Starvation deaths emerge as key poll issue in Jharkhand as ration card woes keep vulnerable groups hungry

Activists claim that anomalies in the public distribution system (PDS) in Jharkhand is a major contributor of malnutrition among children in the state, the BJP government in the state, however, denies these allegations

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Ramgarh: For the 45-odd Dalit families in Kundaria slum, a few hundred metres off NH-33 in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh, getting their rations from the public distribution system (PDS) shops is so daunting a task that often they have to go to bed hungry. With no access to drinking water either, to them, death seems just around the corner.

On 14 June, 2018, Kundaria slum resident Chitaman Malhar (50) died allegedly due to starvation. His 21-year-old son Bideshi attributes his death to the fact that the family couldn’t get a ration card while his father was alive, despite repeatedly approaching local authorities. However, after Chitaman’s death made the headlines, the government swung into action, providing his family with a ration card and assuring other residents regular ration under the government's National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013.

Prem Malhar's father of Chitaman Malhar died due to starvation in Kundaria slum. 101Reporters

Prem Malhar's father of Chitaman Malhar died due to starvation in Kundaria slum. 101Reporters

Cut to almost a year later, many families here still have to run around to get a ration card, often returning home disappointed. The ones who have it accuse local PDS dealers of not giving them the quantity of rice they are entitled to.

"Poor Chitaman died of hunger. Someone else might (die too) at any moment, considering the situation here. My family is entitled to 35 kilogrammes of rice every month, but we get only 10 kilogrammes. The PDS dealer says only families with Aadhaar cards will get full rations,” says Bhavni Devi (32), who stays in the slum with her husband and three children.

Pyaremohan Malhar (48) is among those who are yet to get a ration card. His eight-member family lives in a tent in the slum and survives on borrowed foodgrains for daily meals. “Where do we go? Nobody gives us jobs. They (PDS dealers) ask us to apply online for a ration card. Where are we supposed to get Internet access when there is no money to even buy food?” he asks.

Last cries for food

The state has a total of 22,726 PDS dealers who provide 35 kilogrammes of rice every month free of cost to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), 25 kilogrammes of rice to families below the poverty line (BPL), and 5 kilogrammes of rice to each beneficiary under the NFSA for Re 1 per kilogramme.

Under NFSA, at least 2.64 crore people, out of a population of 3.29 crore, are provided food grains in the state. Despite this, Jharkhand has some troubling trends when it comes to malnutrition, especially among children. According to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) conducted in 2015-16, at least 48 percent children under the age of five years living in rural Jharkhand are stunted. At least 29.5 percent children in the same age bracket are wasted (suffering from acute malnutrition) and 49.8 percent are underweight, the survey highlights. The NFHS is yet to conduct a survey for 2018-19.

In order to make the PDS less leaky and prevent hunger among the most vulnerable people, the BJP-ruled state launched a pilot programme in Ranchi’s Nagri block in October 2017 for its ambitious Direct Benefit Transfer project for PDS beneficiaries. Under the project, the government transferred money to the bank accounts of beneficiaries and asked them to purchase ration at unsubsidised rates — every month, the state transferred Rs 1,106 to beneficiaries’ accounts and told them to buy ration for Rs 31.60 per kilogramme, which included Re 1 per kilogramme from the beneficiaries’ side. The Centre had released Rs 97 lakhs to the state for its implementation under NFSA. But the project had to be withdrawn after a year following complaints of cumbersome banking processes and intermittent Internet connectivity. During this period also came the Aadhaar blow.

Fact-finding teams and activists of the Right to Food Campaign, who have investigated starvation deaths since December 2016 in Jharkhand, allege there have been at least 19 such cases, where bereaved families did not have ration cards or were denied ration due to lack of Aadhaar seeding.

Right to Food Campaign is an initiative under the banner of Belgian-Indian economist Jean Dreze who was detained recently along with his aides for holding a public meeting on PDS anomalies. Dreze was also charged with violating the Model Code of Conduct for not taking prior permission from the authorities.

But, if not for the efforts of such activists, incidents like the death of 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari in Simdega on 28 September, 2017, would have easily been swept under the carpet. Santoshi died hardly a month after the government “cancelled” 1.1 million “fake” ration cards, which were not linked with Aadhaar, including Santoshi’s family’s. Activists and opposition leaders slammed the government, as the apex court had reiterated that Aadhaar should not be mandatory for welfare services.

The Right to Food Campaign that unearthed Santoshi’s case lodged a complaint with the UIDAI against then chief secretary Rajbala Verma for cancelling ration cards. State food, civil supplies and public distribution minister Saryu Rai ordered a scrutiny of the cancelled ration cards and announced ration even to those beneficiaries who didn’t have Aadhaar cards.

