People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 51

December 29,2002

Fighting For A Basic Human Right: A Life Free From Hunger 

Brinda Karat

  THOUSANDS of women all over India observed December 10, the World Human Rights Day, to assert the basic human right for a life free from hunger. At the call of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), women demonstrated at central government offices, at FCI godowns, outside state assemblies to demand a universal public distribution system, cuts in prices of rationed foodgrains, expansion of the Antyodaya system with special emphasis on widows, single women and disabled people, and massive work programmes in exchange for good quality foodgrains calculated at Antyodaya prices. Such actions were held in at least 100 centres in 18 states. In the capital, hundreds of women blocked the road outside the food ministry in a militant protest. Later a delegation comprising central AIDWA office bearers --- Brinda Karat, Premila Pandhe, Kalindi Deshpande and Ashalata --- met the food minister Sharad Yadav and gave him a memorandum.

About 10,000 women marched through the streets of Bankura in West Bengal and held a sit-in at the office of district magistrate. Another 5,000 demonstrated in Kolkata and gave a memorandum to the governor. Demonstrations and dharnas were held in 16 other districts of the state. In Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, women broke into the FCI godown demanding distribution of the foodgrains rotting in the godown. Women demonstrated at FCI godowns in all the 13 districts in Kerala. Demonstrations and rasta rokos were held in at least ten districts in Maharashtra, including a morcha of 3000 women in Nasik and a rasta roko with 1000 women, most of them Adivasi women, blocking the national highway in Thalaseri in Thane district. In Jaipur, Rajasthan, women clashed with the police who blocked them from reaching the Vidhan Sabha. In Bhubaneswar (Orissa) and Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), large rallies were held outside the Vidhan Sabha. Other states like Tamilnadu, Haryana, Bihar also saw demonstrations and mass mobilisation on similar demands.


The observance of Human Rights Day as a day to demand the basic right to a life free from hunger is part of the AIDWA’s ongoing struggles and campaigns for the last several months on the issue. The big response from women all over the country to the campaign is because while all sections of the poor have been affected, women have been hardest hit by government policies that have converted “drought affected” into hunger affected. The states demanded about Rs 35,000 crore as drought relief, but the central government has sanctioned less than Rs 2,500 crore. The virtual destruction of the public distribution system, combined with the lack of government intervention to provide work to make for loss of workdays due to shrinkage in agricultural operations has created mass destitution. Increased male migration, as also migration of whole families in some areas, in search of work has led to more uncertainty and insecurity in day to day living.

The women’s voices in numerous AIDWA meetings held in villages in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra and Orissa indicate that food deprivation has a cascading impact, leading to a devaluation of women’s status, expressed in at least four areas. There is a willingness to work at lower wages just to ensure some food in the home, further depressing their economic status, leading to further debt. In a male dominated society like India, a disproportionate share of the burden of poverty is in any case borne by women and girl children. The present situation of decreased access to affordable food as well as the decline in both the quality and quantity of food consumed has a terrible impact on women’s health. Hunger is accompanied by an increase in social vulnerability, leading to more cases of humiliation, abuse and sexual exploitation; in some areas there is a disturbing growth in the number of women going into prostitution as a cruel strategy to ensure survival of families. At the same time, labour laws like minimum wages, equal wages, crèche facilities, etc, get automatically suspended because of the huge influx of workers willing to work under any conditions, particularly on construction sites. This affects the status of those not necessarily directly affected by drought. Among poor women, it is widows and single women who are the worst affected and among the most destitute. A vast majority of the women belong to socially oppressed sections --- Dalits, Adivasis and the most backward among the OBCs.


It hardly needs to be stated that when drought affects agricultural operations, the amount of work available for rural workers gets drastically cut. There are at least 12 crore workers dependent for the most part on the money they earn during the agricultural season. The government admits that two thirds of the country has been badly affected by low or no rainfall; yet there is no concern for the situation of agricultural workers and the rural poor that are at least 20 crore. The government’s Antyodaya scheme provides only one crore people a monthly ration of just 10 kg of foodgrains at Rs 3 and wheat at Rs 2. With six crore tones of foodgrains stacked in government godowns, the most rational course of action would be obviously a huge expansion of the Antyodaya scheme both in terms of foodgrain quotas as well as numbers to be covered. At the same time, the foodgrains could be used in a massive food for work programme.

