Famine looms in drought-hit Orissa

BHUBANESHWAR, India, Reuters

The spectre of starvation looms across the poverty-plagued eastern Indian state of Orissa, triggered by drought and heavy crop losses.

Opposition politicians say several people have already died of hunger, and according to media reports, some villagers have resorted to eating poisonous roots to fill their empty bellies.

The local government denies there is a starvation threat.

“The situation is bad, but there is no famine,” Revenue Minister Biswabhushan Harichandan told Reuters on Thursday. “Nobody is dying of hunger.”

However, officials say the water shortage caused by disappointing monsoon rains could soon cripple the coastal state.

Groundwater levels in some areas have plummeted, village tube-wells and ponds have almost dried up and once-gushing rivers have been reduced to trickling drains.

Rain-fed rivers like the Mahanadi, Tel and Jong have little water, and a former federal minister predicted there was “every chance they could dry up totally in the next few weeks”.

“If hunger does not kill the people here, thirst certainly will,” said Balgopal Mishra, a ruling party lawmaker from the state’s impoverished and drought-savaged district of Bolangir.

The death of a 35-year-old mother of three in a Bolangir village on Dec. 1, sparked charges that the government was indifferent to the people’s plight and demands for the government to quit.

Since then there have been reports and allegations of at least four more hunger deaths from other parts of the state.

“This government is useless. There is no food and people are dying of hunger,” said Janaki Ballav Patnaik, former state chief minister and now chief of the state’s main opposition party.

Thousands have left Bolangir, some travelling as far as the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, in search of work. Those left behind have found themselves stranded, and forced to trek long distances in search of drinking water.

Although India recorded its 12th consecutive “normal” monsoon this year, rain was scant in some areas and excessive in others. Orissa received 30 percent less rainfall than normal, and some districts of the state fared much worse than that.

The government estimates that the dry spell could bring a crop loss of around 1.45 million tonnes. Against a target of 3.9 million hectares (9.8 million acres), paddy — the state’s main crop — had been sown on only 2.6 million hectares.

The Indian Express said on Friday that some villagers in the western district of Bargarh had started eating poisonous “Kulihakanda” root because their rice paddy stocks had run out.

Even after boiling, immersion in cold water for hours, drying and then frying, the root’s poison, though diluted, is still potent, causing intestinal ailments that finally lead to death, Dr. Birendra Kumar Hota told the newspaper.

There were no reports of death through poisoning so far.