New Delhi: From Vishwanath of Jharkhand recalling the circumstances leading to the death due to hunger of a poor tribal woman, Budhi Soren in Giridih in January this year, to Debashish, a village headmen from Koraput in Odisha, speaking about how 175 households in his village do not have a ration card despite applying for it over a year ago; and activists pointing out how poor households were excluded from the purview of the National Food Security Act, 2013, a public hearing organised by the Right to Food Campaign at the Gandhi Peace Foundation today highlighted the many shortcomings in the implementation of the Act four years after its enactment.
The hearing witnessed the participation of people from 14 states as well as a number of civil rights activists and some politicians. It noted that the while the implementation of the Act was crucial in reducing India’s high levels of hunger and undernutrition, it has not been implemented in totality.
Mandatory integration of social programmes with Aadhaar
Moreover, the meet also highlighted how “the mandatory integration of social programmes with Aadhaar has excluded many people from their legal entitlements’’ including the right to food. The organisers said the country’s agrarian crisis and situation of critical under-employment have only exacerbated the situation of hunger and the Union Budget 2018-19 has betrayed the Narendra Modi government’s lack of commitment to address the structural causes of hunger or ensure adequate coverage of social programmes.
At the very outset, people who had been denied a ration card spoke about their efforts and sufferings. Many of them like Balakram, an Adivasi from Chhattisgarh; Sharda Ben, a Dalit from Gujarat; and Pratap Singh from Madhya Pradesh spoke about how they could not procure a ration card despite fulfilling their state’s criteria for inclusion in the public distribution system under the National Food Security Act.
Number of starvation deaths across India
The public hearing also saw activists speak about how exclusion from the public distribution system (PDS) had driven many to starvation and death. While Vishwanath spoke about the circumstances leading to the death of Budhi Soren in Giridih in January, other activists spoke about similar deaths reported from other parts of the state. Taramani Sahu from Simdega talked about Santoshi’s hunger death due to the cancellation of her family’s ration card in the absence of Aadhaar seeding. Another activist, Narsimha, spoke about how three brothers Gokarna in Karnataka died following discontinuation of their ration as they did not possess Aadhaar.
The problem, the activists said, was not confined to rural areas alone but even the national capital of Delhi. In the capital city, they said while there are 19.5 lakh ration cards, almost a quarter of all the households were unable to access rations in January this year due to Aadhaar-based biometric authentication failure.
Some homeless persons from Delhi also testified how they were unable to get an Aadhaar card. Others spoke about denial of several entitlements in the absence of identification documents.
Denial of social security pension
Several people at the hearing also testified about how they had been denied social security pension despite suffering from disability. Gulshan Khatoun of Noida said she had three sons with disability but none off them was getting any pension. Ranjeet Kaur from Amritsar, who also has a disability in her leg, spoke about how despite several visits to the office of the District Collector she had only been dished out hollow promises but no pension. Some widows also spoke about not being given pension by their governments. Maida Khatoon from Noida in Uttar Pradesh complained that she was a widow but was not getting any pension to support herself.
Rights activist Dipa Sinha, who had visited Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, as part of a fact finding team to enquire into the starvation death of Amir Jahan, said the woman died in the absence of access to food as her family did not even know how to apply for a ration card. “Her husband had to leave the work of rickshaw pulling due to tuberculosis and migrate to Pune in search of work,” she added.
Economist and social scientist Reetika Khera was of the view that while many poor households are excluded from the ambit of food security, the Right to Food Campaign should draw strengths from its victories. She said despite its limited reach the National Food Security Act has been one such success since it significantly expanded the coverage of the PDS.
Politicians lament absence of discussion on right to food in Parliament
The meet also witnessed the participation of people from the political field. Senior Communist Party of India leader and member of Rajya Sabha D. Raja spoke about the need for Parliament to discuss the all important issue of food security and right to food but lamented that its priorities lay elsewhere. important issues, but the legislative body does not function the way it should. Shelha Rashid said that government is squeezing funding on public services but is also not providing details of its expenditure on areas such as defence deals.
Spokesperson of the Congress and member of Rajya Sabha from Karnataka, Rajeev Gowda, said through his party had brought Aadhaar it was not its intention to use the Unique Identification system as a tool for exclusion.
The gathering was also informed that the Right to Food Campaign was “deeply disappointed” by the Supreme Court order of March 13 which had extended the deadline for Aadhaar linking of facilities such as bank accounts and SIM cards, but had permitted the continued imposition of Aadhaar on social services and entitlements such as the PDS, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and social security pensions.
The Campaign said this order “perpetuates a long-standing double standard, whereby the hardships experienced by privileged classes due to Aadhaar being made mandatory are being addressed while much greater hardships endured by poor people are ignored.”
The damage caused by Aadhaar, it said, was not limited to the PDS as recipients of social security payments, such as NREGA workers, social security pensioners and scholarship holders, were also suffering due to this application.
The Campaign would now be approaching Members of Parliament to seek legislative action on India’s alarming levels of hunger and undernutrition by requesting discussion and action on these issues.
It noted that among the 119 countries included in the 2017 Global Hunger Index, India stood at number 100 and that the country’s nutrition indicators were no better with 41 infants below the age of one dying every year out of every 1,000 live births in 2015-16. It said malnutrition was also a major cause of stunted growth as in 2015-16 as many as 38.4% of the children below five years were stunted and this was even worse than the 34% recorded in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Campaign would also be suggesting strict implementation of the National Food Security Act to the lawmakers as also expansion of the entitlements under it.