Yet the central government’s food for work schemes are not only completely inadequate but also, cruelly, another instrument for exploitation. The payment is partly in foodgrains and partly in cash but the proportions differ from state to state. The food component consists of terrible quality foodgrains, literally unfit for animals, leave alone humans. Four animals in Mathanjeri village in Cochi district of Kerala died after being fed the foodgrains given from a ration shop, leading to big protest demonstrations in the area. Shockingly inedible foodgrain, when given as a wage component, is calculated at APL prices, that is Rs 8 for a kg of wheat and Rs 9 or more for rice. So if the wage is, say, Rs 40 and if the food component is worth Rs 24, than a worker would be paid less than 3 kg of rice because the APL price is being used for the calculation.

Women outnumber men in many of these schemes. This is not because of gender sensitivity on part of the administration or the contractors, but because men prefer to search for other work while women have no alternative but to accept it. Women were demanding full cash payment instead of the exchange for food. Clearly, where the foodgrains are not calculated at Antyodaya prices and where they are not of a better quality, the schemes claimed to be meant for drought relief are actually a cruel mockery.


The retreat of the central and most state governments from their minimum responsibilities for provision of work has led to drastically negative changes in people’s lives. Male migration has increased and so has family migration in many areas where it was not so earlier. For example, in many districts of Andhra Pradesh like Krishna, Guntur, Vizag and Khammam, a regular army of men and women is going out looking for work. In one area around Nandigama, a small town in Krishna district, activists campaigning house to house, calculated that around 30,000 men and women had left their villages. There were few government run work schemes in the area. Migration to towns and cities is also visible in Vijayawada. Here a survey found that hundreds of village women found work in a nearby town, of cleaning bottles for sale in the trade for which they were paid Rs 8 to 10 a day, half of what is usually paid for the same work. In North Karnataka and in villages around Bangalore, similar experiences were related. Groups of women stopped the AIDWA activists campaigning in the city for December 10 demonstration near a crowded bus stop, and related their experiences. They were all new migrants looking for work --- sleeping on the pavements or at the mercy of construction contractors. Two of the group of about 15 had found work for two days at Rs 10 to 12. In Bijapur town, rural women workers found work in small hotels making rotis, working from 6 a m to around 11 p m for about Rs 100 a month. When asked about acceptance of such low wages, they said at least they were given a few rotis that they shared with the children they had brought with them to the town. In a village in Mandya district, women who weave baskets and sell to peasants for use in agricultural operations find no market for their products this year. So hundreds of them have migrated to Bangalore.

Given this situation for migrants, and men hardly fare better, it is obvious that there is little money available to send home. Women staying on in the villages bear the major burden to ensure family survival. This is the crux of their vulnerability and their helplessness in wage negotiations. As mentioned, the government schemes are extremely inadequate. At worksites in Rajasthan and Karnataka, our activists found crowds of women waiting for work at these schemes. In a small food-for-work scheme in Bhimalli village in Gulbarga, AIDWA activists met at least 80 women at the worksite whereas the scheme was for only 20 women. When the women, all of whom equally poor, were arbitrarily denied work, they gheraod a government official present there and were finally given work but at lower than stipulated wages.

In sum, not at a single site were women getting the stipulated wage, the only difference being the gap between the wage received and the legal wage. In some instances, AIDWA was able to intervene to get a higher wage for women. But in most instances, women were not prepared to risk their jobs by making demands on the contractors. Most of these schemes are being run by panchayats and the contractors appointed by the sarpanch. In principle this is a sound policy since the accountability of those elected is more direct. However, in practice, with the control of the panchayats often in the hands of corrupt coteries across many states, there is discrimination and patronage, apart from corruption involved in the schemes’ implementation.


Economic circumstances created by government policies force women into exploitative situations on a daily basis. There is hardly any difference in the situation in different states, with perhaps the exception of West Bengal. The situation of poor landless women and agricultural workers in the model neo-liberalised state of Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka is not much better than in the so-called BIMARU states.

Here are some striking examples these states. AIDWA has a substantial membership in parts of rural Khammam. During their campaigns, activists in Khanne and Motamarri villages found groups of women leaving the village at around 8 a m. Finding no work in and around their village, they walk 3-4 km to the station to get a train to the neighbouring district where after an equally long trek they are employed in coolie work at Rs 30 a day. They pay to the ticket conductor a bribe of Rs 5 each way, which is cheaper than buying a ticket. They get home by 10 or 10.30 at night. Thus a 14-hour day, excluding domestic work, with a trek of at least 12 to 15 km a day, apart from the hard train ride is what the current drought situation has meant for them.

