominant communities treat Dalits miserably.

A substantial number of malnourished children in the country are from the underprivileged communities, often Dalits and tribal. By contrast, the number of cases registered and prosecuted based on complaints of caste-based atrocities, land grabbing and bonded labour practiced against these communities is substantially low. The AHRC has noted that the police do not entertain complaints of such nature and often behaves prejudicially against the underprivileged communities. The AHRC has also observed that often complaints to the police against any of these issues in fact enhance the threat to the complainants. The AHRC has reported cases where the police are accused of having trashed the complaint and threatened the complainants after accepting bribes or other illegal favours from the accused. When the police discourage complaint making by force, what preventive action could render result to deal with denial of livelihood options that results in malnutrition?

The Prime Minister and the Union Minister for Women and Child Development have said that what is required to address the “national shame” is to create awareness among the victims. Some experts said that rural women often do not even know what is meant by malnutrition. To make such opinions is a farce. There is no need of a college degree for a mother to realise that her child is starving to death. It is the government that requires education on this count. What use is awareness without possibilities? Mere ‘awareness building’ without having means to realise rights is nothing but playing fraud.

42 percent of the country’s children under-five mean that much of the country’s future is lost. A child’s fate regarding its ability to develop its intellectual faculties as a grownup individual is pretty much decided during the first two to three years of its life, of which nutrition and balanced diet is vital. In that 42 percent children under the age of five facing malnutrition also indicates the stunted fate of the country. The role the law enforcement agencies in the country have played in securing this despicable fate to the nation, as argued above, is substantial. Yet, none has the honesty to admit it.


For information and comments contact: 
Bijo Francis
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Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-010-2012
Countries : India,
Issues : Right to food,