At Video Volunteers, we spend nearly all our time reporting on stories that don’t make headlines; stories of broken systems and petty corruption occurring amongst the relatively ignored populations of this country. On the rare occasion when ‘hard’ news breaks in one of 200+ districts we report from, we don’t rush to cover it. If a story from a district where we work makes headlines on its own, it means the news ecosystem is functioning as it should. But a few weeks ago, we found ourselves in the middle of the biggest news story of the week.
“You’ve heard about the starvation death, haven’t you?” our correspondent Warles Surin asked me and my Video Volunteers co-director Stalin K. as we sat in Warles’s family’s village in Simdega district, Jharkhand. Stalin and I were visiting Warles on what was ostensibly a family vacation, with our two kids in tow.
Yes, we said, we had heard the story: Santoshi Kumari, an 11-year-old girl from a Dalit family in the village of Karimati Basti, died on September 27, 2017. Activists had reported it to the news media as a starvation death and the story was now making headlines across the country.
“The fact-finding team wanted VV to join their research trip last week, but I couldn’t come. The village is only five km from my house. My contacts there want us to meet. I think we should go there tomorrow. What do you think?” Not just Warles, but our communications coordinator too wanted us to pay a visit – she had been frantically sending us links to the articles in Scroll and other publications, telling us how close by we were. But we were noncommittal: since the media was already on the story, what need was there for Video Volunteers?
“I’ve been covering this village for four years,” Warles said. “I’ve made four videos there and three have gotten ‘impact’ (meaning, in the Video Volunteers parlance, that his subsequent advocacy work had also managed to solve the problem). The only one that hasn’t gotten an ‘impact’ is on this very issue. It’s about how many people don’t have ration cards in this village. I screened it for the BDO last month in a public event and he promised to take action ‘within a month’. If he had, perhaps this girl would not have died. I need to work more on this story.”
So off we went the next morning, October 16, to Karimati village in the Jaldega block of Simdega district.
During our four-hour visit to the village, we heard three alternative narratives, each told by a separate faction. Each faction had something significant to gain or lose in how the story would be reported and remembered. One wanted the death to be called a case of starvation, another wanted to blame parental neglect and a third wanted it labelled an illness.
We saw how different factions jostle and manoeuvre with each other when the media comes to town and they find themselves in the limelight. And these were not just opposing factions, but warring factions: within minutes of arriving in the village, one person had shouted ‘drunkard’ at the girl’s mother. “Liar,” I heard someone shout; “No, you’re the liar,” screamed someone else.
Starvation. Neglect. Illness. Three very different words, each with different consequences.
In a part of India where it usually seems as if the worst injustice remains invisible and it can take months to get even a meagre official response, the outside world came crashing in. It was a political mela of the first degree. The media, the medical community, the activists, the state-level politicians and the village-level authorities were all there on the day of our visit – even 15 army men preparing the way for a visit from a former chief minister.
This swift response and the accelerated pace at which everything was unfolding was also highly unusual. Civil society actors have been working to achieve a more accountable and transparent government for years. And we saw in Karimati village the positive effects of years of such work: though one might criticise the actual response, the government clearly knew it was accountable and that it was being watched. Today’s buzzword is transparency, and the media is in the hands of the people; it was a sight to see, watching the government mobilise in this new reality. Everyone was falling over each other to prove how perfect their response was.
Heading straight upon our arrival to the home of Koyli Devi, Santoshi’s mother, we first heard from Faction One.
Koyli told us that the whole family had not eaten for eight days prior to her daughter’s death. Santoshi died, she said, asking for rice. She had not been sick with any illness, she insisted; she had not seen a doctor.
Also read: In Rural Jharkhand, Aadhaar Link to Welfare Schemes is Excluding the Most Needy
The problem, she explained, was that the family’s ration card was cancelled. According to Saryu Rai, Jharkhand’s food minister, it was cancelled on July 22, 2017. But the ration shop had stopped providing them subsidised food months before. So instead of spending only around Rs 24-48 per month on rice to feed a family of four, their bill would have shot up to around Rs 720-1,400, an enormous financial burden.
The reason their rations had stopped was because their ration card had not been “seeded”, or electronically linked with any Aadhaar number. Activists, like those from the Jharkhand Right to Food Campaign who broke this story, had been telling the government for months that irregularities in the Aadhaar system were causing people to go hungry. Both the government and the media were barely listening.
But a starvation death – that, people would listen to.
Amartya Sen has famously argued that “there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy”. Citizens in a competitive electoral environment, the theory goes, will discipline politicians who fail to prevent high levels of hunger. The world’s largest democracy is thus famine free and proud of it.
