Mahbunagar & Anantapur (AP): By the time this report appears in print, gruel centres would have served out nearly five million portions of ‘ganji’ to hungry people in Andhra Pradesh. Four million of them in just two districts: Mahbubnagar and Anantapur. The over 200 gruel centres there have been catering to maybe 300 people a day. A process that began in early March. The numbers of both, the centres and those visiting them is only growing. There are now 100 more in other districts of the state. The high levels of rural distress are plain to see. Not even one of these centres, though, was set up or is being run by the state government.

Tamper with the recipe and you change the product.

Recipe 1: Take ten kilograms of ragi. Mix with 40 litres of water. A tad of salt helps. If you’re doing this in Mahbubnagar, add two or three kg of nokalu (broken rice). If you’re in Anantapur, hold the rice. Shove in six kg of bellam (jaggery) instead. It suits the local palate better. Stir firmly. Bring the whole thing to a boil.

What you’ve got now is ‘ganji’ or gruel. It won’t win you too many cookery contests, but it’s nutritious. Lots of poor people survive on it during the lean days.

Recipe 2: Set up a centre in a public place where the poor in a village can access the gruel. What you’ve got now is lots of hungry people turning up to eat it.

Recipe 3: Toss in political movements. Garnish with the organising skills of the left parties. Gruel centres now spring up all across the two hungriest of Andhra’s rural districts. Drawing thousands of people each day.

You don’t have to stir it any more. Things will come to a boil, anyway.

What you’ve got now is one very angry government of Andhra Pradesh. One claiming all along that its food for work programme was doing just fine. One that has refused to open a single such centre of its own. Led by a chief minister held up by the New York Times and The Financial Times as the ideal Third World leader. But seen somewhat differently by a lot of rural poor who do not read those papers and therefore don’t know any better.

What began humbly with a single gruel centre in Gundalapalli on March 6, mushroomed swiftly. The speed at which new centres are coming up is an embarrassment to the government. There are now over 200 in the two districts. And 100 in others. Not even one of them is run by the administration. All are based on donations from the public.
When the first gruel centre came up in March, the government dismissed it as a ‘political gimmick.’ This, after all, is the best-run state. Ask the Financial Times, London, which says (May 2) that Andhra is on the verge of a ‘social revolution.’ One ‘sponsored’ by the government, no less.

Ask AP Information Minister Somireddy Chandra Mohan Reddy. “Who in Andhra Pradesh drinks ganji?” he mocked. Tens of thousands of people now daily provide him the answer. They do. Every day, 200-300 -- sometimes more -- visit such centres in the villages where they exist. In some that I went to, the sarpanch was amongst those lining up for gruel.

Migrations have risen steeply in Mahbubnagar. Lakhs have left the district in search of work. That’s left large numbers of old people at home, badly undernourished. They and some children are the main visitors at the gruel centres. With the collapse of agriculture, with no work, declining purchasing power, falling food intake, rising debt and growing health problems, distress levels are very high. “People are so insecure,” says Saianna in Kondapur, “they keep some for the night as well. That’s how much they need it.” He’s right. Passable at best while hot, the gruel tastes awful when cold and dry at night. “Like rubber,” as he puts it.

The CPI (M) sparked it off in March, launching the first centre in Mahbubnagar. The aim seems to have been to deal at some level with acute hunger in the villages. To force the government to do the same. And to put pressure on chief minister Naidu to take up food for work programmes seriously. Even TDP officials squirm in defending the government’s food programme, flawed in policy and riddled with corruption at it is.

Congress leader Y. S. Rajashekar Reddy has zeroed in on the failure of the food for work agenda. In his padayatra in two regions of the state, Reddy made it a centre piece of his anti-TDP campaign. Yet, the Congress has been cautious in opening gruel centres itself. It seems worried about the future implications of such moves. It had opened six in Mahbubnagar by end-April, while promising 50. By that time, the Left parties, independent groups and religious trusts had set up 70. Now that number has grown. The CPI-M and allied groups are running 174 centres in both districts

Local leaders of the ruling Telugu Desam Party clearly feel the heat. The public approves of the centres. On the other hand, annoying Naidu is a short cut to oblivion in the TDP. Meanwhile, the food for work programme remains a mess. “The cost of rice for below poverty line families on the PDS is Rs. 5.25,” points out Saianna. “But on the food for work scheme, they change that. They treat the cost of each kg as Rs. 8. For exactly the same rice! That way they pay us a lot less.” In some places this has sparked off agitations demanding cash for work, not food.

