While the state government has blamed her death on illness, the family claims the 30-year-old was not suffering from any major ailment.
New Delhi: A 30-year-old woman died in Pakur district in Jharkhand on January 23, after being denied ration for four months under the public distribution system (PDS) due to the failure of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication, according to the Right to Food Campaign, Jharkhand.
The death of Lukhi Murmu, a resident of Dhawadangal village of Hiranpur block in Pakur, is the third such incident in the past two months. Earlier in January, The Wire had reported how two similar deaths had taken place in the state since early December 2017.
On December 25, Etwariya Devi, a 67-year-old widow, reportedly died due to starvation in Sonpurwa village of Garhwa district’s Majhiaon block. Prior to that on December 1, Premani Kunwar, a 64-year-old widow, had died due to hunger and exhaustion in Danda block of Garhwa district due to glitches in the alleged Aadhaar-bank integration system.
Family went without ration since October 2017
In the latest case, Murmu died due to prolonged under nutrition and exhaustion, the Campaign said. It noted that she was living with her 14-year old sister, Phulin, in abject poverty. The siblings survived on just rice and sometimes even went to sleep hungry.
Four months ago, their troubles compounded when they were denied access to ration through the PDS due to failure of the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. Murmu’s family, comprising Murmu, Phulin and two more sisters, had an Antyodaya ration card which was issued under the National Food Security Act.
When “priority” became a disadvantage
Around June 2017, the Campaign said, this ration card was converted to the ‘Priority’ category without the family’s knowledge. Though the term would suggest that it would have entitled the family to rations on a priority basis, that was not the case. The conversion, in fact, led to reduction in the household’s monthly grain entitlement by 15 kg.
Since Murmu was too weak to go to the ration shop – which was about a kilometer from her residence – she sent Phulin there several times. However, the young girl returned home empty handed each time since she was unable to authenticate her identity through the point of sale (PoS) machine.
During this period, Murmu’s another sister went to the PDS shop. The dealer, however, refused to give her any rice as only Murmu and Phulin’s Aadhaar numbers were seeded with their ration card and not of the other two sisters.
As a consequence, since October, the family did not have any PDS food grains.
Even on the day Murmu died, Phulin had gone to the ration shop in the hope that she would be able to get some grains. But it was not to be.
Government claims woman died of illness
The state government has, however, not acknowledged the death as one caused by starvation. In the official report to the state food secretary, Pakur’s deputy commissioner has ascribed illness as the cause of Murmu’s death. The report is understandably silent on the nature of illness. Also, as no post mortem was conducted after the woman’s death, the family would now find it difficult to establish the real cause.
It is pertinent to note that Murmu’s family has categorically stated that she was not suffering from any major illness. In fact, they pointed out that in the weeks preceding her death, she was tested for tuberculosis and kala-azar and results were negative for both.
The deputy commissioner’s report argued that Murmu could not have died of hunger as she possessed some land, and had two cows and paddy in her house at the time of her death. But the right to food activists claim that while Murmu did possess these assets, it does not change the fact that she died due to starvation. “Government officials argue that the family could have sold its land, cattle or paddy for food. However, the deterioration in Lukhi Murmu’s condition was gradual and there was no way for her family to predict her death,” the Campaign said.
What the ration dealer had to say
In the wake of the divergent claims of the family and the state administration, it becomes necessary to note how the ration dealer made contradictory statements to the local administration and the Campaign.
“As per the ration dealer’s testimony to the local administration, no one from Lukhi Murmu’s household came to the PDS shop in the last four months. However, to the Right to Food Campaign fact-finding team, the dealer admitted that Phulin came to collect her household’s rations but was turned away due to biometric authentication failure,” the Campaign noted.
It further said that while local officials claim to have given instructions to all the dealers in Pakur to also give PDS rations to those households that are unable to authenticate themselves through Aadhaar, the dealer claimed ignorance about any such instruction.
Food ministry instructions were blatantly violated by dealer
The Campaign has recalled how following the death of Santosh Kumari at Simdega in September 2017, the food ministry had issued a notification which stated that even in case of failure of biometric authentication or lack of Aadhaar, ration dealers should give PDS rations to eligible households.
The food ministry and the Unique Identification Authority of India, the Campaign said, had repeatedly referred to this notification to claim that no one now would be denied their entitlement due to Aadhaar. “However, on the ground, large-scale exclusion from public services continues due to Aadhaar …. The repeated denial of food entitlements in Jharkhand’s PDS also exposes the lack of seriousness in the state government towards addressing the issues in delivery of ration,” the Campaign charged.