By Pushkal Shivam:
“Seen this? Denmark has imposed a tax to reduce the intake of fatty food by its population”, a friend said to me pointing to a newspaper article. He instead reminded me of a World Bank report according which 47% of India’s children are underweight. Undernutrition rates in India are higher than those in Sub-Saharan Africa. The symbolic bloated stomachs of malnourished children should remind us that “malnutrition decreases educational achievement, labour productivity, and economic growth”.
The lopsided growth of India is captured by the contrast conjured by the presence of slums just within the vicinity of swanky IT parks and malls. One such example is an IT Park near my college the road leading to which is flanked by slums. The plush cars spilling out of the fortified gates manned by security guards have to bear the potholes on the road, and the indifferent glances of the poor.
What can the food court inside the IT Park offer a man living on Rs. 32 a day? To explore the answer to this question I perpetuated the bout of starvation I was undergoing by not having anything for the entire day. With my princely Rs. 32 in pocket, I decided to tread the hallowed precinct of the food court at the IT Park. The tantalizing aroma of the food which hung in the air could have enticed me into stealing had I stayed any longer. Fortunately, the eye-popping prices of the food militated against my presence at the place. A certain “happy price menu” did catch my eye. But it looked good just in picture.
“The rich eat for their taste, poor eat for their hunger”, says Kaleshwari, a tailor who lives in a slum which is at a stone’s throw from the place I had just exited. Her income of Rs 100-150 a day is grossly inadequate as the entire amount is spent the same day. “Whatever used to cost Rs. 10 now costs Rs. 20. So we have to reduce our food intake and use less vegetables”, said Kaleshwari. 53-year-old M.N. Raja who runs a stall which sells chicken interjected, “Prices keep rising all the time, this doesn’t mean we stop eating”.
Forced to improvise, Kaleshwari has to prepare food so that it lasts for two to three days. The place where she and others live is infested with mosquitoes and faces long power cuts. The vicinity is strewn with heaps of garbage which no one cares to clear. And yet, Raja is aware that there exist people whose lives are even worse. Interestingly, he addresses himself as a member of the “middle class”.
To my surprise, he can understand English and is aware of the 2G spectrum scam and the Jan Lokpal bill. So when I sought his take on the Rs. 32-a-day assessment, he said, “Someone should go and ask Ahluwalia which madman earns only Rs. 32 a day”. At this point Kaleshwari added, “Even beggars earn Rs. 300-400 a day”.
The affinity between the inhabitants of the slum who I spoke with is something to take notice of. For example, the neighbours help each other when one of them is out of cash. The amount though can be as little as Rs. 10. They all have a Ration Card which provides some relief from the scourge of the rising prices.
By the evening of the 6th day, my weight had gone down by slightly less than five kilograms. Hunger was tearing me apart. Hoping to find a plate of rice, I entered an eatery. The menu card reminded me that it was out of my reach. Starvation sets off a sort of burning sensation within your senses whose ebb and flow dictates your action which could be evasive or beast-like. A meager intake of the food on the night of the Day 6 momentarily soothed my senses. The night was particularly harsh, bereft of any sleep.
A few hours into the Day 7, I found myself exceeding the Rs. 32 mark to satiate my hunger. My senses wanted me to devour the food in front of me but my body, now used to starvation, was not helping. The infringement of Rs. 32 strait-jacket culminated with a throbbing in my head induced by the newfound substance in my body.
What I did during the last few days could simply be dismissed as an act of penance. The ignominy lies in the fact that what seems a form of penance to me is actually a grinding reality. And it can only be felt.