Jharkhand's Starvation Deaths Raise Questions About India's Welfare Schemes

On January 1, an 80-year-old woman died of starvation. The family slipped through the many government schemes meant to provide relief.

Outside her deceased mother’s rented house in Mahuadanr block of Jharkhand’s Latehar district sat Bhagiya Birjain. Bhagiya, a widow, lived in a nearby settlement after her marriage. She was the first to arrive after hearing that her mother, Budhni Birjiyan, 80, died while she was alone, on the night of January 1.

“My mother had not eaten anything for three days before her death; she had nothing to eat and starved in the piercing cold,” said Bhagiya. Her death is the latest in a series of starvation related deaths which have come to light since eleven-year-old Santoshi Kumari’s death in Simdega, last year.

Also Read: Even After 18 ‘Starvation’ Deaths, Jharkhand Govt Sidesteps All Blame

Budhni’s prolonged starvation was not improbable. She did not have a ration card as well as a Aadhaar. The danger of food insecurity was lurking around her. Budhni belonged to the Birijiya tribe, recognised as a ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group’ (PVTG) by the state. She was entitled to 35 kg of free rice every month under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) meant for the “poorest of the poor” in the country.

However, Bhagiya says, despite their repeated requests they did not receive the ration. “We had applied for the card about six times, each time they made some excuse and we could never get free rations. Once they asked us to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to apply!” she recollects.

Failed welfare schemes

Procuring food grains from the local market was impossible for her family. Budhni lived in a rented house with her grandson’s family. She broke her leg in an accident six years ago, forcing her to depend on them for subsistence.

With a meagre earning of Rs 200 per day that the younger members of the house received after working in a nearby brick kiln, the family often starved. Although Budhni was entitled to a monthly pension of Rs 600, she did not get this either. “She went to the office many times to get the application approved, but nothing ever happened,” said Bhagiya.

Under conditions of destitution, her access to food was severely restricted. When the family members left home for work, she could not cook for herself.

The Budhni house. Credit: Swati Narayan

Her neighbours claim to have provided Budhni meals regularly. Madina Bibi, her neighbour, was worried about Budhni’s whereabouts on the day of her death. “I used to give her food when I could spare enough,” said Madina Bibi, who herself buys the subsidised food grains guaranteed to 86% of the rural population under the National Food Security Act.

In fact, many government welfare schemes did not reach Budhni’s family. She could not build a home under the Prime Minister Aawas Yojana as she did not own a patch of land. Poverty kept everyone, including the children, away from education. Chandni, her grandson’s one-month-old daughter cannot avail anganwadi facilities as it was shut down six months ago.

Moreover, the family had no job-cards; nor were any NREGA projects running in the village. There was no source of employment to ensure their sustenance. The state government’s new scheme, Khadyan Kosh allocates every panchayat Rs 10,000 to supply starving families with emergency food grains. Even this scheme was not utilised to provide any relief to Budhni.

Government action

On the day local journalists reported Budhni’s death, block officials visited the village. They offered an ex-gratia compensation of Rs 2,000, to conduct last rites, and 50 kg rice. Bhagiya said until then, they did not have money to cremate her and had kept the body at their home for over three days.

The state’s food minister Saryu Roy ordered a few months ago that a post-mortem should be conducted “in case of any suspected starvation death”. In Budhni’s case, this was not followed. Bhagiya claimed that the officials asked the family to bury the body in a hurry.

Tackling under-nutrition and employment should be a priority. Experts suggest overhauling the public distribution system at the earliest and including oil and pulses in the monthly ration quota will ensure availability of nutritious food to a bulk of rural households.

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

The continuing starvation deaths and routine starvations raise serious questions about the nature of India’s welfare state today.

Budhni’s family, however, had had no time to grieve. Sanchi, her daughter-in-law, went back to work immediately as she could not afford to skip work. Apart from the meagre compensation, the family has not received any help. No concrete action has been taken to ensure they do not continue to live precariously. “We wish to get a ration card to ensure we have enough to eat,” Sanchi says.

Abinash Dash Choudhury is a Skye fellow. He is currently based in Ranchi, Jharkhand. The fact-finding team, of which the writer was also a member, comprised of Afsana, Vivek Kumar and Swati Narayan.