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Story Publication logo October 25, 2021

Opinion: What Do the Poorest Eat? Salt Water and Pepper


india hunger

Fourteen percent of India’s population is undernourished, according to the Global Hunger Index.


She didn’t say anything. I felt awkward for asking what she would be cooking for dinner. Was she hesitant to admit that she had nothing to cook for herself and her three children?

She then mumbled something that I didn’t catch. One of her neighbours helpfully explained that yes, she had nothing to cook. I steeled myself to ask if she would then go hungry and dinner-less. Sanmai seemed to wake up from a stupor. Her words this time rang out loud and clear. “I may cook a curry of jackfruit seeds.”

But she didn’t have rice, did she? What would they consume the curry with, I persisted. An amused smile lit up her face at my foolish question. The previous day she had borrowed a little rice from the neighbours and had ‘Pakhal’ for lunch. Pakhal is rice soaked overnight in water and then boiled.

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Didn’t she get free foodgrains from the Public Distribution System (PDS)? Not enough to last a month, she informs. She stretches the ration to last a fortnight at best. We were chatting on the 22nd of June this year. The next supply of PDS grains was due to her on July 5.

Her story was not unique. Almost everyone in village Bujibong (Odisha) was in the same boat. Some collected wild berries and veggies that grew in the nearby forest. A few managed to occasionally buy ‘Ragi’ (finger millets) or Kusur (a variety of beans).

Why didn’t she go to the forest to collect vegetables? I asked. “Where would I leave the children?” she retorts, still with a smile. It takes several hours of walking through the forest to collect enough to feed the family and walking with children slows the group down. It is also dangerous.

It is difficult to live by oneself in the village, her neighbours volunteer. She needs a partner, having lost her husband to jaundice two years ago, they inform. Sanmai has apparently resisted overtures, choosing to stay as a widow. But how long would she be able to live by herself? I wondered.

The village was actually better off till about 15 years ago, when the Forest Department banned cultivation in the forest clearings. Villagers claim their forefathers had been cultivating small patches of land in the forest for ‘centuries’. But the fatwa from the department put an end to their agricultural enterprise.

A member from each family travels to Kerala to work as daily wagers. They say they do not like it there and add that they return as fast as they can once they have saved around Rs. 10,000. That is apparently enough to feed one family for a year in addition to the PDS foodgrains.

The pandemic had forced them to look for work in nearby towns in Raigada. Some of them took loans from local moneylenders at exorbitant rates of interest.

A striking feature was the complete lack of any anger or bitterness. Satisfied with their lot, villagers claimed to be happy. “We like our village and have forests around us. We get fresh breeze. We feel peaceful here. We will never leave,” explained one of them cheerfully

Preet Lal Yadav’s village is in Madhya Pradesh. He had walked 15 kilometres to Bodla Block in Chhattisgarh with 8 kgs of wheat to exchange them for rice. He is a regular and Samarin Bai Merawi, a Baiga tribeswoman, happily parts with an equal weight of rice.

Preet Lal received 20 kilograms of rice, 10 kilograms of wheat and 5 kilograms of maize through the PDS every month. Samarin Bai claimed she received 35 kilograms of only rice from the PDS. Rice and maize are staples in the region with wheat used occasionally. ‘Kutki’ (little millet), Kodo millet, Nigar (ramtilla) and pearl millet are also grown, mostly to be sold and pay for vegetables and edible oil.

PDS supplies, they both agreed, did not last a month and hence both the families work at construction sites and enroll under the MGNREG scheme to get work. They estimate they needed Rs 25,000 annually for their food requirement besides the free ration. Samarin’s 11-month-old grandson, Sagar, and daughter-in-law, Charu, receive ready-to-eat multi-grain porridge through Anganwadis but supply of ‘Laddoo’ and bananas had stopped since the lockdown. Samarin’s elder son, Tulsi, is reluctant to work in the city, where he says it is difficult to live and to earn enough. He prefers the fresh air of his village, he quips as a parting shot.

In Chatra (Jharkhand), I run into a beaming Pachhiya Bai Birhor, who was busy cooking a special meal. Bhindi-Aloo (OkraPotato) with onion, rice, and some sort of leaves she had collected from the forest was the treat. She was celebrating because the previous day she had earned Rs 120 by selling six bamboo trays (soop) for Rs. 20 each.

The normal meal in the household, she informs, is ‘maad-bhat’ (rice with its boiled water), ‘namak-bhat’ (rice with salt) and ‘saag-bhat’ (leaves collected from the forest and rice).

