[Marxism] Rising food prices driving the very young and very old to risk life

Ruthless Critic of All that Exists ok.president+marxml at gmail.com
Mon Jun 2 16:41:08 MDT 2008

In the Fields, at 110 Degrees, for $2 a Day:
A Guaranteed Day's Work


May 31 / June 1, 2008

He says he is not 70 but is, in fact, "quite a few years older."
"Anyway, how can I tell exactly?"

But age has not stopped Gadasu Ramulu from doing hard physical labour
in searing temperatures well above 110F in Nalgonda, India. There have been
nearly 60 heat wave deaths here in two months, the highest for any
district in Andhra Pradesh this year. His passbook shows he has worked
39 days at the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act site since such
work began at his village of Tatikolu. At the other end of the age
spectrum are many in their early teens trying to pass off as adults in
order to get some work and help out their families.

Hunger and rising prices are driving the old and the very young to the
work. In this time of crisis, "NREG work" is their lifeline.

Gadasu Ramulu thinks it's a good programme. "It should be there," he
says. His wife Anjamma insists: "Listen, it's essential. We won't eat
without it."

Then why does the record show he only worked three days at the site in
the past 10 days or so? "Look at me," he says. "This is hard work and
it is very hot. So typically I work four days and rest four days. I
cannot do it continuously for a week. Sometimes I find other work that
might pay less but is lighter. I'd like to do both, actually. In
truth, you do what you get — and what you can manage physically."

His household includes a daughter — and her children — abandoned by
her husband. All the adults do "whatever work we can find." Including
Anjamma who is past 65.

"He's burning the energy he has," she says of Ramulu. "Which is bad
when we are eating less. But what is the option? That's why he has to
take a break every few days."

The family does not have an Antyodaya card (that is meant for the
poorest of the poor) that would make their food cheaper. At the NREG
site he can make "up to Rs. 80 a day." In the lean times, that makes
the difference between "something and nothing." She adds: "Without it,
we'd be in far more trouble."

Across several worksites in the districts of Nalgonda and Mahbubnagar
are others who are well into their sixties, actively seeking such
work. We also ran into at least three others close to Ramulu's age
returning to labour in order to eat. Being malnourished makes the work
that much harder.

Things are bad at home, too. "All the children here go without milk,"
says Anasuya in Tatikolu. "This year, with the costs shooting up, the
chance doesn't arise of their having it." Her husband is the field
assistant at the local NREG site.

"At least 40 children have had to be turned away from the work site,"
says her neighbour in this Dalit colony. "Families are terribly
hungry. Yes, the rice at Rs. 2 a kg is there for some, but it has only
just come in." And milk which was around Rs. 12 a liter is now between
Rs. 16-18 a litre. "And those with bigger families, or widows with
orphans, are having a bad time of it. Some days, people borrow money
to buy food." Often, girls of 12 or 13 wear sarees and try to appear
more mature than they are, in order to get work.

"What can people do?" asks Lakshmamma, a widow herself. She gets work
now and then at the site. "My job is to pour water over the spot to be
dug to make it less hard."

Young Damodar, who first tapped NREG work when he was 15, dropped out
of school after his father died. He goes to work on some days with his
mother. "A widow has to be accompanied by someone," she says.
"Otherwise, getting work can be difficult."

Villagers complain that the work they get is often too hard. "Try
digging for hours in this heat." And the price rise is making things a
lot worse with people being hungry and eating less.

"What we're doing is going downwards in steps," says Krishnaiah.
"First, people change the type of food and go in for poorer quality
which is cheaper.

They move to the cheapest vegetables, then no vegetables at all. Then
they give up milk. That's how the changes come." Amongst the changes
is that older people, particularly older widows, get much less to eat
within the household.

Krishnaiah is among the more fit and fortunate ones, who also goes out
to do stone-breaking work at a higher rate of wages at private sites.
"But that doesn't come always and it is even harder to do. The stones
are terribly hot. The tools also get very hot. Your feet are burning
all the time."

That, say the others, is the case with all of them. "We work to meet
our hunger, but we burn up the food we eat with that work."

The complaints are many and often justified. People are sometimes
exasperated by the way the NREGA system works. But there is unanimity
on its worth and value. It's hard to find a single poor person here
who says the program is of no use, that it ought to be wound up.

"It keeps us going," says Gadasu Ramulu. "What's more, it's right
here, in our village. We need this."

P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece
appears, and is the author of "Everybody Loves a Good Drought". He can
be reached at: psainath at vsnl.com.

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