Our chapter in India officially began with a meeting somewhere in the city of Delhi, a meeting with volunteer-representatives of the Right to Food Campaign (www.righttofoodindia.org).
The learning process, however, unofficially began when we left the hotel and observed the crowded city’s streets for the first time. Rickshaws, bikes, motorcycles, cars, busses—all were chaotically weaving and passing. Traffic laws apparently didn't matter. Most of us sat nervously in the bouncing bus, taking in the unanticipated sights of skinny cows and small children begging for money, unaccustomed to the constant sounding of loud horns that replaced the quieter turn signal. We saw examples of poverty far beyond what we had been exposed to in Brazil.
Unlike Brazil, where government intervention, along with significant economic growth, is helping to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, in India the gap between rich and poor is increasing. “India is a growing economy,” Dipa Sinha, our Right to Food Campaign representative, admitted after a round of introductions. “But there is a continuing story of poverty and inequality, specifically hunger and food.”
We met in the offices of “Mobile Creches,” a group providing child care and assistance to mothers through mobile day care centers in Delhi. The Right to Food Campaign is a volunteer-based program that was established eleven years ago after India suffered three years of severe drought. Not only did the drought destroy farm animals and crops, but it also made millions of Indians exceptionally vulnerable to starvation. Sustainability of livestock was at critical risk, predominantly affecting villagers who depend on farming for both food and work.
However, not every region in India was without food. As a matter of fact, the government was holding on to sixty million tons of food-grain stocks. “That was enough to reach the moon and back, yet people were dying of hunger,” added Dipa. Appalled by the scandalous and seemingly corrupt reality, activists gathered in the city of Rajasthan, a city in northern India. Meanwhile, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) went to the Supreme Court of India with a public interest litigation against the government, emphasizing the “right to life” clause in the Indian Constitution.
Since the new regulation ordered by the Supreme Court on November 28, 2001, the government has focused on several schemes: school lunch programs, subsidized grain, and food for elders. The schemes, however, are not enough according to Dipa: “It’s like taking antibiotics. The medicine makes you better but it doesn’t make you completely healthy.” The biggest issue, Dipa added, is distribution. “There is a lot of grain, but it’s not feeding everyone. Our job is to make sure that the orders reach the people.” It is still the case in India that every 2nd child is stunted due to malnutrition.
Right to Food Campaign volunteers are divided into twelve different networks, each directed to a particular issue, such as children and malnutrition, preschool and early child care, or women’s rights. Each network takes a nonviolent approach and works to influence public policy through education and through annual protests, typically when Parliament is in session. Though each division addresses a different issue, Dipa explained that the teams are united by the common understanding that “these issues are rights and the government needs to make sure they are all implemented.”
Currently, members of the RFC want to see more legislation through the Supreme Court, because only then will the “right to life” become so basic to the legal system that the government will have to be responsive. Full and equitable access to grains for all people remains a goal of the Right to Food Campaign. India is the seventh largest country in the world by area; it has a population of over 1.2 billion people; the government has yet to attend to many pockets of need.
Poverty and malnutrition in India cannot be ignored, as we had learned on the short bus ride to the RFC meeting. But we left the meeting room feeling a little better, knowing that the Right to Food Campaign is an effective work in progress.