At least twenty persons belonging to the tribal population of Rayagada district of Orissa have died from eating mango kernels. The Orissa administration, from the Chief Minister downwards, insists that these are not starvation deaths, since mango kernels are habitually consumed by the tribals anyway. They may be right. What constitutes starvation death being a matter of definition, these deaths may not fall under that rubric. But, the fact that more than half a century after independence a significant part of the population of this country has to survive on mango kernels is a matter of national shame. The fact that this happens even in a situation where over fifty million tonnes of foodgrains are rotting in government godowns is not just shameful; it is criminal.
The so-called "economic liberalization", which has entailed drastic cuts in government expenditure in rural areas, and hence curtailed even the limited purchasing power that used to come into the hands of the rural poor, is of course the immediate reason behind this state of acute misery. But there is something more. The baleful effects of "liberalization" are superimposed on a base which is quite intolerable anyway.
Why should such intolerable living conditions, greatly aggravated no doubt by "liberalization", exist at all? Paradoxically, India's record in this respect is abysmal even compared to countries of East and South East Asia, despite the fact that in many of those countries the poor scarcely had any political rights for long stretches of time, while India has continuously had universal adult franchise for the last fifty years. To say that this is because average growth rates in those countries were higher than in India is nonsense. Growth rates as such have little bearing on poverty: the state of the rural poor in India for instance has become worse if anything during the nineties when the country's growth rate has allegedly accelerated.
The conclusion is perhaps inescapable that India's uniquely oppressive, caste-ridden, social structure prevents a distribution of the means of consumption with anything like the degree of equality achievable in other Asian countries. And the reaction of the Orissa administration to the allegations of starvation deaths reveals unwittingly the nauseating contempt in which the tribal population