Harsh Mander, Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger. Gurgaon: Penguin Books, 2012. Pp. xv, 294.
Harsh Mander employs an empathetical approach in conducting research for and writing Ash in the Belly. The book is divided into three sections broadly, using which Mander argues that denial of the right to food as a fundamental right in India has been cause for more deaths than disasters of the greatest magnitudes. This denial, he goes on to state, leads to a form of hunger which becomes a way of life and not just a temporary condition for those who belong to the lowest strata of society. This stratification takes place on the basis of the ability to produce viable commercial output including the likes of aged, disabled and women among others. However, nothing takes away from the fact that there is no lack of food in the country, but only that a multitude of socio-cultural differences lead to an unequal distribution of resources so that those on the periphery of society are left to bear the brunt of it, and the government has largely been apathetic if not complicit, as Mander proves.
Mander’s experience as a member of the National Advisory Council, special commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the case of Right to Food and founder of organisations such as Dil Se as a social activist establish his authority in writing upon this subject.
A team of six researchers was instituted to conduct empirical research primarily in the three states of Orissa, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh to understand the lived experiences of those who have spent the entirety of their lives in penury and starvation. However, primary resources such as various schemes of the government including Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005, important SC Judgments such as People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India & Others (PUCL), international conventions and reports, for instance, WHO studies on Hunger and other important literature such as Karl Marx’s writings, to provide a Marxist perspective, have been covered.
Since Mander explains his central argument of the need to recognize hunger as a fundamental right enforceable by the State by structuring his work in three separate sections, I shall employ a similar approach in this review.
A LOOK INTO THE LIFE OF A STARVED INDIAN
Ash in the Belly is a semi-academic work by one of the most celebrated social activists in India targeted towards the general populace with an aim to stress upon the less-talked about everyday gross violations of human rights which only make themselves apparent to their full extent if you belong to certain lowly sections of the society. The author, later in the book, also points out the narrative of the economic middle-class against the penniless as beings merely interested in living off subsidies.
This section impresses stories of the food-deprived citizens of the quote-unquote Incredible India upon the readers, as told to the researchers who were instructed to fashion these in an empathetical manner. Consequently, the section is sufficiently evocative and almost reminds one of biographies which describe lived experiences of a similar nature, for instance, Babytai Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke.
The aim of the author to present the situation of hunger in India is fulfilled sufficiently owing to the objective narration of stories selected from the lived experiences of the most food-deprived citizens, and their narrative has to be.
THE ROLE OF THE STATE TO CURB HUNGER
In the next section of Ash in the Belly, the author is rather critical of the government of the day across all periods of Indian post-independence history in their application of regressive Famine Codes and draconian laws of the colonial British regime to tackle the menace of widespread hunger in the country.
Mander argues that the State has not done enough in its efforts to curb the menace of hunger in the country by not formulating efficient laws, or adopting the recommendations of the reports of the National Advisory Council and incorrectly assuming the poverty line and hunger line to be synonymous. The most relevant evidence Mander provides to corroborate this argument is the revered report of the Arjun Sengupta Committee on Unorganised Workers, coupled with the research conducted for this book to show that 77 per cent Indians fail to secure a minimum of 20 rupees per month, which is the recognised international standard for poverty. Further, Mander also argues that the State denies this ground reality despite its mention in various sources such as the Sengupta Committee Report, the National Advisory Council study among others, and continues to assert and glorify the economic progress India has witnessed after independence. Mander explains that despite certain economic growth, the so-called socialist State has failed to redistribute these goods for the general benefit of the Indian society and produces statistics to draw the reader’s attention towards an alarmingly increasing trend of economic inequality in India since the 1990s. This, in turn, means that the top 20 percentile have had a vastly different imagery of the Indian State as compared to the lowest 20 percentile.
The already emotion-charged reader is in a position to appreciate the evidence adduced in this section and this is why the structure of the book plays an essential role at this juncture. He attempts to educate the reader, and successfully so, towards the ignorant State in addressing the right to food of all citizens in the country, which has led to the narratives expounded upon in detail in the first section, as enumerated above.
THE LEGAL RIGHT TO FOOD IN INDIA?
The third and last section is aptly positioned as the general readers are not only made aware of the failed governmental schemes, but also of the legal liability of the State for not ensuring the fundamental right to food. This section also serves as a call-to-action to the readers to ensure no human is denied the most basic of rights, in the right to food bearing in mind the lack of formulation of a universal food law for the Indian citizenry. Since Mander has impressed the abhorrent reality in the first and second sections already, readers should be in awe of the details captured and perfectly positioned to act upon such a call.
Even in the chapters constituting this section, Mander views the situation pertaining nationwide hunger through an anti-State lens and claims that the judgment of the apex court in PUCL v UoI and others (2001) has been branded as mere obiter dicta by incumbents. Therefore, while the judiciary emphasizes that the right to life u/Art. (under Article) 21 is inclusive of the right to food within the scheme of the Constitution of India, neither the legislature has been able to pass a bill to implement such a right, nor has the executive appreciated the judgment reducing it to creating only moral and not legal obligations on the State for not enforcing the right to food.
In light of a lack of any Right to Food legislation and an indifferent State, Mander looks upon the privileged with expectant eyes to ensure a minimum a standard of living for their compatriots. In hindsight, this seems to be the larger aim/objective of the title, i.e., to educate an economically self-sufficient urbanite of the ash in the belly the downtrodden sleep with, and the exciting narration, semi-academic nature of the work, easy manner of writing, reliability of sources and the author’s own position vastly contribute to accomplishing this objective.
Cover Image Credits: Nilay J.