But the discovery of a ‘starvation death’ would shame the government into action, and would be unique enough to qualify for media coverage – in a way that malnourishment, the real hidden killer, is not. When so many people die, it’s not a story. But when one person dies in an unusual way, that’s a story, and the events in Karimati village proved that. Sadly, the “s-word” – which is really a distraction from the bigger issue of malnourishment – has to be put to use. This is the perverse politics of hunger in India, where only sensational reports of starvation capture public attention.
India is home to distressing levels of hunger-related deprivation. The country performs worst when it comes to its children, with some of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world (reaching almost 50%). There are more malnourished children in India than in all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. Fifty-seven percent of children under five in Jharkhand are underweight, according to the Institute for Food Policy Research. In an index measuring the prevalence of caloric under-nourishment, childhood stunting and under-five mortality rates, the state of Jharkhand ranks lower than countries such as Zimbabwe and Haiti.
Koyli and her family were clearly not eating well. The entire family was stick thin; Koyli herself, though she was breastfeeding, could barely stand. Throughout our visit, a child of around two years sat outside slowly eating a bowl of watery rice, perilously close to two massive holes that were full of garbage. (Apparently, they were holes built as septic pits under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan a couple of years back; the toilets themselves had never materialised.)
But the mundane politics of neglect remained largely invisible, even to residents of Karimati Basti. Before leaving, we met the mukhiya (president of the gram panchayat) who was recording the action on her smartphone. We asked her what the village’s biggest problems are. She paused, struggling. “Roads,” she finally said. We asked her – and she knew nothing – about India’s malnourishment rates or about the state of malnutrition in her own panchayat. Even with Santoshi’s death and with the ensuing national attention, the mukhiya did not see the structural issues at play.
No one was going to do much for the skinny hungry child outside Koyli’s house – or the one suckling at her breast.
Leaving Koyli’s house, where she was now speaking with a recently arrived Indian Express journalist, we were immediately accosted by Faction Number 2. Let’s call them “Team Neglect”. These were the neighbours who were afraid of being judged callous and unneighbourly, of being accused of turning a blind eye as a child died in plain sight. They placed the blame on the family’s deficient character. “Yes,” said the neighbour living directly across the lane. “I did hear the girl crying in the last days. But there was often crying over there; so I didn’t do anything.” Standing nearby was the man who had earlier shouted “drunkard” at Koyli.
As one of the only Dalit families in the village, caste was maybe playing a part here too.
According to the neighbours and ward member as well as women from Koyli’s micro-credit group, this is the correct story: this family suffers from alcoholism and trades most of the rice they get from the ration shop for the home-made alcoholic rice brew ‘hadiya’. They say drunken brawls are often heard, and both the mother and father of Santoshi are seen lying around in a state of drunkenness with no concern for their children. According to the president of Lakshmi micro-credit group, of which Koyli is a member, she had taken a loan of Rs 900 which she has yet to repay. “If Koyli was suffering from hunger or needed money to buy food, she could have approached us again as she had done previously. We did not know about her troubles or her child’s illness. We wish that she had told us. We would have tried to help.”
Video Volunteers’ team was taken to the exact spot – quite far out of the village – where Koyli and her family were given a house under the Indira Awaas Yojana. Together, Santoshi’s father and uncles own about 20 acres of land – not a small amount, the neighbours pointed out, and more than most of the ‘poorest of the poor’ own. “We keep telling the journalists and officials to walk with us out this way, but you are the first people to come see for yourselves that these people have houses but have done nothing to live in them.”
The four houses on far-off fields were in a completely dilapidated state, overgrown with vegetation. Said the husband of the female ward member, also known as the ‘ward pati’, “The family sold off the material of every brick from these houses, which is not allowed under Indira Awaas Yojana. They had never come to live here. The hand pump was also installed here. They were farming quite well on this land till about three-four years ago. Then things deteriorated and they left the farm unattended.” According to Santoshi’s uncle, who had also accompanied us to the spot and who listened unfazed to the ward member’s criticism, they don’t have enough money for a bullock or to hire a tractor, which is why the farm is lying unused. He says they don’t want to live in the houses because the area is too far from the village and the children get scared.
Also read: Jharkhand PDS Minister Says Aadhaar Not Needed for Ration, Ignoring Biometric Authentication System
The third faction was those who had a strong interest in proving that she had died not from starvation or even from malnourishment, but from an illness – malaria specifically, which was the cause of death given by the government. This was mostly the government officials, but also the neighbours. And no one wanted to talk about whether malnourishment would have made malaria more deadly; nor about why it was any less worse for an 11-year-old to die of malaria, which is also largely preventable, than starvation. It reminded us of the government’s response to the August 2017 hospital deaths in UP. When over 70 children died within a week in a UP hospital that hadn’t paid the bills for oxygen tanks, the government responded by saying that it wasn’t so bad, at least 20 children a day usually died in that hospital.
