'Urgent', 'alarming', 'accountable', are words the Jharkhand government has conspicuously left out of its discourse on the spate of starvation deaths that have occurred in the poll-bound state since the demise of 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari in September 2017.
The five-phase election beginning on 30 November is the first time the Raghubar Das government could face the ire of the electorate over the issue that has largely affected the state’s Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities, which make up 38 percent of the population.
The BJP, which has been in power since the state was created in 2000, is likely to face a major challenge from the most marginalised sections over the breakdown of schemes like the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the employment guarantee programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), said Ramdev Vishwabandhu, a local rights activist.
With 22 hunger deaths reported across the state so far, "the Adivasi community is angry about a myriad of ‘anti-tribal’ policies that have been introduced by the government in the last five years, with proposed amendments to land-related laws, among others," he added.
In the insurgency-hit Giridih district, glaring loopholes in the implementation of social welfare schemes meant to safeguard the marginalised population from such deprivation are likely to affect an already floundering BJP aiming to redeem itself after its less-than-perfect performance in Maharashtra and Haryana in the October Assembly polls.
Death and denial
A note in a diary, acting as a makeshift ration card, is the means of survival for Premika Asda and her sister-in-law Sunita Hemram, in the district’s Sevatanr village in Tisri block.
Almost two years since the family matriarch, 40-year-old Budhni Soren, passed away due to starvation, the family she has left behind — including her seven-year-old son — is still floundering on the edge of hunger without the security of social welfare schemes.
Asda, who is married to Soren’s oldest son holds the fort at home with four dependent mouths to feed, which include her own two children.
Her husband Sameh Hemram, on whose name the ration slip has been issued, and her brother-in-law have migrated to Mumbai and Surat respectively, to work as labourers.
Back home, Asda was issued the ration paper slip after Soren’s death, which, incidentally, is the only reparation the government followed through on after the demise. Additionally, Asda had applied for a legitimate ration card a year ago, but the process has halted without any updates, she said.
Soren, who was a widow and lived alone with her youngest son, fell unconscious and passed away after going hungry for three consecutive days in January 2018. Earning a day-to-day income from stitching and selling plates made out of leaves, Soren used to earn Rs 200 a day if she managed to sell 800 such plates.
She didn’t have a ration card and didn’t receive the stipulated social security pension for widows even though she had applied for the benefits, her family said.
“Some days when she hadn’t been able to earn enough, she used to ask the neighbours for food and they got by with a little give and take in that manner. But towards the end, she was too weak to step out of the house, so they went hungry,” a neighbour, Dinesh Kumar, said.
Starvation deaths, a grey area?
Soren’s demise is a case study of the grey area of what can and cannot be categorised as a starvation death – that is, the arguments made by rights activists vis-à-vis the government’s argument.
About a week before she passed away, Soren “suddenly” caught a fever, which went undiagnosed as she was on her way to the clinic when she fell unconscious. Other residents of village, who carried her back home, by which time she was already dead, formed their layperson’s theory that it could be a case of malaria, “because her body was strikingly cold”, when they lifted her.
However, Dinesh said that when neighbours and family members inspected the house soon after she passed away, there was no sign of any food. “It’s true that in her last few days she was too weak to cook because of the fever, but the question arises, what could she cook if she didn’t have anything?” he said.
The closest medical assistance to Soren was eight kilometres away, while the closes public health centre (PHC) was 22 kilometres away, neighbours said.
Even prolonged fever cannot be the only cause of death, says local CHC
While the government has refused to acknowledge hunger as a key catalyst in the cases so far, activists have used argument to claim that a sustained low intake of nutrients can lead to lessened immunity, making way for diseases and illnesses.
This is corroborated by the follow-up investigation into the case by workers of the local community health centre (CHC), which is the highest authority of public healthcare at the block level.
Soon after Soren’s case was reported, personnel from the CHC ran tests on the other family members present to check for cases of malaria, all of whom tested negative for the illness.