In a situation of mass proletarianisation of poor rural women, the impact on wages is obvious. Whether it is UP or Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra or Karnataka, women are working more for lower wages, far less than not only the minimum wages but even what they were earning a year or two ago. In Warrangal district, the payment for harvesting an acre of paddy land is usually about Rs 250 with 10 to 12 women working. Unbelievably in villages like Chitur, 60 women went to harvest half an acre, getting just a little over Rs. 2 each. In Guntur, the payment for an acre of harvesting paddy is about Rs 300, done by 10 women, but sometimes 6 women do the same work on contract. But this year the number of women working per acre is as high as 30 to 40. In many of these areas, the Agricultural Workers Union is strong and employers are not able to reduce the payment for the work. But women workers, experiencing the same burden of poverty, share the work and the money between themselves, bearing a big loss in earnings. In areas where the union is not strong, like in Karnataka, the same situation is reflected in fierce competition between women, leading to halving of the wages from about Rs 20 last year to Rs 10 to 12 this year.

Although the poorest sections of women were always forced into hard poorly paid work, this year more women are doing this sort of work. This includes: collection of manure from landlords’ homes and fields, drying them into fuel cakes that sell at Rs 10 for 20 cakes; collection of firewood, transporting it to towns to sell it, earning about Rs 10 to 20 a day; collection of leaves for making plates, drying the leaves and then selling them, making about Rs 20 to 30 once every three or four days after backbreaking work and walking miles; odd jobs in the homes of the more well-off in return for a few rotis or a few cups of rice; coolie work for Rs 8 to 10; construction work that is slightly better paid --- at Rs 15 or 20, and so on.


In almost all meetings, women reported an increase in incidences of abuse and in some cases sexual abuse. The most revealing example is from the temple town of Tirupati where, at a meeting of women migrant workers who were living on the streets near a city bus stop, 90 women of the 100 present reported some form and degree of sexual harassment. The incidence of sexual harassment reported in the campaigns was highest among migrant workers and also among women who leave even for nearby villages for work. But along with these cases, another aspect is the more invisible dimension of abuse of human dignity. This is reflected in the language used against women looking for work, and the social contempt they confront from the more well-off sections. It is difficult to quantify this type of humiliation, but women spoke about it bitterly. Our hunger robs us of our izzat in the eyes of those with full stomachs --- one of them told us in a meeting in UP. It was these words our activists matched with the experiences of poor women across many meetings in different states.

Increased hunger has also led to increase in prostitution. In Orissa, surveys conducted among rural families show an increase in the sale of women and girl children. Although this has been the reality in many of the worst famine affected areas like Kalahandi or Bolangir for at least a decade, it has spread further in the last few years. There were similar reports from other states. One indication is also the increasing number of women arrested for soliciting in small towns in the states mentioned. In one village in Chitoor, young tribal women who had been taken to Pune and Mumbai by brothel owners, wrote a letter to a local reporter who had probably visited them, describing their plight and why they had sold their bodies. We had nothing else they said, we had no means to live and there was no work for us in the village.


In meeting after meeting women described what they were eating: “A few years ago, along with our rice or rotis we are some vegetable; today we eat less rotis and rice but eat chutney made of red chillies because it burns our hunger.” Such chilling statements made in a meeting in Karnataka’s Gulbarga district are representative of the kind of statements women made in meetings in different states. In Adivasi areas in particular, whether in Maharashtra or Rajasthan, there were more women who said that they were eating only one meal a day. In 20 of the meetings held in Uttar Pradesh, with an average attendance of a hundred women per meeting, at least 12 to 15 women would say that they had not eaten that day.

The effect on women’s health is obvious. Already the percentage of women with anemia is unacceptably high in rural India --- around 80 per cent. The impact of this spread of hunger will be disastrous.

And while hunger increases, the government spends at least Rs 6,000 crore a year to stock foodgrains in its godowns. It has been calculated that at Rs 1,000 per tonne per year expenditure to stock foodgrains, it makes more economic sense, leave alone ethical sense, to distribute the stocked grains even at lower prices.

The public distribution system has virtually collapsed, as it was meant to, firstly because of the targeting system and secondly because of the hikes in the prices of ration foodgrains to levels out of the reach of the poor. The destruction of the model PDS in Kerala is symbolic of the current policies.

Kerala had a record 96 per cent coverage through its ration shops and also through the Maveli stores that provided cheap essential commodities, ranging from exercise books to candles, to anyone who required them. Under the present state government that follows the policies of the central government, the subsidy provided by the LDF government of Re 1 per kg of rice has been removed. Combined with the central government’s administered hikes in the price of ration foodgrains, this has raised the price of rice to almost open market levels. The poor quality of foodgrains is another reason for the drastic fall in the offtake from approximately 35 to 40 quintals of rice a month per ration shop to less than 10 quintals. It is reported that 5056 ration shops, that is more than one third of ration shops in the state, have closed down in the last few months.


