Despite Numerous Reports, Centre Says No Starvation Deaths Brought to Its Notice

Activists have been highlighting issues related to the public distribution system for some time now, particularly after it was linked to Aadhaar.

New Delhi: The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution has said that the Central government does not know about any starvation deaths taking place in the country. This statement was made in a reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday.

“No State Government/Union Territory Administration has reported any incident of death due to starvation in the country. There have been media reports of starvation deaths in some States/UTs. However, on enquiry, the deaths due to starvation have not been substantiated including in Jharkhand,” minister of state for consumer affairs, food and public distribution C.R. Chaudhary said.

The special mention to Jharkhand is because over the last two years, particularly since Aadhaar was linked to welfare schemes, the state’s public distribution has come under scrutiny on multiple occasions. The first starvation death to be widely reported from the state was in September 2017. Eleven-year-old Santoshi Kumar reportedly died asking for food; her family’s ration card had been cancelled because it wasn’t linked to Aadhaar. The BJP government in the state immediately decided that Kumari had died of malaria, though it admitted that the ration card had been cancelled.

Also read: Testimonies Reveal How Aadhaar Has Brought Pain, Exclusion to Poor

Kumari’s case was not a one-off. Activists and journalists from Jharkhand and other states have reported multiple cases of starvation-related deaths. The Right to Food Campaign maintains a list of deaths linked to starvation that have been verified by independent fact-finding teams and media reports. Just since 2017, 42 hunger-related deaths have been documented. (You can find the complete list, along with sources of the information, here.)

“Further, Government of India has issued advisories to all States/UTs that no beneficiary/household shall be deleted from the list of eligible beneficiaries/households only on the grounds of not possessing Aadhaar and shall also not be denied subsidized foodgrains or cash transfer of food subsidy under NFSA due to non-availability of Aadhaar or failure of biometric authentication,” the minister said in parliament.

While this is true, reports from various parts of the country have documented how the policy has not made its way to the ground. A recent survey of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal groups in Jharkhand, for instance, found that ever since Aadhaar was linked to welfare schemes, families have been having a hard time accessing PDS benefits.

The government was also asked about India’s position on the Global Hunger Index, and why it ranks low. Chaudhary’s response was that India’s rank is 103 of 119 (and not 115 as the question says), and that “the composite GHI scores of India have improved from 38.8 in 2000 to 31.1 in 2018”.

The Centre denying responsibility for PDS implementation now is just like the Jharkhand government’s denial in the past. In response to a question on the steps taken, the minister detailed the conditions of the National Food Security Act, but did not address concerns around implementation and access for marginalised communities.

Activists have been raising these concerns for months now, and even put across recommendations that could ensure that people most in need do not have to forgo welfare benefits due to access-related issues. However, the Centre’s response in parliament suggests that the Modi government does think there is a problem that needs to be addressed.