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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 March 2008, 15:08 GMT
Dying of hunger in Indian state
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh

Aasiya (in the back) with some of her children (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
Aasiya 'sold' her new-born baby girl in October

Jatai, a resident of Ghoorpatti village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, lost five members of her family, one after another, over a period of about 18 months.

She says they all died from hunger.

"We have no land. When we don't get any work, we have nothing to eat. My husband died because he couldn't get any work. We had no food for seven to eight days," she said.

Srinivas Musahara, only about 19-years-old, died in August 2006 in Benwalia village. His neighbours say he hadn't eaten anything for 20 days.

Mother Kanti too looks famished and shrunken. She's so weak she is barely able to stand even to speak to me.

In her bare little hut, Kanti shows me the lunch she and her two children are going to eat - two hands-full of rice which she has borrowed from her neighbours and some boiled seasonal leafy green vegetable.

'Dying'

It's bright sunshine outside, but inside the hut, it's almost pitch dark.

Kanti points at the holes in the roof, "It leaks in the rains." She has few possessions - a single charpoy on which her two young sons sleep and her own bed - made of dried bale on the floor.

Kanti (Pic: Geeta Pandey)

Her neighbours say she is dying. Some say she is suffering from tuberculosis. Her ribs protrude from under her skin.

"I have no money to go to the doctor or buy medicines," she said.

The two villages where Kanti and Jatai live are in Kushinagar district in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Non-governmental organisations and activists say 52 people have died from starvation in the district between 2003 and 2006.

But the authorities deny reports of hunger deaths. In Srinivas Mushahra's case, official records say he died of illness.

"There is absolutely no case of hunger deaths anywhere in the state. In some areas malnutrition is a problem, but it's a problem all over the country. It makes people vulnerable to diseases. Destitution and poverty are definitely there, but they can't be ended in a day," says the state's top official Sailesh Krishna.

But few people believe the government.

"It is strange how the party which is in power denies there have been any starvation deaths, but as soon as they are in opposition, they start shouting about hunger deaths," said human rights activist Manoj Kumar Singh.

Kushinagar is only 58km (36 miles) from Gorakhpur, but it is a two and a half hour back-breaking drive on roads which are almost non-existent in places.

Rat-eaters

A visit to the area shows that modernisation and development have bypassed this region altogether.

The government's family planning campaigns have not made any impact here - most rural households still produce many children and it's not unexceptional for many of them to die too. Sometimes they perish from hunger and malnutrition, at others from diseases.

The district has a large "musahar" community - so called because they hunt and eat rats. Numbering about 100,000 in the district, they're the poorest of the poor, mostly landless labourers.

Villagers in India's Uttar Pradesh state (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
The rural employment scheme has not benefitted these people

They are also Dalits (or untouchables) which means they are outside of the Hindu caste system.

Mr Singh says the main reason for the acute poverty in the region is connected to changes is the agricultural system.

"Farming in this area was earlier very labour intensive so people could always find work on the farm. But with the arrival of hundreds of mechanised harvesters, the demand for farm hands has reduced," he said.

High levels of illiteracy, low awareness and many seasonal illnesses together with official neglect and government apathy ensure the people in the area continue to suffer.

Rampant corruption

The federal government's national rural employment guarantee scheme has failed to make a mark here.

Under the scheme the poor were promised 100 days of work annually at the rate of 100 rupees ($2.5) for a day's labour.

In village after village, people told me they had given up after trying to register for the scheme. Those who did register failed to find any work. And those who did find work have not been paid the promised amount.

Rampant corruption and fudging of books ensure the workers get paid only 50 to 80 rupees for a day's work. Sometimes, even less.

Jatai (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
The villagers are among the poorest of the poor

In the absence of social security schemes and jobs people have begun to resort to desperate measures.

Like Aasiya of Tarkulwan village. Already a mother of eight when she gave birth to another girl in October, she allegedly sold her off to a childless couple for 200 rupees ($5).

Aasiya denies selling the child: she says she "gave away her baby to someone else to bring her up".

"The woman who took her doesn't have any children of her own. She gave me 200 rupees, but that was just to help me," she says.

Aasiya's family has no land. Her husband works as a farm hand or any other job he can find. He earns 50 rupees a day. Aasiya too works in other people's fields for which she is paid 20 rupees.

"That's not enough to feed the family. On most days, we live on rice and salt. And on certain days, we don't get any work at all. We have no savings. And we can't afford to take a day off work even if we're sick," she says.

The authorities seem deaf and blind to the problem. In the meanwhile, the tally of the dead and dying continues to grow.



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