Friday 26 February 2010

Food for thought

The last two weeks have seen my diet diversify - I got some really good fish from the market one weekend, and my local grocer got me some chicken this week. So I have been eating well.  I say this because I'm brought to attention sharpely , by an article in the Hindustan Times  registering just how fortunate I am even when eating only veg, that I am in a very priviledge position here. Many people do not have enough to eat.

I've talked before about the price of things and how much people earn when they do work. And also about some of the various government schemes and initiatives like NGREGS to enable each household to get some number of days work per year. Then there is the mid day meal program for schools where a school is given so much allowance to prepare and deliver a meal to the children. These are all great ideas in theory but they fall down when they are implemented in practice.

There are a number of reasons for this. First most tribal village people are illiterate, they cannot read nor write. Secondly, many villages and hamlets, especially in the more remote areas, on the hilltops,  are distant from road and transport links and this means government officials never visit these places. Quite often their occupants are not accounted for, known or acknowledged by local offialdom.

How then are these people meant to know about their entitlements? There is no Tv, no radio, no newspapers. First, they don't know about the NGREGA Act so they don't know about their entitlement to work, then they don't know they have to register for a job card and then they don't realise that they have to go and demand their work entitlement from local officals. The only way they can find out these things to is for someone to tell them. Government officals do not visit, so they don't tell them.

Actually local officials are demotivated from getting the people registered, because if they register and then the official cannot find them work, he has to pay a fine. It is meant to motivate the finding of jobs such as the setting up of public works which need to be done eg repairing and building roads etc, but in practice it acts to disincentivise the offical from registerring too many people under the scheme. Sneaky bureacrats always finding the route to the easy life :)

Likewise with the mid day meal program for school kids. Great dea, give every  child a regular good meal in the middle of each day at school. Many children will attend school just to get the meal. In fact story has it that was how it arose in the first place with a young boy telling a Minister why he was hearding his family's animals and wasn't at school - "I can't learn if I don't eat". But how do parents know about this scheme? How do parents know that the food allowance for the school mid day meal is supposed to included fresh vegetables?  Some schools are only serving rice and dalh. If you do not know what is provided for you do not realise your child is  not getting it.

It is in these situations that many of the NGOs active in these areas come in. My NGO is no exception. It has established projects in many villages for different reasons, but the first thing it always does is to conduct a village survey. This establishes who lives where, what animals there are, what land they have, who gets their pension, who is not getting their pension, how many children there are, of what ages, whether they go to school or not, what resources the village has - water, forest, land, animals etc, how many households have ownership rights to their land, how many households are registered for the NGREGA job cards, how much work each of these households got last year and so far this year through the scheme, how relatvely weathy/poor each household is deemed to be by the other villagers etc etc . This in itself spins out a great amount of work for the NGO to do - for example working with villagers to construct water supply systems - not something done by any government scheme - but more about those works in a later post. The NGO then works with  the local village elders, PRI representatives and any other village organisations to increase people's awareness of issues, of their rights, and how to go about demanding and getting them. It gets mothers, not just the teachers, involved in the preparation of the mid day meal. It gets the women involved in cultivating and managing a vegetabe garden for the school. It gets every household a form for registering for the job card and these are taken en masse to the registration office by the village representatives taking it in turns to go with handholding support from the NGO - the idea being one or two applications can be lost or slip through the net, but several tens or hundreds cannot be dismissed away so easily. It makes the officals do their job. It educates the villagers how to work the system.

So back to the point about income, nutrition and food. Before you sit down to each dinner tonight please read the following article from today's Hindustan Times  - it really brings home the facts of life for many people living in the tribal areas of south and western Orissa - one of the poorest areas, in one of the poorest states in India.

When you read the Hindustan Times article you will see the difference in opinion about what the causes are - I suspect this reflects the lack of attention paid by local officialdom to these areas, these villages and these people - they do not visit, they do not record, they do not notice, for them these villages, these people quite simply do not exist. Contrast the Doctor's comments and the district state official's comments in the article  - quite a dispartity. I've also heard stories that local officials would take a cut of the money earned from work. They way around this is that NGO's are introducing tribal people to the banking system, establishing bank accounts and getting monies paid in, this way the step where cash is handed out to workers by the local officals is bypassed and the opportuity for their cash backhand is eliminated. If you are illiterate how do you know you are entitled to 80 Rps and have just signed for 80 Rps but have only been given 50Rps?
 Nice little earner, for someone! This is petty corrpution but it is pervasive. Take the local official who whist visiting says "Oh I see you are growing some really nice pumpkins!" What would you do? Give him one to show off how good they are, to be friendly and hospitable? Ok, until the next time when it is "I'll take two this time". I'm trying not to be too cynical here but I have been told that these things happen regularly.

So please read the article and think  for a moment,  contrast what it depicts to your own situation and what you are planning to eat for dinner tonight and the relatively small percentage of you income you will have spent on it. Perhaps it reads more like what you might be expecting to read about from some sub Saharan country, contrast that to the opulence of Bollywood and the Delhi elite, contrast that to the booming IT sectors in Bangalore. By the way another interesting income level - I met someoe here recently who works for McAfee in Bangalore in a middle management role. His salary is 2,200,000 Rps per year of which about 30,000 goes in taxes - compare that to the other salaries I've mentioned before. Yes it is a country of contrasts, of have's and have nots, separated perhaps less by caste nowadays than previously but still separated, and separated by language, education and the ability to access to information.

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