Santoshi was buried on that same piece of family land we had visited; in accordance with the Adivasi traditions in the area, her meagre belongings had been placed on her grave in a heartbreaking fashion. There was a pair of broken pink chappals, a steel cup and several strips of medicines, which we carefully photographed.
Then we visited the doctor in question, Narayan Singh, a man of seemingly middling skill and training. She had died of “double malaria”, he said – whatever that was. “The kind of malaria you get after typhoid,” he continued, further muddling things up. “Do you mean cerebral malaria?” we asked. “Yes, that’s what it was.” He told us that she had tested positive for cerebral malaria. He said he had treated her at his home and prescribed medicines to her. The names of a few of them were the same as what we had seen on the grave. This seemed to prove that the family was lying. But it was still strange. For one thing, the medicines at the grave were burnt. Had they attempted to burn them to destroy the evidence of her treatment? But then why would they have put them on her grave?
Some of the activists say it’s possible that the medicines were planted. They point out that we’ll never know whether the family is lying or the government and that in any case, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she is dead and that the family hadn’t been able to buy rations for months. The local officials knew this and the national officials knew for months that a crisis was brewing around Aadhaar linking and rations, and did nothing. The blame was squarely on the government.
Throughout the rest of the day, we were able to see the three factions not just attempting to prove their version of the story, but in full ‘response mode’.
First, the ward member. She arrived minutes after we did to Santoshi’s house, to give us her version of events. She told us she had collected grains for the family from an ashram or church. “When will you deliver them?” we asked. She looked a little unsure, perhaps afraid we would think she would be keeping them for herself. A few hours later, she actually reappeared carrying the supplies. “Please come film this,” she said. “The women’s collective is gathered over there. We are going to do a small ceremony to hand over the donation.” We declined her invitation.
Also read: Jharkhand’s MGNREGA Workers Need a Lot More Than Political Slogans
The next group to mobilise was the medical community. In fact, a health camp had been organised outside the anganwadi (which, incidentally, was closed). Free malaria testing for all! We asked a young mother if nutritious meals were being provided at the anganwadi to mothers like Koyli, who was still breastfeeding an infant. She confirmed that they were, though it opens erratically; and Koyli had earlier confirmed that she was getting meals at the anganwadi. The auxiliary nurse midwife who was running the camp came running over to us. “Are you going to go film the health centre now? Please don’t say in your video that it’s closed! It’s only closed today because of the health camp.” We would learn a few days later that she did, in fact, have reason to be concerned. She was suspended from her post for not having alerted earlier the higher authorities to Koyli’s serious illness. “The government made a show of taking action against small-fry officials who were supposedly responsible for Santoshi’s death,” activist and economist Jean Drèze wrote in Scroll.in.
Next, a fleet of cars rolled in and out stepped a tall politician, in a crisp white kurta and a smart dark green vest, surrounded by his entourage. The press swarmed him. This was Benjamin Lakra, a Jharkhand Congress party leader and thus a member of the opposition. According to him, the death is a result of government failure to monitor such cases. He spoke at length about other problems in this area, related to the unsuccessful implementation of the PESA Act and the arrest of one gram pradhan for, he said, popularising the guarantees under the Forest Rights Act. For him, the ‘starvation story’ was a chance to attack the ruling party. He said that he had heard that, in fact, Koyli had taken Santoshi to the district hospital the day before she died and been turned away – pushing responsibility higher up the medical command. No one had said anything remotely like this to us. We wondered if this rumour would now become part of the village’s narrative.
But there is a ray of hope, visible as the residents of Karimati Basti attempt to build on the opportunity – albeit one based on a tragedy – of a moment in the spotlight, to try to focus attention on the need for better services. At the end of our visit, a panchayat ward member came to us with a piece of paper in hand, on which she had written a list of demands. With Video Volunteers’ cameras rolling, she presented this list in front of a scrum of visiting reporters and politicians. She, at least, has faith that this attention can be parlayed into real improvements.
And at the state level, though the story is still unfolding, it seems she’s been proven right. The Jharkhand government issued a notice reminding government officials that they cannot, under any circumstances, deny people rations just because they don’t have an Aadhaar card. Of the three warring factions in the village that day, it seemed that Santoshi and the activists who supported her had ‘won’ a battle. The government was finally taking action on the problems in the public distribution system.
But the story remains, at one level, a damning indictment of the government and, to a lesser extent, the media. A child had to die to bring public attention to the crisis of malnutrition and a public distribution system in distress. As long as both continue to respond only to extreme examples and not to a perpetually broken system, people whose suffering is considered ‘banal’ and ‘unnewsworthy’ will not get justice.
Jessica Mayberry is the founding director of Video Volunteers and lives in Goa.