In Jharkhand, Suspected Starvation Deaths Indicate Failure of Governance: Right to Food Campaign

While the Campaign has released details of 12 starvation-related deaths in the last ten months, the state government has denied hunger as a cause, absolving itself of any blame.

New Delhi: Revealing details of at least 12 starvation-related deaths over the past ten months, the Right to Food Campaign (Jharkhand) has pulled up the Raghubar Das government for its “lack of seriousness to address the issue of starvation in the state”.

The Campaign has charged that “instead of taking action against functionaries whose lapses have led to these deaths and measures to improve the situation of food security in the state, the BJP government in Jharkhand has denied hunger as the cause of any of these deaths and absolved itself of any blame.”

It added that instead of taking corrective action, state food minister Saryu Roy – who had admitted to government’s mistake in the death of Santosh Kumari last year – has levelled fallacious charges against activists who are highlighting the gross violations of the right to food in Jharkhand.

With three more starvation-related deaths being reported in the current month, (Savitri Devi in Giridh, Meena Musahar in Chatra and Chintaman Malhar in Ramgarh), the Campaign said the government’s lack of seriousness to address the issue of starvation in the state has been exposed. “Even after a spate of deaths before these three victims,” it said, “the government took negligible cognizance of the alarming situation.”

Aadhaar linkage among reasons for denial of ration

Among the causes for the 12 recent starvation deaths, the Campaign said was the denial of subsidised rice due to the absence of a ration card, cancellation of ration card due to the absence of Aadhaar linkage or failure of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. “It is true that many of the starvation victims were also ill, but they would probably not have succumbed to hunger if they received adequate nutrition and medical care,” it said.

The starvation deaths, the Campaign said, have exposed the exclusion of poor households from the public distribution system (PDS) and the alarming levels of food insecurity in the state. “A highly effective measure of addressing these problems is the universalisation of the PDS in rural areas and inclusion of nutritious items in the PDS. The deaths have also raised questions on the coverage of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) as most of these families, despite living a life of acute poverty, did not have AAY ration cards.”

Lamenting that instead of discussing these moves, the food minister has proposed setting up grain banks. “Even if such banks are established, they will fail to ensure universal access to food security as a matter of right.”

Denial of pension, work under NREGA contributed to starvation

Through its investigation into the death of the 12 citizens, the Campaign also learnt that denial of social security pensions and an absence of work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) further contributed to the destitution of the starvation victims and their families. “At least four victims were eligible for social security pension, but were either not issued a pension or did not receive their pension due to administrative lapses or Aadhaar-related issues.”

State government’s indifference towards food insecurity is also evident in the manner in which it has been dragging its feet on the withdrawal of the direct benefit transfer pilot experiment in Nagri block of Ranchi. According to the Campaign, the results of the pilot have been “disastrous”. “However, the food department is yet to roll back this pilot or compensate ration cardholders who are denied their legal entitlement to subsidised foodgrain in this ill-conceived initiative. In fact, it has even failed to make public the findings of the government’s own social audit of this pilot”.

In light of all the anomalies that have crept into the food distribution system in the state, the Campaign has called for an immediate withdrawal of the direct benefit transfer for food security pilot. It has also demanded the universalisation of the PDS in rural areas and inclusion of pulses and edible oil in the PDS, saying this was a promise made by the food minister himself. “The government should also immediately remove the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar from PDS – and all other public services – and strengthen the grievance redress system to be established under the National Food Security Act,” it said.

The Right to Food Campaign also released the details of the three recent deaths in the state.

Savitri Devi died of hunger, did not know pension was credited to her account

According to the Campaign, Savitri Devi, a 60-year-old widow, died on June 2 after prolonged hunger and inadequate nutrition. “Her family members do not remember the last time they cooked dal. The household did not have a ration card, despite applying for one at the gram panchayat a few months ago,” the Campaign said, adding that this had contradicted the government’s claim that Savitri Devi’s family did not apply for a ration card.

Also, contrary to the claims made by the government, Savitri Devi was never admitted in RIMS Ranchi for treatment. Even though her widow pension was sanctioned in 2014, the first pension instalment was credited only in April 2018 after her Aadhaar was linked with the scheme. Ironically,  Savitri Devi was not informed that her pension was credited.

Chitaman died of hunger, son tricked into signing statements telling different story

The Campaign said 50-year-old Chitaman of Mandu, Ramgarh lived a life of extreme deprivation and died a hungry man. “He too did not have a ration card. Rather than admitting the alarming situation of the family and its neighbours, government officials tricked Chintaman’s son into signing a statement that told a different tale. Not surprisingly, the food minister later claimed that the son himself admitted that his father died a natural death. His insensitivity towards the issue was also reflected when he suggested that the victim’s body be exhumed for post-mortem. He interpreted the son’s refusal for this as a proof that the victim did not die of starvation,” the Campaign said, pointing to the insensitive approach taken by the government in the case.

Ragpicker died of hunger a week after her infant

The third case was that of Meena Musahar, a ragpicker, who also died due to similar conditions. “According to her neighbours, she was so malnourished that she could not feed her infant, who died a week before her. She did not have a ration card. Jharkhand government has conveniently absolved itself of any responsibility as she may have come from Gaya, Bihar in search of a livelihood. The food minister even said that his department was not responsible for the starvation death of persons who did not have ration cards,” the Campaign said.