On 2 April, 65-year-old Somaria Devi, a resident of Jharkhand’s Garwa district, breathed her last. Her death was one of three starvation deaths that had been reported from the state since 25 March when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. Reports of mass hunger among daily-wage labourers have arisen from other states too, caused by unemployment at an unprecedented scale, a crippled public distribution system and heavily red-taped relief measures by state governments failing on the ground. The systemic failures in lower-rung government planning and bureaucracy, especially with regards to public distribution, employment guarantees and banking, show that the humanitarian disaster that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic was a long time in the making.
In the past, district officials from Jharkhand have stridently denied claims of hunger deaths in the state. One of the key poll-planks of the Hemant Soren led state government during his election campaign was ending starvation deaths in the state. The state is known to have one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the country, with 56.5 percent of children under the age of five being undernourished according to government data. However, a recent survey carried out in Jharkhand by the members of the Right to Food campaign—a network of food-rights activists—suggest that the hunger deaths that emerged during the lockdown are symptomatic of a more systemic problem in the state’s PDS.
In the first week of April, surveyors from the RTF campaign studied over 50 blocks in 19 districts assessing various government institutions where grain was being distributed. This included ration shops, dal-bhat kendras, which are food distribution centres, and anganwadis—mother and child-care centres. Of the 50 blocks surveyed, observers found that dal-bhat kendras were operational in 42 blocks but were heavily under-utilised. This was largely because the state government had not adequately informed migrant labour communities about the whereabouts of these kendras. Surveyors also found that in some of these kendras, the needy were being asked to pay for food at a time when all avenues to earn a livelihood had been shuttered. In others, social distancing norms were being flouted. Additionally, some members running the kendras complained that they were spending their own money in procuring food as government funds were falling short.
Vipul Paikra, a volunteer with the RTF campaign, pointed out that underpinning the failure of the administration in addressing the needs of the workers is the cumulative impact of two forces. Firstly, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has become increasingly ineffective in addressing the needs to workers from the state. Secondly, the PDS system of the state has progressively been watered down to become deeply inefficient.
“Jharkhand’s rate of out-migration is one of the highest in India,” Paikra said. “This is because MNREGA’s record of performance in the state is far from impressive. The demand for work under MNREGA has gone down by quite a lot because dues for work done earlier have not been cleared. The worker ends up feeling that it is no use working under MNREGA, if he is not going to be paid for his work.”