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.”