Starvation deaths: Whose fault is it anyway?

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Suddenly, Karimati bears a deserted, gloomy look. Just a few days ago there were TV crews hanging around, VIPs constantly visiting and charged up activists doing the rounds of this small village in Jharkhand’s Simdega district.
After the death of 11-year-old Santoshi due to starvation on September 28, Karimati made it to the national headlines. Her mother Koyli Devi became a highly sought-after person overnight. However, now the village, where only around 120 families reside, is back to being its desolate self.

Santoshi’s death has brought to the fore the issues of chronic poverty, malnutrition, gaps in the country’s social welfare system and the administration’s insensitivity to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. These issues are of utmost importance in our country where a very large part of the population lives below the poverty line.

India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a GDP of 7.9 per cent in 2015, is home to the largest population of poor in the world.

According to the World Bank, 30 per cent of the country’s population or around 224 million people in India live below the poverty line as per data available in 2013.

In Jharkhand, of the total population of 3.29 crore, 59,67,763 people fall in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category according to census 2011. As per the Suresh Tendulkar Committee report, the poverty level in the state is one of the highest among all large states with high levels of poverty in both urban as well as rural areas. Jharkhand holds 40 per cent of the country’s mineral wealth.

However, the benefits of the state’s economic development have not trickled down to its marginalised groups especially the tribal population among whom chronic poverty levels are disproportionately high.

PDS_1Santoshi’s family comprising of her mother — 45-year-old Koyli Devi who is a farm labourer, her mentally disturbed father who is unable to work, and three other siblings had been denied subsidised food grains under the Public Distribution System (PDS) for seven months. A state government letter in March had directed functionaries that every ration card be linked to the holder’s Aadhaar number and that no ration be provided to those beneficiaries who fail to do so. The family’s ration card was subsequently cancelled as they had failed to link their Aadhaar with it. There had been no grain in the house for several days as they couldn’t afford to buy any food apart from what they received under the PDS scheme. According to her mother, no one in the house had eaten a meal for days and Santoshi had been asking for rice to eat before she died.

The controversial order was given by the state’s chief secretary Rajbala Verma and was in effect for several months, only to be cancelled by the state government after Santoshi’s disturbing death, despite the Supreme Court having ruled that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for availing any social benefits. There had clearly been lapses on the government’s part as the illegal order was brought into effect. Jharkhand’s minister in-charge of Food and Civil Supply, Saryu Rai, accused the state’s top official of issuing the order in complete disregard to his instructions not to
cancel any ration card. “Ration cards of people with no Aadhaar card cannot be canceled. If someone has done this, then it is wrong,” he said. He also admitted that the girl’s parents were denied food grain. “This happened because they lacked Aadhaar. And in view of the chief secretary’s order, their ration card was cancelled by the dealer,”
Rai told Tehelka.

Not only lack of coordination, but there was also apathy on the administration’s part as was evident after officials denied that the child had starved to death, claiming that she had died of malaria. Their claim was surprising as no death due to malaria has been reported from Jharkhand in several years.

It is also necessary to point out that the chief secretary’s order had far reaching implications as more than 11.5 lakh ration cards were cancelled and as many families stopped getting subsidised food grain from PDS, many of them suffering untold miseries.

On October 20, 45-year-old Baijnath Ravidas, a rickshaw puller in Jharia in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, also died due to starvation. His family claimed that he had been ill for several days and hadn’t eaten anything for two days as there had been no ration in the house and no money to buy any food. In this case, however, while all family members had Aadhaar cards, they didn’t have a ration card.

In light of the controversy over the starvation deaths, an assessment of the ground situation by Tehelka illustrates how the state government doesn’t have a grasp over the crucial realities at the grass-roots level.

Over the last two years, the central government has focused on PDS reforms specially following passage of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013. In order to cut pilferage from the PDS and thereby save revenue, about 23 crore ration cards in the country were digitised and according to official sources, nearly 56 per cent of these are
already seeded with the Aadhaar. Several states are now speedily installing Electronic Point of Sale (ePOS) devices at their PDS shops to track the sale of food grains to actual cardholders on a real-time basis.

PDS_2The objective of ePOS, of course, is to ensure that only the genuine cardholder or his or her family members whose names are mentioned in the ration card can buy the subsidised commodities. When the ration is taken, the ePOS device captures the buyer’s biometrics, which is verified online with the Aadhaar database.

According to the Jharkhand Food Civil Supply Department, there are 18,530 PDS ration dispersing shops across the state, to serve a BPL population of 59,67,763 people. In 25 per cent of these shops, the ePOS machines have been set up and ration is disbursed only when the beneficiary’s biometric details match with the data fed in the system. Thus, the entire PDS disbursement has been made computerised in the state. However, the state doesn’t have sufficient infrastructure in terms of constant electricity supply and internet connectivity to support such a mechanism.

Several villagers told Tehelka that many a times they have to wait for days without getting the much-needed subsidised food grains as the ePOS system doesn’t work due to a power cut that can last several hours or due to weak internet signal. The extremely poor villagers, including the elderly, have to often walk around along with the shop in-charge and the mobile ePOS machine in search of internet signal! They often climb cliffs and hills in search of network so that they can sign in and get their rations! (None of the villagers, however, were willing to give their names or get photographed for fear of being ostracised for bringing a bad name to the village, just as Koyli Devi was heckled and asked to leave the village for shaming it by acknowledging that her daughter’s death had been due to hunger.)

