Despite the constitution of a panel to probe deaths, Jharkhand’s hunger crisis is likely to worsen

The first alleged starvation death that gained national media attention was that of Santoshi Kumar, an 11-year-old girl from the Jharkhand’s Simdega district, who died on 28 September. The state government had denied that it was because of starvation. Saurav Roy/ Hindustan Times
10 May, 2018

Suman Kumari resides in a small house in Bhalgora, a Dalit basti in the Jharia block of Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district. The doorway leads to two adjacent rooms, both only large enough to contain a charpoy each. A makeshift toilet stood across the rooms, and a mud stove that served as the kitchen abutted the first room. The entire house, made of unplastered brick and with an asbestos roof, did not appear to contain any personal belongings apart from the charpoys, a few clothes, and some utensils. Kumari told me that her 18-year-old brother stayed with her maternal grandmother “due to lack of food at home.”

When I visited her home on a November morning last year, Kumari was boiling potatoes to serve her family and relatives who were visiting to pay their respects. Twelve days earlier, her father, Baidyanath Ravidas, a rickshaw puller who was in his 40s, had died of starvation. “We had not gotten any food for eight days,” Kumari said. Parvati Devi, Kumari’s mother, told me that the weeks prior to his death had been difficult for the family. Devi is a domestic worker and often the only food the family ate was what she brought back from her employer’s home. “We were eating only watered rice once in a day,” Devi said. Often, she added, Ravidas would “refuse to eat to ensure that there was sufficient for his family.”

The district administration refuted the family’s claim that Ravidas had died due to starvation. Vinay Kumar Choubey, the then secretary in Jharkhand’s department of food, public distribution and consumer affairs, said the local administration’s probe into Ravidas’ death found that he “was suffering from long-term ailment and even on the day of his death he had eaten food.” He added, “His wife and son were both earning members of the families in addition to the deceased person. So from no angle it was a starvation death.” Kumari, however, told me that her father “was not suffering from any illness.” She added that Ravidas had stopped working two months before his death because of a “tingling sensation in his legs from pulling the rickshaw.” The day after he died, Parvati said, administrative officials gave the family a sack of rice and a cheque of Rs 20,000 as “compensation.” She added, “We’re running the house with that only.”

On 14 February this year, the Indian Express reported that Jharkhand’s food minister, Saryu Roy, had constituted a seven-member panel to frame a “protocol to be followed in dealing with cases of deaths allegedly caused by starvation.” According to the report, the panel comprised members from the state’s food and public distribution department, the education department, women and child welfare department, as well as members of civil society. But the extent of the government’s commitment to the issue remains to be seen.

Asharfi Prasad, a state convenor of the Right to Food campaign in Jharkhand is listed in the Indian Express report as one of the panel members. The Right to Food campaign is a network of organisations and individuals working towards the implementation of the National Food Security Act of 2013, or NFSA—the central legislation seeking to make welfare entitlements to food a legal right of the Indian populace. In early March, Prasad told me that he had not yet received “any official intimation from the government” about the panel. When I spoke to him again in late April, he said the panel had held one meeting in which they discussed conducting a study of the alleged hunger deaths in the state. “In this first meeting that was held, I could not see any seriousness,” he added. “If you’re holding a meeting, then shouldn’t you should have some preparation before the meeting? There was no preparation at all.”

Since September last year, Jharkhand has witnessed at least seven deaths similar to Ravidas’s, across various districts. In each case, the families alleged that the deaths occurred as a result of starvation. Probes by the state government concluded that in each case, the cause of death was not starvation but an unrelated illness. Yet, fact-finding studies by independent researchers in Jharkhand, and the ground-level reporting for this story, have revealed a desperate lack of food in the households where these deaths took place, and indicated towards the truth of the claims of the concerned families.

The state has also struggled with its implementation of the NFSA. The digitisation envisioned for the implementation of the act has led to an exclusion of marginalised sections of the state, and statutory bodies constituted under the act to ensure the inclusion of beneficiaries and redressal of grievances do not appear to be functioning. The state government’s denial of the alleged starvation deaths coupled with its failure to implement the NFSA, leads to concerns that Jharkhand’s hunger crisis is likely to continue—if not worsen.

The first alleged starvation death that gained national media attention was that of Santoshi Kumar, an 11-year-old girl from the Jharkhand’s Simdega district, who died on 28 September. Dheeraj Kumar, an activist working with the Right to Food campaign in Jharkhand, visited Simdega as a member of the campaign’s fact-finding team, and spoke to Santoshi’s mother, Koyli Devi. Devi recalled that her daughter kept repeating, “Bhaat de, bhaat de”—Give me rice. But Devi had no food at home. In a video interview, Devi told Dheeraj that she had not received food on her ration card for the six months preceding Santoshi’s death.

