Starvation Deaths: Why should the PM fidget?

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told Parliament that there is no starvation death in Orissa and that the media reports in this respect are vitiated with bias and misconception. He quoted a periodical to support his statement. His statement had irritating similarity with what the State government has been maintaining.

Mr. Sampad Mohapatra of Star News whose report had brought public attention to an instance of this sordid tragedy, has questioned the honesty of the periodical in a central page article published in two instalments in Sambad, the largest circulated language daily of Orissa, which he was once editing. He has expressed astonishment at the eagerness of the Prime Minister to relay on this periodical.

Neither the family members of those who succumbed to starvation nor those who face it know and understand the English language in which the periodical, relied upon by the P.M., is published. Were they acquainted with this language; neither the Prime Minister nor the Periodical could have dared to say what they have said.

It is a shame that the Prime Minister of the Country did not hesitate to play the cover-up card on starvation. Instead of relying upon a periodical he should have warranted the opinion of forensic pathologists to quote them to refute the reports he wanted to; but he did not. Because, he knew, such a source could not have helped in denying the stark reality of starvation deaths.

Forensic Science has settled that malnutrition leads to starvation deaths. The minimum food requirement for an idle adult is 2000 calories a day. When food intake falls below this level, malnutrition happens. G. B. Layton described the effects of malnutrition in ‘Lancet’, ii, 73 (1946) which were summarised by Keith Simpson as loss of well-being and hunger; apathy and fatigue; loss of flesh; polyuria; pigmentation; cachexia; hypothermia; extreme lethargy; mental retardation and loss of self-respect; hunger oedema; reduced resistance to infection, with development of diarrhoea, and tuberculosis. (Modern Trends in Forensic Medicine, London, Butterworths, 1953). Hence intake of food containing lower than the minimum required calories is the root cause of malnutrition that leads to any of these conditions dragging the affected into starvation death. Prof.Alfred Swaine Taylor who was for 46 years a faculty in Medical Jurisprudence at Guy’s Hospital Medical School, London, has given hints on slow starvation that deserves attention. ” In acute starvation”, says Taylor,” when there is a total deprivation of water as well as food, death is likely to occur in about a week or 10 days. However, availability of water can prolong life for many weeks, and of course a diet of sorts, even if well below the minimum required calorific level, will convert the condition to one of slow starvation which may take many weeks or months.” (Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence,edited by A.Keith Mant, 13th edition,1984, p. 276).

All the Orissan instances are clear cases of starvation deaths when measured by the scale given by the afore-quoted authorities. They are caused by deprivation of food and consequent malnutrition.

It is not that the Prime Minister is not in know of this. In the matter of starvation deaths in Rajstan and Orissa, the ‘Peoples Union of Civil liberty” has moved the Supreme Court, implicating Government of India in the case. Mr. N. C. Saxena who was commissioned by the Supreme Court to assess implementation of ‘food-for-work’ and other anti-poverty programmes, in the context of the case, has located a lot many numbers of latches which have deprived people of bare minimum food and his report is on records. According to this report, families below-the-poverty-line have not been issued with ration cards in spite of Supreme Court direction and in consequence thereof, they fail to get their quota of food. Contractors close to the ruling allies swindle the funds placed specifically for ‘food-for-work’, even though there is a ban on their appointment in the scheme. Mr.Saxena himself witnessed an event in the village of Koilamunda under Budhidhara Panchayat in the district of Keonjhar where a tractor was engaged by a contractor to execute the earthwork. The villagers being tribal and illiterate, were not aware of the extent of deprivation this design was subjecting them to. Mr. Saxena found on a spot-study many instances of people-below-poverty-line having not been given their quota of rice since two years. These are only samples of instances of how the State has been pushing the people of Orissa into condition of slow and sure starvation.

Under such circumstances, the Prime Minister’s endeavour to attribute a motive to the media for exposure on starvation deaths can be taken as nothing but motivated. What Mr. Vajpayee has said is not becoming of a Prime Minister. In a democracy, a Prime Minister like him should have the guts to shoulder responsibility for starvation deaths and instead of escaping, should search for and execute remedies.

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