-Asharfi Nand Prasad*
Over the past ten months at least 12 persons may have succumbed to hunger in Jharkhand. Yet, instead of taking action against functionaries leading to these deaths and taking measures to improve the situation of food security, the state government has denied hunger as the cause of any of these deaths. Absolving the government of any blame, state food minister Saryu Roy has accused activists who are highlighting the gross violations of right to food in Jharkhand.
However, the recent deaths of Savitri Devi in Giridh, Meena Musahar in Chatra and Chintaman Malhar in Ramgarh seek to expose the government’s lack of seriousness to address the issue of starvation in the state.
Savitri Devi, a 60-year old widow, died on June 2, 2018 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. This contradicts 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. Savitri Devi was not informed that her pension was credited.
Fifty-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 statements that told a different tale.
Yet, the food minister claimed that the son himself admitted that his father died a natural death, even as suggesting 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.
Meena Musahar, a ragpicker, also died in destitution and acute poverty. According to her neighbours, she was so malnourished that she could not feed her infant child 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 livelihoods. The Food Minister even said that his department was not responsible for the starvation death of persons who did not have ration cards.
Contrary to government’s claims, the immediate causes of the 12 recent starvation deaths include denial of subsidised rice due to absence of a ration card, cancellation of ration card due to 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.
Denial of social security pensions and absence of work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act further contributed to the destitution of the starvation victims and their families. At least four victims were eligible to social security pension, but were either not issued a pension or did not receive their pension due to administrative lapses or Aadhaar-related issues.
The starvation deaths 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. Instead of any discussion on such moves, the Food Minister has instead proposed setting up of grain banks. Even if such banks are established, they will fail to ensure universal access to food security as a matter of right.
The government’s indifference towards people’s food insecurity is also revealed by its foot-dragging in the withdrawal of the “Direct Benefit Transfer for food security” pilot in Nagri block of Ranchi. By all accounts, the results of the pilot are 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.
The Right to Food Campaign demands immediate withdrawal of the “Direct Benefit Transfer for food security” pilot. It also demands the universalisation of the PDS in rural areas and inclusion of pulses and edible oil in the PDS – 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.