Introduction: Two people’s tribunals on severe hunger and utter neglect in India

Editorial board, article 2

In September 2005 the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) participated in two people’s tribunals on hunger and state neglect in India organized by partner organizations there. In West Bengal, Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum) convened a tribunal in Jalangi, Murshidabad, on the extraordinary suffering and deprivation caused by the erosion of the Padma River, which is eating away vast tracts of fertile land. Although the local government has been aware of the situation, till now little has been done to help those affected. In Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh the People’s Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR) organized a tribunal on hunger and starvation in economically depressed villages, where increasing numbers of residents are committing suicide as a last resort.

During March 2005 news emerged of shocking starvation deaths in Murshidabad, including of a five-year-old-boy who died after eating dirt in an attempt to survive after his family ran out of food. A local doctor commenting on the deaths conceded that the entire population in the area was facing malnutrition. Despite this, most of the hungry had not been listed under programmes to obtain government assistance. A protest by hundreds of villagers outside the Unicef headquarters in Kolkata during March and a public meeting in Jalangi during July failed to bring any immediate relief. During the visit of the chief minister to the area on July 16, a local man attempted to commit suicide by drinking poison. Although government officers were insisting that they had allocated large amounts of money to address the situation, villagers were adamant that they had received virtually nothing. On July 20, a local official fled his office when around 800 people gathered to protest government inaction over their plight, after which they were attacked by a government-backed gang. In early September, the authorities finally announced that over 500 families in the region were to be put on lists to receive government support; however, this news was accompanied by yet another starvation death. Against this backdrop, Masum organized the September hearings with the hope of giving a voice to the hungry that would compel government action.

Similar conditions in Uttar Pradesh prompted the PVCHR to call for a tribunal there. Throughout 2005, the AHRC’s Hunger Alert programme had carried stories of starvation in Uttar Pradesh. Among them, in June it reported on the shocking deaths of three members of one family in Varanasi due to starvation: again as a result of the failure by government agencies to give assistance as required by law. In August, the surviving father of the family met the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and told him that some 400 families in his village of Sankarpur are facing the same dreaded situation. His warning was realized in September when another person from the same village died of hunger, despite it already being reported in a regional newspaper that he had been sick for three months and was on the verge of death. As people in Uttar Pradesh are starving despite state government claims that it is spending large sums of money on welfare schemes, the PVCHR convened a people’s tribunal to coincide with the programme in West Bengal.

The AHRC was committed to participating in the two tribunals in view of the consistent reports it had received of severe hunger in these parts of India, which it has distributed through the Hunger Alert programme, part of the work of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on the Right to Food and the Rule of Law in Asia. This programme is establishing the links between hunger and broken down rule of law in various parts of Asia through documentation of direct testimonies by credible panelists, which is then shared widely.

Hunger in Asia is not primarily caused by a simple lack of food or natural disasters, but rather is most commonly the result of systemic neglect. The people’s tribunal hearings in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh reinforced this point, as in articulating their claims to the right to food the deponents emphasized state failures in respecting and protecting this most fundamental of all human rights.

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