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Spectre of hunger looms over flood-hit India

by Staff Writers
Madhubani, India, Aug 11, 2007
Senior bureaucrat Nibha Thakur ran short of cash as she shopped for vegetables in India's eastern Bihar state, where severe floods have pushed basic food prices beyond the reach of millions.

"Survival is now a major issue," said Thakur, lugging a bagful of potatoes she had just purchased at four times their cost last month.

"We may just have to do with boiled rice in the coming days as everything else is getting out of the reach of even the middle class," said the civil servant in hard-hit Madhubani district.

Here, 1.6 million flood victims are surviving on state food handouts, but many complain they are far from enough.

Nearly 14 million people have been affected by the worst floods in 30 years in Bihar -- and at a time when crops were ripening in the fields.

Prices of various food items in Bihar, already one of India's poorest regions, have on average shot up around threefold as the shortages worsen.

Residents of Madhubani district are suffering more than many others because unlike the rest of Bihar, food crops are not grown in this area.

The monsoon has left 2.2 million people homeless in Madhubani. Most are now squatting in roadside shelters.

"We don't grow anything here," district administrator Rahul Singh told AFP as hundreds of flood survivors picketed his fortified bungalow, begging for food.

"Prices of vegetables are spiralling in Madhubani but we can't do much as the floods have breached highways," he said. "The shortages are beginning to tell."

He said he had overseen the establishment of state-run food shops to counter profiteers.

According to the Indian government, at least 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of farmland and 6,500 villages were submerged in Bihar.

The state normally produces 7.7 million tonnes of vegetables a year on 4.98 million hectares of land.

State agriculture experts are still working to tally the losses in 18 of the 19 districts where food crops are grown.

"We foresee a 90 percent loss in vegetable growth which will have a grim impact on per capita nutritional intake," warned B.C. Chowdhury, chief researcher in Bihar's Agriculture University in Samastipur district.

"In very simple words, millions will go hungry if this crisis is not averted very, very quickly," warned prominent doctor A.K. Jha in the state capital Patna.

Bihar was ranked India's number one producer of okra, or lady's finger, which now costs three times the six rupees (14 cents) a kilo (2.2 pounds) it fetched before the floods began in late July.

The state was also one of India's leading producers of cauliflower, potatoes and tomatoes but now the prices of those vegetables have also tripled, according to traders' associations.

"Prices of rice, wheat, pulses and oils too have gone up but not as much as the vegetables, mutton and poultry products," said Rajiv Pandey, a wholesaler in the state's worst-hit district of Darbhanga.

Chowdhury warned the worst was yet to come in this state of 120 million people.

"Maize is the most critical item in Bihar which is sown around October and this winter crop could fail if flood waters do not drain out in time," the scientist warned.

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Medics fight disease after SAsia floods
Dhaka, Aug 10, 2007
Medics in Bangladesh battled outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera Friday as international aid began to flow in South Asia to help millions lacking water and food after the worst floods in decades.

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