Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hidden hunger

It is often assumed that hunger defaces only the rural landscape; and that although cities may engender other forms of violence, its colonies, shanties and streets are free of that most terrible form of want — of food for a hungry belly. But we discovered — in a study of homeless people that we undertook over two years in the streets of Patna, Delhi, Chennai and Madurai — hunger to be rampant, and sometimes desperate, even on city streets, although obscured in the smoggy haze of city lights.
Budham Bai, a grizzly old homeless woman in the country’s capital, eats only what she gets out from the charity of temple worshippers, and saves all the cash she is given as alms to send back to her village. Many times, she has to be content with only one meal, but usually she is able to manage two half meals a day. She spends eight months a year begging and sleeping in the courtyard of Kalkaji Mandir in Delhi, to support her ailing husband in their village in Uttar Pradesh. He is too proud to beg. Bare survival
Most of the food street children buy are at food stalls. On bad days, some eat at dargahs, gurudwaras or temples, and the younger ones forage for food in rubbish heaps. Phelena Devi, abandoned by her husband, lives alone on the platform in Patna and earns 20 to 30 rupees per day from picking rags. Every morning, she spends two rupees on tea. Only after she completes her work by late afternoon does she buy her first meal of the day from a stall. The day she has enough money, she eats from the hotel on the station. For eight rupees she eats rice, dal and vegetables, and at night, she gets herself three rotis that cost her six rupees. Later she forages in the bins for bits of biscuits and samosas, and sometimes begs at temples.
Many buy cooked food, sometimes from humble eateries on the pavements themselves. Mythili has grown up with her family on a pavement in Chennai; her mother runs a small stall on the pavement itself to serve food to other homeless people. Her overheads are so low and the fare very elementary, to make the meals affordable to homeless people. The mendicant homeless population of Madurai is fed often by charitable organisations. Only meal of the day
Leprosy patients Bhagniman and Janak in Patna depend on stale leftovers that they are given as they beg in the day. But at night, they try to set up a makeshift stove between two bricks, and boil some hot rice. In Chennai, we saw women setting out their stoves only close to midnight after the streets were emptied of pedestrians, and they woke their sleeping children to groggily eat their only self-cooked meal for the day. This is how more than half the homeless people we spoke to in Chennai managed to eat at least one “home”-cooked meal. But cooking food is even more trying during the rainy seasons, as they cannot keep their fires burning under the pouring rain, and the wet surface hinders the lighting of a hearth even after the rain stops. Linked to homelessness
The nature of their dwellings, if any — makeshift and open to the sky — forces homeless people to depend extensively on external sources for their food — through purchase, foraging, or receiving food in charity. The condition of being homeless in the city also typically means lacking a place to cook, or to store rations and one’s utensils (except where families are able to colonise segments of pavement for long periods like in Chennai). Purchasing food may involve greater expense; and that too for less healthy food. In Patna we observed that none of the homeless people store any food due to its perishable nature, and because they had no secured space to store anything. Besides, fuel is something that is beyond their means. Often they can be seen cooking on fires burning between bricks, the weak fire fed with bits of branches and dry twigs that the homeless people have collected, or with cakes of cow dung collected from the droppings of stray cattle. We found that few homeless people in Delhi can cook their own meals. Around half purchase their dinner, the rest eat at shrines, beg or forage for food in the railway station, eating leftovers from trains that serve food to passengers.
Not being able to cook food at home results not just in poor nutrition, but also high expenditures. We found that many homeless people spend 50 to 90 per cent of their income on food. But even this is often not enough. A woman who looks after her homeless family in Patna complained, “Our daily income is 70 rupees, so how can we get enough food from that? On top of that, we have five children to look after.”Sacrificing everything else
If they still manage to eat nutritious food, it is to the sacrifice of almost everything else. In Patna, we met Deepak studying under a street light. He is the 10-year-old son of a rickshaw-puller, who lives with his father on the pavement. His father wanted him to become a “sahib”, and therefore brought him to study in a school in the city, instead of leaving him in his village with his mother. He is a caring father, who spends a great deal of what he earns to feed his son well. He buys for him every night a packet of biscuits for three rupees. This is his breakfast the next morning. Later the boy eats roti with vegetables bought from a roadside hotel, and a small cup of milk. Ganesh, Deepak’s father says, “Even if I don’t eat, I buy a cup of milk for my Deepak everyday.” In school, there is khichri or gruel in the State financed midday meal. Ganesh buys an egg for Deepak once in few days. Last resort
On days when they are unable to find work, in Delhi many of the homeless seek free food from religious places, and street children also depend on friends for food. It is interesting that a fifth of the homeless people we spoke to said that they prefer to stay hungry than depend on charity from religious places, relatives and friends. In Chennai, one-fourth of the respondents borrow money from other homeless people during such lean days, and a tenth per cent are helped by their neighbours who share their food. A small portion dulls their appetite by drinking tea. In Madurai, on the other hand, they keep their hunger at bay with beedis, drugs, tea or just water, or else they beg or get food on credit. In Patna, a third of those we spoke to said they just stay hungry, a seventh solicit food from others, and others eat on credit.
A homeless man remarked bitterly in Patna, “God has two ways of looking at His people. For one segment of people, He leaves the strings loose, but for the poor He keeps a tight hold on the strings. He gives us so much pain: whereas we crave for good food, for fruits, meat and fish, they get so much to eat…”
Article by Harsh Mander in The Hindu - Magazine dated 19/04/2009

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