Dehumanising response to starvation death

Arun Srivastava

Jharkhand’s PDS Minister Saryu Roy, though acted late, however in one stroke demolished the myth of the government diktat of Aadhaar card being indispensable. On September 28 Santoshi, the girl belonging to an extremely poor family from Simdega, died of starvation after chief secretary Rajbala Verma’s directive to render the ration card of the family ineligible as they were not linked to Aadhaar. The family had not received any ration since February but subsisted on doles from villagers and the mid-day meal Santoshi got at her school.
Roy was shocked at the death of the poor girl and sought a clarification as to how such order could be issued when the state government had not given any directive to this effect. In fact, he sought to know whether his own government had directed that ration cards not linked to Aadhaar be cancelled.
The action of the some officials of the state administration has been most dehumanizing. They are hell bent to prove that Santoshi died of malaria and not due to non-availability of ration. It is bizarre that these officials have been creating confusion. Does blaming malaria as the reason for deaths absolve the government of its welfare obligation and responsibility? It is an undeniable fact that a significant proportion of Indian kids go hungry on many days of the year.
These officials in their quest to shield Verma conveniently forgot the fact that they were admitting in public the failure of the health department to check the spread of malaria, which has been claiming the lives of children belonging to poor families. Nonetheless, activists in Simdega alleged that Santoshi Kumari died after her family was denied ration because their card was not linked to Aadhaar.
Once Modi government made Aadhaar a mandatory requirement, a rat race has ensued amongst the bureaucrats and ministers to push it. Incidentally, it has turned out to be an instrument to pledge their loyalty to the ruling elite and political bosses. .
A couple of days ago the minister claimed that as soon as the directive from the administration came to light, he had issued an official order to ensure that no ration card got deleted due to non-linking with Aadhaar. It is possible that some names got deleted due to the confusion. However, later developments make it explicit that the officials of the Jharkhand government willfully ignored the instructions of the minister.
Trying to put the record straight, the government claimed that the Chief Secretary’s directive followed a review meeting with PDS officials. “In the course of the review in March, the CS has said that by April 5 all ration cards without Aadhaar would become ineligible and only Aadhaar-based system would be used for lifting ration”. It is astonishing that no cognizance of the order of the minister was taken by the administration.
Though chief minister Raghubar Das has ordered a probe into the death of Santoshi and how the ration card of her family got deleted from the list, efforts have been initiated by vested interest to suppress the fact and protect the government from getting a bad name. Even Simdega deputy commissioner Manjunath Bhajantri confirmed that he had received complaints that the family was facing threats and asked police to provide security. Food activists said that late on Friday night some panchayat members stormed into the family’s hut to ask them why they persisted with the starvation death theory. The family hid in another village till they were herded back by the administration. Late on Santoshi's sister Gudia lodged an FIR against 25 villagers. While SP Rajeev Ranjan Singh said a probe had started he did not say why no arrests were made.
However, Santoshi’s mother continued to assert that her daughter did not die of malaria, and she was crying for rice while breathing her last. She said she has not given her thumb impression on any such report saying the girl died of malaria.
The most deplorable action of the government officials was their allegation that the family had kept a sack of food grain in the house. They tried their best to send the message that Santoshi’s death was part of a plot to malign the BJP government.
A five-member team of Right to Food activists that visited the family in Simdega said the family lived in penury and slept on empty stomach most days. Koili Devi, Santoshi’s mother, was quoted by the team as saying that the family at times survived on packaged food from the Anganwadi centre.
It is an open secret that death due to hunger has become a major issue in India. Over 25 lakh people die of hunger every year. Out of these nearly 65 per cent are the kids. Even while people are shocked by the death of Santoshi, yet another hunger death has surfaced in Jharkhand.
A 62-year-old, Rooplal Marandi, died of hunger on Monday in Jharkhand’s Deoghar district after the biometric reader at the PDS shop couldn’t read his thumb impression and he was refused ration, his family alleged. This is the third time in a month that a family in the tribal state has claimed to have lost a member after being refused subsidised supplies they are entitled to under a nation-wide food programme for the poor. In his case too the doctor confirmed it to be natural death.
It is deplorable that the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA), the most decisive intervention to check hunger death, was not being properly implemented in Jharkhand. In July 2017, the Supreme Court found that in many states the bodies charged with implementation had not been set up and described the situation as “pathetic”. The budget for this programme has been getting slashed gradually. (IPA)

Tuesday, 31 October, 2017