The targeting system, ostensibly meant to properly “target the poor as beneficiaries,” has in practice actually meant the exclusion of vast sections of the poor. Ration cardholders are divided into three categories --- Above Poverty Line (APL), Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Antyodaya (poorest of the poor). The APL cards are useless except as identity cards since APL card holders are no longer eligible for sugar or kerosene and the price of APL grains is almost equal to the open market. Thus in practice it is only the BPL that is included.

The definition of BPL is arbitrary as are the numbers. Calculated on Planning Commission estimates made several years ago, state governments are asked to identify the different categories whose numbers are already fixed. Fresh surveys are also expected to remain within these numbers. In a situation of drought, for example, it is common sense that a very large number of families would be pushed below the poverty line, but there is no provision for this. Even where drought relief is available, only those who already have BPL cards are considered eligible.

To take one example: In one of the worst hit tehsils in Chandauli district (UP) where there have been starvation deaths, the district magistrate told us that of a total of 36,480 families with ration cards, only 3,322 families have BPL cards. He said that at least half of the ration cardholders should have the BPL cards but he was helpless as the quotas only permitted a small percentage.

The situation in urban slums is equally bad. As pointed out in an AIDWA memorandum to the food secretary of Maharashtra, “The majority of even poor women, widows, old and destitute have not been included in the BPL list as highlighted by us in the case of women in Dharavi and Bhandup. The ridiculously low BPL income line of Rs 15,000 per year means that the government of Maharashtra has withdrawn the guarantee of cheap food to the poor, needy and malnourished people in Mumbai. Along with that, the surveys carried out by your office have only aimed at excluding people from the BPL category. The best example of this is that among 7.4 lakh cardholders in Dharavi, authorities could only identify 153 families as BPL. For 85 per cent of families who hold APL cards, the price of ration wheat and rice is higher than the open market. They do not have a right to cheap grains any more and their ration cards only serve the purpose of identity cards.”

There have been continuous struggles of women organised by AIDWA to get BPL cards and also ration cards. In different areas of Maharashtra, notably Thane, Pune and Sholapur, women’s struggles forced the authorities to issue over 5000 cards, including BPL cards. Similar struggles have been waged in many states, with some success. These include a seven-day sit-in in Ambedkar Nagar, UP.

The real problem is not just the stray cases of mistaken categorisation of a family’s economic status, which can be rectified. The problem lies in the system of targeting itself. Targeting in a predominantly poor country like India means demarcating not between the rich and the poor, but between different categories of the poor, to "target" some of them for benefits regarding access to cheap food that actually all of them require. It is based on the creation, not the elimination, of mistaken identities, aimed at statistically reducing the numbers of the poor, even though in real terms an increasing number of people are getting more and more poor. It is a system based not on need but on arbitrarily decided quotas that do not recognise, leave alone address, the ongoing process of pauperisation of vast sections of the rural population. The Antyodaya system is decided in the same way.

That is why the demand for a universal public distribution system has great relevance. In this context, the important recommendation of the Abhijit Sen committee, set up by the food ministry, to universalise the PDS is significant and has been quoted in our campaigns. Food minister Sharad Yadav, when asked about this recommendation, said that it was “being considered.”


On a public interest litigation petition moved in the Supreme Court by the Right to Food Campaign, the apex court last November issued a set of guidelines in its interim orders. There are many positive aspects of the orders --- like directives to state governments to ensure work to all people in famine or drought affected areas, direction to governments to ensure work during the agricultural off-season to at least two adults per family, to give Rs 75 per month to all destitute persons over the age of 65, to give every pregnant BPL woman Rs 500 (for the first two births) 8 to 10 weeks before delivery, etc. However, to implement these orders, the state governments (most of them in a deep financial crisis) will require a reversal of the present cuts being made by the central government in funds for the states and also of the erosion of the states’ financial powers by the central government. Implementing the Supreme Court order requires a serious consideration of the necessity for financial arrangements. At the same time, the court has accepted the present system of targeting as a given whereas, as rightly pointed out by the Sen committee, it is the targeting system that has to be given up to guarantee the universal right to food for all.


The campaign also threw up another reality. The hopelessness and helplessness among India’s poor is reflected in the fact that even though a much larger mass of people are living on the edge, we do not see the kind of struggles for food that marked the earlier decades. The lack of an alternative to the bourgeois-landlord governments ruling many of these states is perhaps one reason. It is here that mass organisations can intervene in militant united mass actions to bring immediate relief to the people, gain their confidence and build the struggles required on a much larger scale to force a change in policy. Women have been the worst affected because hunger has led to a devaluation in many spheres. Thus a wider mobilisation of women’s organisations is also necessary to pressurise the government to change its criminal policies that have created hunger and destitution on a large scale.