She triumphantly disclosed that she had actually saved Rs. 40 from her earning. How did she spend the rest of the amount? She sheepishly confessed that she had bought tobacco (khaini), spices, onion, and cooking oil for Rs. 10 each. Half a kilo of Okra and a kilo of potatoes at Rs. 20 each, she confided, made for a royal meal.

To weave the six trays, she and her two daughters had walked 10 kilometres (to and fro) to the forest to collect the bamboo. All three of them had spent the better part of the next day and a half weaving the trays. She was happy to get Rs. 120 for their labour.

On the highway I find a sprightly Butani Devi, who archly said her age was 60. She looked older. But she had no time to talk. She had left home at 8 am, walked three kilometres to the forest to collect firewood; and now with two quintals of firewood on her head, she was briskly walking back home in Tandwa Block.

She had water before leaving home but was not carrying any water to drink. She would boil some rice once she returned. She and her husband would then have it with salt added for taste. Her husband is an invalid and cannot work. The previous night they had some onion with rice at night. For lunch they had ‘maad-bhat’.

Chatra is in the coal bearing area of Jharkhand. Villagers carrying quintals of coal, collected and pilfered, on their bicycles is a common sight. Massive trucks carrying tonnes of coal speed past the cyclists. Carrying two quintals of coal on bicycles to the bazaar 8 km away and on winding roads is a nightmare. Ramesh Sao admits his body aches and wants to give up. But what to do? The family must eat.

He is happy though, earning Rs. 400-500 every time he ventures out. He has to bribe the security personnel, who allow villagers to collect coal for ‘domestic use’ on their bicycles. But when some of them tried to use their moped, there was a crackdown. ‘Luna’ was not on.

Ramesh confesses that he is better off than most because he also works as a truck driver and occasionally at construction sites. So, while his family can afford to eat relatively well, affording even meat at times, most villagers survive on namak-bhat (salt and rice).

Hunger is pervasive in urban and semi-urban India too. Nasir Khan (42) made a living by mending punctured bicycles in Bhind and earned up to Rs. 200 a day. First the lockdown and now inflation have dealt him knockout blows, he says. The PDS grains (15 kgs of wheat and 3 kgs of rice) are not enough for the family of five, complains his wife, Shanno. Unable to pay rent for the room they occupy, the future looks bleaker than ever.

Binati’s husband is an electrician and earns around Rs. 8,000. Residents of Hindon, Binati confesses that the couple try to feed the children while going hungry themselves. Watery rice and occasionally the equally watery ‘dal’ are staples. Vegetables are a luxury. Yes, the government provides us with free ration but there are other expenses, she points out. Rent and school fees have to be paid and medicines have to be bought … how do we survive?

The colourful balloons that Uday Lal sells rarely lift his spirits. The family of seven with elderly parents and three children cannot be fed, he says, by selling balloons. But what else can he do? On a good day he does earn three to four hundred rupees. But most of the days are lean days. He needs no encouragement to speak on food inflation. Some kind souls, he informs, do occasionally give him snacks, loaves of bread or packets of biscuits.

In February 2021 Kanti, who has TB, gave birth to a son. But her husband, Om Prakash, from Sitapur in UP, is despondent. The child is underweight and malnourished. The couple had lost their 3-year-old daughter as well. “Doctors advise us to have fruits, vegetables and milk. I have no money to buy even one square meal a day. From where will I get fruits and milk?” he asks. He worked in a plywood factory that shut down. He is now a daily wager. “We eat just namak-roti,” he mumbles.

“I am not entitled to free ration because I do not have the Antyodaya card. In the last one and a half years, I got free ration only once and when I asked for more the kotedaar (ration shop owner) insisted that get a certificate from the pradhan or the tehsil first,” he informs.

Raja Bhaiya of Vidya Dham Samiti in Banda (UP) confirms that distribution of PDS foodgrains is erratic. Sometimes beneficiaries get wheat and no rice. If there is rice, there is no oil. No questions are allowed to be asked.

In Muzaffarnagar, 130 kilometres from Delhi, having lost her only son five months ago, Shanti Devi (71) has to feed her 73-year-old husband and her only daughter deserted by the son-in-law. The daughter has now started working as a maid and earns Rs. 500 a month. There was no choice because her parents would often eat only ‘namak-roti’.

Twice a month a neighbour’s son collects PDS grains for her, she says. The family has to pay for the wheat once while receiving it free for the second time. Asked how much wheat she receives, she says around five kilos. Does she receive any help from neighbours or leaders?

She looks towards the sky and exclaims, “Bhagwan malik hai (The Lord is great). He makes namak-roti available to us.”


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