The narrow-gauge train line built by the Prince of Gwalior from Gwalior to Sheopur was so much smaller than the standard trains in India that it looked almost like a toy train to me. I took this train in June 2003 during my first trip to the Chambal valley, and with some encouragement I joined a group a group of colourfully clad men and women on the roof of the train to begin a journey that profoundly changed my worldview. My toy train passed through beautiful sandy ravines interspersed with deep gorges and a sprinkle of monsoon rain had revived the greenery, making the place serenely beautiful. My view belied the fact that the region was suffering the third consecutive year of drought that had led to widespread hunger and misery across Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states. Every now and then I saw stray cattle roaming far away from villages; people who once owned them had let them wander away, unable to feed them and unable to watch them starve to death. There were a few in flesh and blood, but mostly I saw dry skeletons littered everywhere as a marker of the desperation lurking behind the beautiful landscape.
I was there as a part of a team to examine reports of starvation and deaths in Hirapur village. Our hosts led from house to house and gave us a long wooden stick to check if there was any grain in their storage bins, only to feel the empty floor again and again. At least six children had died in the drought of diseases that that they would have survived had they been better nourished. Most children looked visibly malnourished and seemed incapable of surviving even a mild bout of illness. We talked to people about what kind of government programs were being implemented in their village and found that a few relief works were started to provide employment, but they were closed even while the inhabitants hardly had any store of grain. The State government had decided not to spend any money on school feeding, leaving it to the Panchayats. Since most Panchayats spent less than half-a-rupee on a child a day, children often got just boiled wheat with some salt, and as one of my former teachers put it, the impoverished children enjoyed even that.
The cruellest impact of drought was on the elderly people. Destitution was widespread and many old people had to live on the charity of hungry people. At least three elderly people had died the previous year accompanied by severe hunger in that hamlet. We met Gyan Bai, wife of the late Hira, as she was preparing her breakfast. The food consisted of a paste of leaves she collected from the forest; a clear sign that she had no food to eat. She ground the leaves and mixed them with water for food. She used to receive state pensions, which had stopped abruptly the year before, without any reason.
Our hosts insisted that we go to the bank of the canal to meet the old man who was sick. We were led to a row of ramshackle huts that could at most provide some shade from the sun for a part of the day. A frail skeleton of an old man named Duria was sitting inside on a cot. He was too sick even to move from his bed. Like many of the elderly destitute, he too lived on occasional charity. We did not ask Duria what he does for food. A terribly dusty plate that had not been used for a long time spoke its own eloquent tale.
Like Gyan Bai, Duria used to get a pension that had stopped a while ago. He was too weak to recount how far back this had happened. His son Pappu explained there was no way for him to help his father since he and his children themselves were going hungry. Amidst all this, Duria was not an angry man. He calmly told us that the people of the village were starving and they should be provided employment in the next few months. For himself, he just asked for an injection to cure his illness. He did not ever murmur a complaint about his starvation and complete destitution. He calmly awaited his fate.
Hirapur was just one case among thousands of villages that were homes to such hunger, disease and avoidable deaths, and I was convinced that a lot could be done to alleviate such widespread misery. Improving school feeding, providing reliable pensions and ensuring employment were well within the state government’s financial capacity; unfortunately they were not political priorities. Most families in Hirapur had received just 20 days of work in wage employment programmes that year, which was hardly adequate to sustain a family in those months. Low budgets to prevent hunger were further eroded by endemic corruption. We verified official accounts of three employment projects, and all three were fudged extensively. The dealer of the ration shop that was supposed to distribute subsidised grains and a few other necessities was mercilessly swindling even the poorest of the poor. We met many pensioners who were regularly cheated of up to two-thirds of their measly pensions, and even those who knew that they were being cheated could not complain for the fear of losing what little they got.
On my way back from Hirapur I started thinking about Tamil Nadu, and my perception about my home state underwent a sea change. Until then, I had thought of Tamil politicians as populists who pander people with ‘freebies’ in order to get votes. I considered TN’s extensive nutrition programmes a waste. I guess I acted like a middle-class boy who took basic necessities of life for granted, and so could not appreciate the importance of school feeding, childcare or subsidised food grains, and my thoughts were confirmed by others in similar positions whose ideas made their way to the English language media that I read. The same class background made me devalue these services, since they did not meet my standards. As a result, I was an enthusiastic supporter for winding up these services that were a useless fiscal strain. But watching a landscape littered with dead cattle from the top of the toy train forced me to re-evaluate my world view.
Other articles in the series
- About Delivering public services effectively: TN & Beyond
- How I became interested in TN’s public services
- The root of TN’s commitment to services
- Decentralized action & Great social movements of Tamil Nadu
- Why decentralized action increased from 70s in Tamil Nadu
- Why public services & not land reforms?
 Panchayats are village level governments comprising of elected members. It can also refer to the informal judicial body of the village or of a caste, but in this work the word is used to refer to elected governments, unless mentioned otherwise.
 In a conversation with Jean Drèze during summer 2003. I should add here that Jean has also written about this experience in news articles that were published during the drought.