According to Dheeraj, a block development officer in Simdega told him that Devi’s ration card had been one of cards cancelled due to non-seeding with her Aadhaar card. But the district officials dismissed the allegation that starvation had caused her death—Manjunath Bhajantri, the then deputy commissioner in Simdega, posted a video on Facebook, in which Devi’s neighbours and a doctor claim that Santoshi died of malaria. The video did not include an interview with Devi, who had told Dheeraj that her daughter was not suffering from any illness.

On 22 October, Suresh Oraon, a 40-year-old shepherd and resident of Faratiya village in the state’s Garhwa district, reportedly died after he was unable to get subsidised food grains on his ration card. According to a report in the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran, the village sarpanch Shahenshah stated that Oraon died of tuberculosis, and that he was suffering from a mental illness. But Jahoor, a food-rights activist who visited Oraon’s house, told me, “Hum apne ankh dekhe ek ann ka dana nahi tha uske ghar mein”—I saw with my own eyes that he did not have a single grain of rice in his house.

The next day, Ruplal Marandi, a 75-year-old resident of Thadiyara village in Deoghar district, allegedly died of starvation. Babita Sinha, a programme manager with Pravah—a nonprofit that works with vulnerable communities in Jharkhand—told me that she spoke to Marandi’s daughter Manodi about her father’s death. According to Manodi, Sinha recalled, “There was not a grain of food at home.” She said the family had not received any ration for two months before her father’s death because “my fingerprint had not been working in the biometric machine.” The government, however, reportedly claimed that Marandi died a “natural death” due to “old age.”

Each subsequent alleged starvation death in the state appeared to follow the same pattern. The family members alleged that the death was due to the starvation, which arose from their difficulty in obtaining food grains through the TPDS, independent researchers corroborated the family’s claims, and the state government denied them.

Ravidas’s family had never been a beneficiary of the NFSA. The act directs state governments to identify the eligible beneficiaries and distribute the food through the targeted public distribution system, or TPDS. The Jharkhand government identified over 2.33 crore beneficiaries of the NFSA, relying on the 2011 socio-economic caste census of India. In October 2015, more than two years after the initial deadline, the act came into force in the state. The beneficiaries could avail five kilograms of subsidised rice and wheat each, for a subsidised price of Rs 3 and 2 per kilogram respectively. But Ravidas’ family, which did not possess any ration card, was unable to receive these benefits.

The exclusion of Ravidas and his family illustrates serious concerns with the process of identification and implementation of the NFSA in Jharkhand. Parvati said that in 2015, she had visited the local fair price shop, or FPS—the lowest unit in the supply chain of the TPDS—and the district collector’s office to submit the form for her inclusion in the list of beneficiaries, but the officials told her to apply on the internet. “When I went to the internet, they said it’s not there,” Parvati said, referring to a local internet provider who told her that her name was not listed online.  “So I stopped pursuing it for almost two years.” She added that pursuing the matter with the government authorities would take an entire day, and her family could not afford to lose a single day’s work.

In the last month before Ravidas’ death, owing to the desperate circumstances, Parvati revisited the collector’s office to enroll for a ration card. She got the card two days before Ravidas died, but she was unable to procure food immediately. The family only received food when the local politicians and officials visited her home after his death. I asked Choubey why Ravidas’ family was given compensation if the government believed that he died due to an ailment. He said, “That you will have to talk to district administration. But there is a provision in family benefit scheme to provide compensation if earning member dies.”

In December 2014, the food and public distribution ministry introduced a scheme called the “End-to-end Computerization of TPDS,” which shifted the application process for ration cards into an online procedure. The scheme directed state governments to digitise the entire supply chain of the food distribution system. Among other things, the state governments had to maintain a digital list of NFSA beneficiaries, and required individuals to apply for ration cards online, and to link their Aadhaar cards to ration cards. As of June 2017, the central government had released Rs 9.47 crore to Jharkhand to complete the project—and by March 2017, the government claimed to have achieved 100-percent digitisation of ration cards and 96 percent seeding to Aadhaar.

But individuals such as Parvati, who could not obtain a ration card or link their Aadhaar cards, have effectively been excluded from the benefits of the NFSA. According to a March 2017 report of the Lok Sabha’s standing committee on food, consumer affairs and public distribution, the Jharkhand government cancelled over 3.42 lakh “ineligible” or “bogus” ration cards in the period from 2013–16 as part of the implementation of the NFSA. The economist and food-rights activist Jean Drèze has noted that a large number of cancelled ration cards “belonged to families that had been unable to link their Aadhaar cards for no faults of their own.” But the state authorities have maintained that the cancelled cards were all bogus. The then food secretary Choubey, said, “The cards were cancelled on account of being fake, duplicate, etc after due verification.”