PDS anomalies, say activists, are a major contributor of malnutrition among chidlren in Jharkhand. 101Reporters

PDS anomalies, say activists, are a major contributor of malnutrition among chidlren in Jharkhand. 101Reporters

Denials and justifications

The situation, however, hasn’t improved since his 2017 directive. PDS dealers still exploit poor villagers under the guise of Aadhaar mandate and sell their share of ration in the market for profit, claim villagers.

“Many cancelled ration cards were restored later. I tried getting details and reasons behind the cancellation, but the data wasn’t available,” says Rai, admitting that several villagers have accused PDS dealers in Jharkhand of malpractices and that his ministry was probing all cases.

State food and public distribution secretary Amitabh Kaushal also claims that several beneficiaries in Jharkhand have been getting their quota of ration even without an Aadhaar card. But, according to the government, more than 99.75 percent of beneficiary ration cards have already been linked with Aadhaar.

“We have set protocols under which Aadhaar card is not mandatory for getting benefits under the NFSA. We take strict action against any PDS dealer found guilty of denying ration to beneficiaries or selling it for profit,” says Kaushal.

Rai claims that, since 2017, at least 100 PDS dealers have faced action – it entails cancellation of the dealer’s licence and involvement of the police, depending on the gravity of the crime. Beneficiaries can call on CM’s helpline number 181, or, visit the department concerned to register a complaint.

“All cases of alleged starvation deaths were looked into, and we have detailed testimony proving that starvation was not the cause,” says Kaushal.

Whether or not Kaushal is right in this case, Rahul Malhar (32) of Kundaria slum busts his other claim. He alleges that despite having a ration card as well as Aadhaar number he is yet to get his first instalment of ration — the ration shop has given him the excuse that the biometric system isn’t accepting his fingerprint, conveniently keeping him in the dark about the fact that an Aadhaar card is not mandatory for availing ration.

Sanjay Kundu, general secretary of the Fair Price Dealers Association, a pan-India association of PDS dealers, says Aadhaar is a prerequisite for the smooth functioning of the PDS machinery in Jharkhand.

"Biometric verification can’t happen without Aadhaar. The government has come up with alternatives, like manual maintenance of registers, for those beneficiaries who don’t have Aadhaar cards, but we get our share only on the basis of the number of biometric verification,” says Kundu, who runs a PDS shop in Ranchi.

Left hungry and in the dark

Activists have been at loggerheads with the state government since the first starvation death was reported in the Jharkhand. Some claim that the state has done nothing to improve the situation.

“Right from the first case till the latest death, it is hard to miss the pattern. When these people died, their families did not have food or cash at home, were hungry for days, and were denied their ration or pension entitlements,” says Siraj Dutta, a Right to Food activist.

Many families in Kundaria slum do not have access to ration card.

Many families in Kundaria slum do not have access to ration card.

"The testimonies, as claimed by the government, are questionable, as it forced family members to sign on blank paper in some cases. The government’s denial and lack of action raise questions on its intent itself," he claims.

The optics of the government’s decision to conduct autopsies to ascertain the cause of death was not in their favour. The government claimed that it wanted to know if symptoms such as fatty liver and protein mass deficiency, were taken into account before labelling them starvation deaths.

Even as Santoshi’s mother Koili Devi said that her daughter breathed her last crying for rice, the government was quick to rubbish her allegation and prove malaria as the cause of death.

Similarly, in 64-year-old Premani Kunwar's alleged starvation death on 1 December, 2017, in Garwah, then deputy commissioner of the district, Neha Arora claimed that 300 ml of food material was found in her body during the autopsy, thereby nullifying the claims of starvation death. On 23 January, 2018, Lukhi Murmu of Pakur died of alleged starvation as well. However, the government claimed that she suffered from tuberculosis even as her family denied any history of the disease.

How Opposition plans to change the game

All of the government’s denials and justifications notwithstanding, the starvation deaths in Jharkhand have grabbed the attention of the Opposition. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, during his maiden visit to Ranchi in the first week of March, took jibes at the NDA government over its failure in running the PDS machinery smoothly and accused it of turning a blind eye to “the plight of the poor”.

Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the second-largest party in the state that has formed a pre-poll alliance with the Congress and other regional parties for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, plans to include addressing PDS anomalies in its manifesto.

Its Bahragora legislator Kunal Sarangi says, “The issue of starvation deaths and PDS anomalies will definitely find a place in our manifesto. You can construct roads, buildings, and flyovers, and also invite investors to the state, but at the end of the day, people on the ground are the ones the government must work for. Malnutrition and lack of health facilities are directly related to the starvation deaths here.”

Former chief minister Hemant Soren, who also happens to be the executive president of JMM, said that addressing starvation deaths will be one of the main poll agendas for his party.

Jharkhand is among the worst-affected states in terms of malnutrition among children. The PDS anomalies, activists say, are a major contributor of malnutrition among children in the state.

The author is a Ranchi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters

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