Early this year, major newspapers and TV stations in India proclaimed with pride that India had replaced the United Kingdom as the world’s 5th largest economy. In the TV debates that followed, some panelists were at pains to explain that despite enormous economic growth in recent years, India nonetheless has one of the highest per capita rates of malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization. The outside world often gets only half the truth about India, where the richest 10% own or control 80% of the country’s resources. One of the images that has shamed the nation is that of tons of rice and wheat rotting in warehouses while some sections of rural India, including those in the tea gardens of West Bengal where we work, have experienced hunger, malnutrition and even death by starvation as recently as 2015.
To ensure all Indians have access to food, NGOs and civil society groups lobbied the government intensively for more than a decade. This relentless pressure eventually resulted in passage of the 2013 National Food Security Act (NFSA) under which 800 million people or 67% of India’s population could access food grain at a highly subsidized rate. At first it appeared as though the problem of food and hunger was solved once and for all. But since it was left to each state (province) to implement the Act, the public was left to the whims of state governments.
In the state of West Bengal, the government placed all the tea garden workers in a category at the bottom of the poverty index. But it did not implement the NFSA until January 2016, three months before state elections—and after about a dozen people had already died in the Bagracote Tea Garden. Only then, cynically expecting people to vote for its candidates again, it began announcing schemes and freebies for the poor. But there was another, more subtle politics at play. The government manipulated the Act, which clearly states that the distribution rights of food grain to eligible households must go to women’s self-help groups or co-operatives recommended by the local administration. Instead, following an application by the Tea Planters’ Association, it handed over the distribution rights to tea garden managers. The government also connived with managers to discontinue the “tea garden industrial ration” whereby each permanent tea worker was entitled to 30 kg of food grain per month at a subsidized rate. This saved managers Rs 660 (C$13) per month for each permanent worker. When asked why the ration was stopped, the government spokesperson said, “It’s government policy.” Period.
In response to this situation, NGOs jointly submitted a memorandum to the Minister of Tribal Development. Signatories included the Human Life Development and Research Centre (HLDRC) of the Darjeeling Jesuits and the Darjeeling Unit of the Lok Manch (People’s Forum) movement. A reply to our memorandum is yet to be received! Yet undeterred, NGOs including HLDRC and Lok Manch organized two massive rallies in the city of Siliguri during the past year, each with about 5,000 people.
The people in this region of India are demanding their rights and an end to the politics of denial, which deprive them of food and other legal entitlements.
This article first appeared in the 2017 Fall issue of CJI’s Mission News.