On 27 March last year, the state government issued a press release on the directive of the state food and civil supplied department stating that “all the ration cards which have not been linked with Aadhar number will become null and void on 5th April.” In the aftermath of Santoshi’s death, on 21 October, the state’s food minister Roy issued an order cancelling the 27 March directive. Roy noted that the directive was in violation of a central government circular, which stated beneficiaries could avail their quota of rations by providing any other identity documents as well. According to a report in The Telegraph, the state government cancelled 11.5 lakh ration cards on 5 April.

In addition to the concerns with the food distribution system, the implementation of the NFSA is also plagued by an ineffective system of accountability. The act envisions the constitution of vigilance committees at the district, block and village level to monitor the implementation of the act. The committee is also required to visit FPS dealers to address issues such as leakages or corruption in the supply chain. But the inefficiency, and in some cases even the non-existence, of the statutory bodies such as the vigilance committees has further compounded the food crisis in the state.

Pashupati Singh, the BJP member of parliament from Dhanbad, where Santoshi lived, is one of the members of the district’s vigilance committee. When I asked him how often the committee met, he said, “Meeting toh hoti hai, bahut regular nahi hai yeh sab mamlat mein”—Meetings take place, but these things are not very regular matters. Singh was unable to tell me when the last time he attended a meeting was.

Regarding Santoshi’s death, Singh said,“Woh jo Jharia ka case hai, woh bimari ka case hai,ration ki wajah se nahi hai” (That Jharia case is one of sickness, it is not related to ration). He continued, “Ek Congressi neta the, usko highlight kar rahe the. Yeh CID jaanch mein aa gaya ki iske peechhe kaun hai” (There was a Congress leader who was highlighting the case but the CID enquiry has revealed who was behind it.) Singh refused to disclose the identity of the purported Congress leader. The Jharkhand state president of the Congress party, Ajoy Kumar, told me that the government was aggravating the problem by denouncing the deaths. Referring to starvation, he said, “Jab maniyega tab na aap karwayi kijiyega” (Only when you admit it can you conduct an investigation). “Do saal ka baccha bhi bata dega ki maut bhookhmari se hui hai” (Even a two-year-old child would say that the deaths were because of starvation.)

According to an order passed by Choubey in September 2015, the sub-divisional officers and district supply officers are also supposed to be members of the vigilance committees at the block and district levels. I tried to reach the SDOs and DSOs of several districts in Jharkhand, including Dhanbad, Garhwa, Simdega and Deogarh, over the phone, but I was only able to speak to one of them—Aditya Ranjan, the SDO of Hazaribagh. At least six officials either did not answer their phones, or denied that they held the post of SDO or DSO, even though their respective district administrations identified them as such on their websites. When I spoke to Ranjan in late April, he said he was not aware that he was a member of the vigilance committee, before adding that there had not been any meeting of the committee so far.

According to Ranjan, there are three mechanisms to lodge a complaint—a call to the toll-free telephonic service called the Jan Samvad; distict-level centres called Nidaan Kendras, where a grievance could be registered in person; and a visit the SDO offices. I was unable to connect to anyone through the Jan Samvad number, and the district-level centresdid not appear to be fully functional. The NFSA directs states to appoint a district grievance redressal officer, or DGRO, for each district, for matters relating to “the distribution of entitled foodgrains” and to “enforce entitlements under this Act.” Officially, the state government issued notifications constituting the DGRO posts and the vigilance committees in 2015.In November 2016, the government issued a circular stating that the additional collectors of each district in the state would hold the additional charge of the DGRO. But the nature of their functioning and operation at the ground level presents a very different reality.

I spoke to Satyendra Kumar, the additional collector and DGRO in Dhanbad, about the redressal provided in the case of Santoshi’s death. But Kumar said that the officers responsible for the distribution addressed the grievance redressal on their own. “Hum log usko bahut zyaada dekh nahi patey”—We are not able to examine it in detail, Kumar added. “This is not a full-time profile. If files come, I forward it to the collector’s office.”

Another additional collector spoke more candidly, on the condition of anonymity, about the functioning of the DGRO position. He said, “I have no hesitation in saying that the DGRO post is not functioning full-fledged here. We don’t know what our profile is as DGRO.” He added,“Karna kya hai bataya hi nahi gaya hai”—We were never even told what we’re supposed to be doing.

Since 2014, after the enactment of the NFSA, questions relating to starvation deaths in the country have been raised at least five times in parliament, most recently in December 2017. In response, CR Choudhury, the minister of state for consumer affairs, food and public distribution, stated: “No State Government/Union Territory Administration has reported any incident of death due to starvation so far.” He added, “There have been media reports of starvation deaths in Jharkhand and UP, however, on enquiry, the State Governments informed that the allegations of deaths due to starvation have not been substantiated.”