Ecological Poverty: The New Serial Killer in India

Richard Mahapatra

The world of Indian policy makers is stoutly murderous. The current spate of malnutrition deaths in various parts of the country is just an enforcement of it. During July and September 20 this year, children have died primarily due to malnutrition in Rajasthan’s Baran district. In Maharashtra’s Nandurbar and Orissa’s Nabrangpur and Malkangiri districts death continues to stalk its tribal residents. Everyday 16 children die in Maharashtra of malnutrition. The state health department records reveal that nearly 9,000 children under the age of six have died directly or indirectly of malnutrition in tribal areas of Maharashtra since last year. The state government is in denial mood. In Orissa recently 12 children have died but the state government refused to accept that they died of malnutrition. This is not restricted to death only. In the last week of September 2004, a mother of four-month-old child had to sell the baby in Dhanbad, Jharkhand in less than a thousand rupees to buy some food grains only. According to her father, she was driven by abject poverty and suffering from malnutrition.

Why do children of such resource rich districts die of chronic hunger and malnutrition and why a mother has to sell her baby for some food? The fact is that we have grossly failed to recognise the disease called ‘ecological poverty’ that has killed close to thousand children under the age of six in just two months. Malnutrition is the terminal stage of this disease. Going by the near chronic death rate the disease has taken epidemic proportion in India. It is a pointer how ecological poverty – that is the lack of access to natural resources like land and forests – can trigger catastrophe in ecology-based village system in India. Government’s myopic interpretation of the problem just makes it fatal.

It is observed that poor sections of society largely depend on their immediate environment than on the national economy. They are unlikely to benefit from the grand development projects that primarily degrade their surroundings on the ground. At this juncture, ecological poverty sets in with restricted access to natural resources, which also form the staple food basket. It is due to two primary reasons: laws that keep away people from forests and ecological degradation that brings down per capital natural resources availability. With fast depletion of food pool like forest and lands, food scarcity has badly hit tribal districts solely dependent on it for its food needs. Long spell of food scarcity leave women and children malnourished, the first victims of environmental degradation. Once malnourished both children and mothers become prone to various diseases. Then follows the uncontrolled spat of malnutrition deaths.

In tribal belts of India, as agriculture contributes very less, forest remains a major a source of food for the inhabitants. Thus less access to forest has grievously affected their food security. Nandurbar was densely forested and its lands were fertile few years ago. It was a food-sufficient district in Maharashtra. But the local residents were constantly being kept away from the already depleting forests. The depleted forests caused soil erosion leading to low agricultural yield. On the other hand in Orissa’s forested Nabrangpur district the village, from where maximum number of malnutrition deaths have been reported, has been denied all amenities as it is a forest village thus outside the revenue administration’s welfare schemes. Also the forest department doesn’t allow the residents access to the forests for food gathering terming the village as ‘illegal settlement.’

The malnourished districts, altogether 250 in India, have been targeted for nutrition enhancement programmes since 1970s. But again these programmes treat the symptoms rather than the disease. In 1995-96 when a severe drought hit Maharashtra, it was obvious that without access to forest and agriculture lands the tribal population would perish of malnutrition. Close to thousand children died that year. Government then declared a nutrition enhancement programme to forget it immediately. After five years, again, the government is promising now to revive it with more budgetary allocation. Giving more access to food resource like the forests could have done nutrition enhancement. But government wants to distribute foods to attain so.

It is a matter of concern that in densely populated countries like India, where people are using every possible ecological niche, environmental degradation will lead to increased impoverishment. Up till now, no government programme has ever incorporated the local ecological security as its objective. And without ecological security in these districts food security can never be attained. The governments’ insistent denial that children died of malnutrition is a clinical approach to a huge human and ecological crisis. It is time that the chain reaction of ecological poverty being controlled.

Author Note
Richard Mahapatra, an expert on Development studies, working as the Coordinator of ‘Environment and Poverty Unit’ of Center for Science and Environment, New Delhi