Hemant Soren govt says no hunger deaths in Jharkhand; activists question claim, say lack of accountability will hurt marginalised
In the past, Hemant Soren has repeatedly criticised the former BJP government’s “stoic silence” over hunger deaths in Jharkhand.
Rameshwar Oraon, Jharkhand's food minister, said that the government doesn’t agree that starvation deaths have occurred in the last five years.
This statement brings into question the newly-elected Hemant Soren-led government’s commitment to tackle the issue that has long plagued the state.
In the past, Hemant Soren has repeatedly criticised the former BJP government’s “stoic silence” over hunger deaths,
In a written reply in the Jharkhand Assembly on Thursday during the ongoing Budget session, the Congress’ Rameshwar Oraon, the state food minister, said that the government doesn’t agree that starvation deaths have occurred in the last five years.
This statement brings into question the newly-elected Hemant Soren-led government’s commitment to tackle the issue that has long plagued the state. The death of 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari’s death in September 2017 had also brought the issue of starvation-related deaths into the spotlight.
Oraon’s statement on Thursday was in response to a question on whether it was correct that more than a dozen deaths in the last five years were due to hunger and malnutrition, and that the victims hadn’t received ration under the Public Distribution System (PDS) as prescribed by the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
Oraon, denying the claim, replied, “Aswikaratmak (not accepted/not correct).”
The government’s reply is in stark contrast to coalition partner Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)’s manifesto and Soren’s own statements on the issue. “No one will die of hunger,” Soren had proclaimed on 28 December, 2019, a day before he took office following a landslide win for the JMM-Congress alliance.
The election campaign by the then-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was dominated by issues on a national scale like the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and national security.
However, the Congress and JMM’s campaign focussing on local issues like the effective implementation of welfare schemes, including the PDS and the rural employment guarantee scheme, found resonance with the Adivasi-majority electorate.
Soren has repeatedly criticised the former BJP government’s “stoic silence” over hunger deaths, especially vigorously in the run-up to the November 2019 election. A commitment to make efforts to curb starvations deaths was also part of the JMM’s manifesto.
Three days before taking oath as chief minister, Soren had tweeted, “On my way back to Ranchi from Delhi yesterday late in the night, I remembered the meeting with Santoshi's mother and her listless eyes speaking about how her daughter died saying (rice, rice)…”
The state has witnessed at least 24 such deaths since 2016. In many cases, the deaths are attributed to the lack of a ration card, the procurement of which is complicated by Aadhaar-related issues.
In fact, a day after Oraon’s statement, a man from the Bokaro district reportedly died of hunger.
Who is accountable, ask activists
The government’s U-turn on one of the most important issues in Jharkhand has raised doubts and worries from activists about whether the pre-poll promises made by the alliance were “hollow".
Siraj Dutta, an activist with the Right to Food Campaign in the state, said that the minister’s statement casts a shadow on the ‘pro-poor’ image the alliance portrayed during the campaign.
“The irony is that the BJP, as the Opposition, won’t question the government regarding the statement either, because that would mean accepting that there had been starvation deaths during its tenure,” he said, illustrating the current impasse regarding the issue.
With the incumbent government’s refusal to accept the occurrence of starvation deaths in the state, affected families stand to be deprived of the relief measures, including compensation and issuance of a ration card.
The lack of accountability for starvation deaths further compounds the problem.
While the Supreme Court mandates that the state chief secretary be “held responsible” for the occurrence of starvation death, if the government doesn’t accept that starvation deaths have taken place, there is no way to hold any authority accountable.
Activists said that a likely reason for Oraon’s statement on the issue could be to shield the bureaucracy from having to take responsibility.
“If the government agrees that there have been hunger deaths, albeit not on their watch, they will still have to hold the bureaucracy responsible, and this government seems reluctant to do so,” Dutta said.
Another activist involved with the RTF Campaign, Vivek, put the situation into perspective. “It seems that the coalition partners (Congress and JMM) have not been able to assert authority over the bureaucracy as yet, which is why they’re possibly trying to shield the administration by making such statements,” he said.
While Oraon was unavailable for comment for most of Friday and Saturday, The Hindu quoted him as saying that a state government “runs in continuity, and this is the report of the previous government.”
If the Soren government continues to deny starvation deaths, the implications on the most marginalised of Jharkhand’s population will be far-reaching, activists said.
‘Hemant Soren must withdraw statement’
The next step for the chief minister should be to withdraw the statement as soon as possible and start implementing the measures his party had promised to curb hunger deaths, activists said.
“It is true that it’s been only about two months since Soren was sworn in as chief minister, but the government has not taken a single step to bring in corrective measures against starvation deaths,” Vivek said.
Dutta added that to effectively tackle the issue, the government must work towards expanding the coverage of the PDS from the current 86 percent to 100 percent. The coverage of the social security pension scheme – under which senior citizens, those specially-abled, and widows are entitled to receive a certain sum – should also be expanded, he said.
Dutta also said that the Budget presented by the state government in the ongoing session fell several paces short of the allocations required to tackle the issue.
“There was no mention of the words ‘hunger’ or ‘malnutrition’ in the Budget speech,” Vivek said.
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