What began humbly with a single gruel centre in Gundalapalli on March 6, mushroomed swiftly. The speed at which new centres are coming up is an embarrassment to the government. There are now over 200 in the two districts. And 100 in others. Not even one of them is run by the administration. All are based on donations from the public. “Maybe 65 per cent of this village has turned migrant,” Chennaiah, tells us in Kanimetta village of the Kothakota mandal. “Our people have gone to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa, Delhi, Karnataka and Tamilnadu looking for work.”

But the many old people left behind face hunger. And the gruel centre is their gathering point. The Kanimetta centre is one of two run by the Telugu daily, Prajashakti. Close to 20 are run by the Jan Vigyan Vedika (Peoples Education Forum) or JVV. The casual efficiency of these centres contrasts starkly with official apathy.

The organisers keep them open for up to three hours until the huge vessels are empty. A shorter duration would mean longer queues. This way, it allows people to drift in at a more measured pace. Sometimes, however, the pressure still mounts. “In one Anantapur village, people asked for the centre to open at 2 pm,” says Dr. Gehanand, a popular medical practitioner. He is associated with the JVV. “After some days, they told us to shift the timing to 11 am. The reason? People who had gone for whatever little work they could get, were coming back by 2 pm and competing with the rest for the gruel. That’s how hungry people are. And there are so many.” “The health of people in the villages is worsening,” says Dr. Gehanand. “They are eating less. Their resistance to disease is less. At least one person in every village household has been visited by malaria. At least once in the last two years. And that’s a conservative estimate. It shows in other ways, too. The general immunity of the population seems to have gone down.”

The pressure the centres exert has been both moral and political. As word of the hunger in the countryside gets around, people are giving generously. The last thing the CPI-M expected, for instance, was a phone call from the VHP State President G. Pulla Reddy. But it happened. Reddy contributed Rs. 50,116 to be used for the gruel centres run by the leftists.

The pressure on TDP functionaries has been enormous. Some have broken ranks and gone one up. In Anantapur, TDP zilla parishad chief Jorna Suryanarayana is running a ‘lunch centre.’ And he has been most generous. A full meal is served to around 2500 people each day. And he intends to keep this going for 100 days. It might not please Chandrababu Naidu. But it does the ZP chief no harm locally.

Besides, he’s been smart about it. Since it’s based in a big temple at Kadiri, it seems less an act of politics than one of devotion. Held elsewhere, it might be seen as competing with the gruel centres. Further, doing it here gives him free or cheap access to water and the temple’s space. Hosting 2500 people anywhere else would be mighty difficult.

Quite a few TDP and Congress leaders have been donating quietly to Left-run gruel centres. “It’s unique,” says a local journalist. “At least this crisis has brought some people from these warring forces together. Maybe silently and on the sly, but it’s happening. After all, anyone who has eyes can see the hunger.”

Anyone, that is, except the government.

Meanwhile, some of the privately run ‘lunch centres’ -- and there are now a few -- show signs of their contractor links. At one, we saw rice that had clearly come from the food for work programme. Rice that should have gone directly to the poor. The organiser, a local big wig, had also bought hundreds of shiny new stainless steel plates to serve that rice. “He figured out it would cost more to rent them than to just buy and resell them after a few days,” laughs a local journalist.

But the biggest bash came from Naidu himself. For three days in May, he banished hunger in Tirupati. The TDP’s ‘Mahandu’ conference in that town drew over six thousand delegates and a few thousand others. “The food alone cost over Rs. 30 lakhs,” says a journalist returning from there. “The buttermilk packets handed out to all came from Heritage Foods, a company run by the CM’s wife. That’s apart from the rest of the food. Naidu also announced a huge package of measures aimed at farmers. Yet, he had all along denied hunger and starvation. And frowned on gruel centres.”

With Rs. 30 lakhs, you can run 300 gruel centres for a month. Together serving 2.7 million portions of gruel in that time.

Some TDP activists unable to defy their leader and start centres have tried a new tack. They tell people that you’re getting this gruel because of chief minister Naidu. That he personally ordered his government to set up the centres. Since the real organisers of the centres have done very little self-publicity, this is a smart idea. You might even get away with it. We did find some in the villages who believed it.

Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

Part II : Hi-tech, low nutrition