Incidentally, this protocol was followed according to the state government’s own contingency to tackle the phenomenon of hunger deaths.
Dr Devbrath Kumar, the medical officer of the Tisri community health centre, also provided some clarity on how a death by hunger can be diagnosed.
He said, “When a person consumes a negligible amount of food consistently, depending on how fast their body uses up the various nutrients, the person’s body can go into shock. After this, there is a serious risk of organ failure; sometimes, there is multi-organ failure.
“If our bodies don’t get nutrition, it directly affects the immune system, which results in a weakened defence against bacterial or viral attacks. Starvation is definitely a factor in such a case.”
“Even prolonged fever cannot be the only cause of death”, he added, stating that diseases like malaria and even tuberculosis (TB) are now treatable and don’t lead to death when caught in time.
However, Devbrath skirted the question of the veracity of the government’s stand on the issue. “Sometimes the government conducts investigations on its own, we may not get included in the process,” he said, adding that there hadn’t been a “single reported case” of starvation in the block for the last two years.
He praised the “prompt response” from the block development office (BDO) on any assistance required by the CHC.
‘PDS system is corruption-riddled’
The demise of Savitri Devi, a resident of the Chirudih village in the Jamua block of the district, on 5 November is reportedly the 23rd case of a hunger death in the state.
While Jharkhand food minister Saryu Roy has dismissed the family’s claim and said that the state government’s 'Anna Purna Yojana' — which has introduced measures like an allotment of Rs 10,000 given to the mukhiya or head of a village to disburse in case a family is in a dire situation — is an adequate safety net.
Attempts to get in touch with the Chirudih village mukhiya were unsuccessful, however, OP Matho, an activist and the head of neighbouring Laudhia village says that the scheme hasn’t been implemented in Chirudih yet.
Activist Vishwabandhu also said that the scheme isn’t reaching the neediest people. “There is a discrepancy in the demographic of the receivers, names have been left out of the survey they conducted for data of eligible beneficiaries,” he added.
He also said that there was rampant corruption in the PDS scheme in the state, and accused the dealer in Chidudih of asking for Savitri Devi’s family for Rs 2,000 in return for forwarding their application for a ration card.
Sita Devi, one of Savitri Devi’s three daughters-in-law living in the same house, said that even their mother-in-law’s demise has not changed circumstances; they are still not receiving ration.
“They had given us an immediate assistance of around 50 kilograms of rice and 20 kilograms of potato. Most importantly, we told all the officials our difficulties with getting a ration card and they assured us that it will be done, but there has been no progress,” she said.
‘Worried that starvation deaths could become regular feature’
Sevatanr village falls under Jharkhand Vikas Morch (JVM) chief Babulal Marandi’s home turf, the Dhanwar Assembly constituency. However, currently this seat is being held by former Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation MLA, Raj Kumar Yadav.
Urmilla Devi, another neighbour, said that Marandi, who is contesting the Assembly election scheduled for 12 December, had a strong support base in the village because he had “worked for the development of the constituency”.
In 2014, however, the Yadav vote got consolidated in favour of the incumbent CPI(ML) MLA, locals said.
They added that there is widespread anger against the government for the termination of operations of a mica mine in the vicinity eight months ago, which had “employed generations of the village’s residents”.
“Not only have they snatched our sole, certain source of income, but have not even provided any alternative jobs for us to do. There is fear in the village that starvation could become a regular feature after the shutting down of the mines,” Dinesh said.
Reportedly, many locals living in villages around mines across the district continue to work in abandoned mines illegally.
Their dissatisfaction mainly directed toward the ruling BJP, Urmilla said, "If this government wins again, we will have no hope of change in our circumstances, there will continue to be anger. If another government is formed, at least we can hope that they will listen.”
Meanwhile, in the Jamua Assembly constituency, the fight is between BJP’s incumbent and two-time MLA Kedar Hazra and JVM(P)’s Chandrika Mahto.
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Updated Date: Nov 27, 2019 09:51:50 IST