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Church People Stress Campaign To Bring Food, Benefits To Hungry Millions


May 22 2007

People involved in Church social-action programs have urged promotion of an ongoing "right to food" campaign in India, where hundreds of millions go to sleep hungry every day.

The campaign addresses an urgent issue, says Jesuit Father James Mascarenhas, who works among socially disadvantaged and poor people in the western state of Maharashtra.

The priest was among 40 Church workers at a May 10-15 workshop on campaigning and lobbying held in Bangalore, the Karnataka state capital, 2,060 kilometers south of New Delhi. The Commission for Justice, Peace and Development of the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India organized the workshop.

Franciscan Father Nithiya Sagayam, commission secretary, told the gathering the Church must network with NGOs in the field and campaign among the grassroots to educate people about the right to food.

An informal network of organizations and individuals in India began the "right to food" campaign in 2001. It started after public-interest litigation in the Supreme Court focused on the right to food as part of the Indian Constitution´s fundamental "right to life."

The Supreme Court directed the government to "devise a scheme where no person goes hungry" when the granaries are full and much grain is being wasted because of non-availability of storage space in the distribution areas.

One-third of the estimated 840 million people in the world who do not get one full meal a day live in India. At the same time, some 65 million tons of food grains reportedly rot in India because of poor storage and delivery systems.

Campaign volunteers say that even six years after the court directive, millions remain hungry. Father Mascarenhas cited several parts of the country where he said more than 25 percent of people do not get even one meal a day.

The "right to food" campaign also is in line with a 2004 United Nations resolution that stressed national action to ensure food security. It noted that "every seven seconds a child under the age of 10 dies, directly or indirectly, of hunger somewhere in the world."

Calling the participants´ attention to the U.N. resolution, Sister Mariola D´Souza from Mangalore, also in Karnataka, suggested that slogans such as "food is our birthright" might draw the attention of poor people and government officials.

Father Sagayam said the government has "a number of welfare schemes" and Church workers should motivate people to avail of these benefits as one way to tackle hunger. He added that Church social activists must lobby the government to ensure benefits reach the poor.

Father Mascarenhas, a practicing lawyer, noted that the Supreme Court has identified nine schemes for getting food to vulnerable groups. These include midday meals in schools, a public distribution system and the Integrated Child Development Scheme.

The latter scheme addresses the health and nutrition needs of children under the age of 6 in poor families. Since such children´s needs cannot be addressed in isolation from their mothers´ needs, the program also addresses health issues that concern adolescent girls, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Father Mascarenhas said the court wants to ensure the schemes benefit the poorest people. The court has nominated the priest to monitor the schemes´ implementation in two Maharashtra districts.

The public distribution system supplies grain at subsidized prices to poor families. The government also has schemes for providing grain free to destitute people and maternity assistance to poor mothers.

Most poor people are unaware of such schemes and "we need to make" them aware, said Gnana Prakasam, a seminar participant. Father Valentine Rai from Darjeeling, in West Bengal state, wants diocesan authorities to collaborate with NGOs to promote the "right to food" campaign.

Chitra Armugam, head of Karnataka state´s commission for socially disadvantaged groups and tribal people, told the Church gathering that government officials want "to work with you, as you are genuine."

Clergy and Religious heading various social-service organizations in India have good rapport with people at the grassroots, commented the official. He has worked 10 years as a district magistrate in the eastern state of Orissa.