There are times when chilli mixed with a little water is not enough to quell the hunger. Then the people of Gautam Nagar, one of 300 slum settlements in the city of Bhopal, India, gather round the only available screen to watch music videos. More than 60 families live in cramped quarters on wasteland that has a filthy stench, with only plastic sheets to protect them from the elements. Children with swollen bellies wander along the road, begging from passersby.
Malnutrition in India is on the rise, despite nutrition rehabilitation centres and ration shops. “Indicators of urban food insecurity … reveal an alarming picture,” says the Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Urban India, published by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and the World Food Programme. The Congress party, which promised to lift the country out of poverty when it returned to power in 2009, is drafting a revolutionary Right to Food bill.
To achieve this goal, organisations will have to be reformed – starting with the ration shops, which are supposed to distribute rice, sugar, wheat and even kerosene at subsidised prices to anyone in need. But none of the inhabitants of Gautam Nagar are entitled to this bounty.
Munna Lal, for instance, had to give up his ration card two years ago. After a violent dispute with his cousin he was arrested by the police, who demanded $14 as bail for his release, and $50 as a bribe. “To pay, I gave my card as security to the owner of the ration shop so he would loan me the money,” Lal explains. Some ration cards are no longer used to obtain food but as collateral for debt and many shopkeepers have become money-lenders.
Others do not even have a ration card, for instance the seasonal migrants who have neither a fixed address nor an identity card.
Those who do have a ration card may not be able to use it. “They can only buy their monthly allowance of food at one time. Day workers often cannot save enough to buy 20kg of wheat or 3kg of rice in one go,” says Seema Deshmukh, of the Muskaan NGO, who works with Bhopal slum dwellers. According to a 2004 study by the Planning Commission, only 40% of the food allocated to the poorest people by the public distribution system reaches them. The rest ends up on the black market or rots in warehouses.
Food is expensive. “It’s not like the forest here; you always have to pay to eat,” says Lal. Every day at 4am he sets out to pick up waste. Economic growth has created work in the city but most jobs are casual: you only eat what you can earn. Lal must collect enough shoe-soles and plastic bottle-tops to feed his wife and seven children. He earns $3 to $4 a day. “At every meal we eat chapatis with salt, chili and sometimes, on good days, onions and vegetables,” his wife says.
Their children, in theory, qualify for access to one of the nutrition rehabilitation centres. The government has set up more than a million such centres nationwide for malnourished children and pregnant women. But here the nearest one is a kilometre away and the parents, at work all day, do not have the time to take their children there. “Above all, people from the slums feel excluded, often complaining that they are not treated with respect,” says Maheen Mirza, the author of several articles on malnutrition in Bhopal.
The nutrition centre nearest Gautam Nagar is in a stronghold of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, which governs Madhya Pradesh state. In a tiny room, Parvati Khatarkar, a primary school teacher, hands out food to the children every morning, and teaches them to read and write. She also records their weight and height, checking that they correspond to the average figures marked in her notebook. If not, she must tell their family and the health service.
Despite the nutrition centres, more than two-thirds of children under the age of five in the towns of Madhya Pradesh are anaemic. Some economists advocate nationwide deployment of the public distribution system to stamp out hunger, with subsidised food for everyone so that the poor are no longer excluded. But others argue that such a system would cost around $20bn. In October the National Advisory Council, chaired by Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party president, recommended extending the existing system to three-quarters of the population, with just two categories of beneficiary – priority and general.
To prevent fraud, the government may soon computerise the distribution system, and hand out electronic ration cards. The Right to Food campaign, an informal group of NGOs, expressed disappointment. “We are shocked that the expansion of food entitlements for all is not even being considered,” it said. “Arguments of lack of resources cannot be accepted where, on the other hand, the same government provides tax exemptions and rebates of over $115bn [in 2009-10] majorly [sic] to the corporate sector.” The Indian parliament will debate the Right to Food bill in spring.