Things are made worse by this computerised system being the sole option for disbursing the subsidised food grain in around 25 per cent of ration shops. During visits to the PDS ration distribution depots, Tehelka also learnt that many who are in-charge of disbursing the grains are not even aware that the controversial government order that had led to Santoshi’s death has been revoked. Many of them still believe that those beneficiaries who haven’t linked their Aadhaar numbers with their ration cards are not to be given any subsidised food grains. This despite a new circular issued in October by Minister Rai saying that the chief secretary’s March order was “null and void” and that “any body who will follow the said order will be liable for legal action”. The government must ensure that the message reaches each and every shop and this anomaly is corrected.

Moreover, despite extremely high levels of poverty and over 75 per cent of the population living in rural areas, the state government did not take any safeguard to prevent starvation of the poorest of the poor by opening emergency supply chains or stores of subsidised food grains at the block and panchayat village level in the state. According to government data, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, besides the union territories of Chandigarh and Andaman and Nicobar, have completed seeding of all the ration cards with Aadhaar. Aadhaar-linked ePOS data of the government shows the ‘achievement’ of the states in percentage such as Kerala (95%), Rajasthan (94%), Haryana (86%), Odisha (73 %). Even Jharkhand (73%) has reported significant progress in terms of seeding of PDS beneficiaries’ cards with Aadhaar.

According to an estimate, Andhra Pradesh has already saved around 800 crore annually through steps like putting ePOS devices in its 28,000 odd public distribution system (PDS) outlets and seeding ration cards with Aadhaar numbers.

Girl’s death due to ‘bit of a miscommunication’: State govt

“Following the news that people were denied rations, the supplier has been suspended. The denial of PDS food grain shouldn’t have been done. There was a bit of a miscommunication at the block-level and it is being looked into as to why such miscommunication took place.

“As far as the girl’s death is concerned, it cannot be ascertained if it was indeed a starvation death. No post-mortem was done. News of the incident being that of ‘starvation death’ came to light 10-12 days after the girl had died.

“The reason was that there were local undercurrents in the village. The PDS dealer and one of his relatives were having a bad relationship, so the lady (relative) spread the news that it was a starvation death.

“Malnourishment is endemic in the state. A malnourished body becomes susceptible to various ailments. What happened was unfortunate and the state government is sensitive to the issue. In the case of the rickshaw-puller’s death in Dhanbad, there were four working persons in his family. It is a purely urban area. The family hadn’t even applied for a ration card. However, all deaths are unfortunate. What happened is reprehensible. Starvation deaths shouldn’t happen in a modern society.”

— Sanjay Kumar, Principal Secretary to Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das, told Tehelka

In fact, it is true that the device helps record all Fair Price Shops (FPS) transactions electronically and enables real-time accounts of opening stock, daily sales and closing stock. In turn, apart from helping the government make monthly allotment of stocks to the FPS based on the stock position, it  seems to have facilitated monitoring and detection of fraudulent transactions. Its positive effect was visible in Jharkhand as well. In the past the subsidised food grains supplied by Food Corporation of India (FCI) reached the PDS shops via the state Food Department’s stores. This delayed its distribution among beneficiaries and food grains worth crores of rupees were pilfered by many associated with the administration as well as the distribution system. Now the PDS shop dealers acquire the food grains straight from the FCI godowns.

However, the negative effect is that the beneficiaries of subsidised food grains, most of whom cannot afford to buy grains for daily consumption from the market, are not able to access their rightful food grain due to the infrastructure-related discrepancies in the system — lack of ration cards, lack of linking of Aadhaar cards with ration cards, and lack of access to uninterrupted internet and electricity in areas where the system has been completely digitised. So unless these loopholes are plugged, alternative and non-computerised methods for ensuring ration disbursement must be allowed.

Apparently in a face saving exercise, the Food and Civil Supply Minister, who has been actively trying to implement the NFSA, has initiated two main initiatives this week. The first is to keep at least 10 quintals of food grains in reserve for the poorest of the poor at the village panchayat and block levels. Second, he has sought registration of complaints filed by ration card holders. “We are trying to streamline the system. Everything will become alright soon,” said Additional Chief Secretary Amit Khare.

Incidentally, none of the Minister’s initiatives have brought about any visible change at the PDS shop level where the software of Aadhaar linked ePOS equipments continued to deny food grains to non-Aadhaar card holders.

Not satisfied with the state government’s response to the starvation deaths, economist and leader of the Right to Food campaign Jean Dreze, who has worked on the ground in the state, said that improper implementation of NFSA and complex Aadhaar based biometric system have deprived many poor families of food grains and caused the starvation deaths.

“To avoid further tragedies, the government must go beyond empty promises and ensure implementation of plans such as switching the biometric system to offline mode for the time being till Aadhaar seeding was complete,” he told media persons.

Reacting to these measures announced by the Minister, some residents of Karimati village said that they will not let Santoshi’s death go in vain. “She died because her parents were not rich enough to buy food from the market. We will fight back,” said a man belonging to the backward Ghasi tribe, requesting anonymity. Angry at the minister’s late actions, another villager, a relative of Santoshi, uttered Hindi poet Kabir Das’s well-known verse: “Ab Pachtaye Howt Kya, Jab Chiriya Chug Gai Khet” (The efforts are too little, too late).

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