Most of the government’s social security and safety nets have failed miserably to address the immediate needs of the starving population
Starvation deaths are now a grim reality in Odisha and other hunger pockets of India. People continue to live with hunger, malnourishment and anaemia. Women, children and the elderly are among the worst affected. Every second woman in the country is anaemic and every third child is malnourished.
Most state governments and the Centre have been trying to intervene and address the dire situation of chronic hunger and food insecurity in the poorest and most vulnerable communities.
However, most of the government’s social security and safety nets have failed miserably to address the immediate needs of the starving population.
The failure can be attributed to many practical modalities and compliances mandated under the guidelines of most food, nutrition, social security and employment schemes and other flagship programmes.
The author was part of a fact-finding mission which assessed the ground reality in Ghatisahi village of Jajpur district. The mission had analysed the situation and listed some short-term, medium-term and long-term measures to address it.
The mission recommended the immediate activation and rollout of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
It also suggested Gram Panchayat / District administration provide immediate relief (food grains, other food items like oil, flattened rice, Dalia, salt, spices and condiments), medicines and cash to the affected.
Ensuring access to health services in the nearest health centres, NRCs and providing training to Anganwadi workers, Auxiliary Nursing Midwives, ASHA and other frontline workers were also recommended.
Demand creation under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and providing disability certificates and benefits to eligible children in the affected families can help address the situation.
It also recommended the formation and strengthening of women self-help groups and the financial inclusion of all families by helping them open bank accounts.
Ensuring universal coverage of poor households under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and building convergence between all government departments can help address the crisis.
Distribution of forest land titles to eligible forest-dwelling beneficiaries and ensuring the district mineral fund (DMF) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding for vulnerable and marginalised communities can assist them.
Government and private sector actors need to ensure insurance for poor households and the involvement of more non-profits and civil society organisations. UN agencies like UNICEF, UN Development Programme, UN Population Fund, Food and Agricultural Organization, international donors and CSR foundations should join hands in providing adequate budget and technical assistance for sustainable community development projects in Odisha.
Members of the panchayati raj institutions (PRI) need to play a more proactive role in addressing issues of chronic hunger and malnourishment, right to quality education, health services and benefits, food and nutritional security, social security benefits and wage employment, especially during the lean periods of the year. There is a greater need for better coordination with the block and district administration.
DMF and MGNREGS funds can be utilised to develop private agricultural lands and community lands, especially for soil and water conservation, village infrastructure development and community assets.
The district administration needs to initiate weighing of all children in the Anganwadis across the regions urgently to identify children suffering from malnutrition and take immediate steps to arrest the issue. Children’s weighing and malnutrition should be measured judiciously every month and all Aanganwadis should be provided with the necessary equipment and training with regular monitoring.
The exclusion of children without Aadhaar from the Public Distribution System (PDS) is an issue of concern among the community. Steps must be taken to ensure all left-out children and adults are added to the PDS immediately and the onus of submitting Aadhaar should not be left to the community.
The district administration must take all necessary steps so that no person is excluded from the system in the name of Aadhaar. The administration must introduce a nutritious breakfast programme in the schools, which can be supported under the DMF, in line with the Government of Tamil Nadu.
Also, families, especially children, go through extreme food crises during the summer holidays. Steps must be taken to ensure the mid-day meal is continued even during summer breaks for the children through THR provision and running community kitchens.
Aadhaar seeding is not necessary/mandatory for availing of government-supported social security and food and nutritional security schemes and programmes, according to an interim order by the Supreme Court of India. No child / family should be excluded from their entitlements due to Aadhaar seeding-related issues.
Even under a universal entitlement approach, the elderly and people with disabilities and those from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes would need specific unconditional support of food, health services and benefits.
Destitute feeding programmes and community kitchens could provide a cohesive solution for most vulnerable individuals like old people without caregivers, and families with precarious food and nutrition conditions.
Out-of-school children and street children are left out of the school meal programme, despite being the most vulnerable; they should be allowed to access all food security programmes unconditionally.
Children with disabilities, though eligible for social security pensions, were not added under the scheme till the time of the visit. The district administration must take steps to arrange the necessary documents and include children and adults with a disability under the pension scheme.
All eligible but left-out families must be included in pension schemes immediately. Such a step would strengthen the financial and food security of the families.
Several beneficiaries of old age pensions have been facing problems after the pension scheme transition from cash in hand to bank transfer. This can lead to extreme hardship and hunger among the elderly.
The state must ensure no pension beneficiaries are excluded or cease to receive a pension due to the transition and they are given cash in hand as soon as possible.
The MGNREGS, which has consistently proved to be a lifeline when it comes to rural work and income security, has been reeling under multiple issues.
Works under the scheme have been put on hold due to the problem faced with NMMS app. Necessary steps must be taken to sort out the issue immediately and all households must be provided with job cards and the necessary number of work days.
DMF and MGNREGS funds can be utilised to develop private agricultural and community lands, especially for soil and water conservation, village infrastructure development and community assets.
The team also understood that none of the households has cultivable agricultural land. Necessary steps must be taken to include the households under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Land should be allocated per the Act.
Members of the PRI need to play a proactive role in addressing issues of chronic hunger and malnourishment, the right to quality education, health services and benefits, food and nutritional security, social security benefits and wage employment, especially during the lean periods of the year. There is a greater need for better coordination with the district administration.
The companies which have benefited from the land and natural resources have hardly taken any measures to return it to the communities; other than hardship and pollution.
They are no less accountable than the administration to ensure no family lives with hunger in their vicinity. The companies like Tata Steel Ltd and others must allocate the necessary resources and develop a clear, integrated and overall development strategy and implement it on a Mission mode in the tribal pockets of Odisha.
The focus should be on food and nutritional security, gender equality and women empowerment, promotion of climate-resilient regenerative agricultural practices and sustainable livelihood for ensuring food and income security of the communities.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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