Three young girls aged eight, four and two succumbed to acute hunger in the national capital of the country on July 24, reports indicate. The doctors confirmed that they died due to starvation. The reports pointed out that the children had not eaten in the last eight days.
India, which is now the sixth largest economy in the world having pushed France to the seventh position, still suffers from acute problems of starvation and hunger. What happened in the national capital is not a rarest of rare occurrences. The Right to Food Campaign staged a protest outside Jharkhand Bhawan in New Delhi on July 14 to express their anguish over the recent starvation deaths and incidents of lynching in the state of Jharkhand.
“Over the past ten months, at least 12 persons have succumbed to hunger in Jharkhand”, says a press release by Right to Food campaign (Jharkhand) citing the “government’s lack of seriousness to address the issue of starvation in the state”. “Jharkhand government has denied hunger as the cause of any of these deaths and absolved itself of any blame,” the report further states.
“The NFSA, I believe, was a step in the right direction, but the goal of good nutrition for all is still far from being realized.” ~ JeanDreze
Although India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, the results are not reflected in the life of its citizens. Widespread poverty, poor health status, increasing number of people without homes and food show that human and social development still remain to be achieved. According to United NationsDevelopmentProgram (UNDP), India ranks 131 in human development index (HDI). Global Nutrition Report 2017 stated that India had the largest number of women impacted by anemia.Assocham and EY in a study stated 50% of undernourished children of the world are in India.From Maharashtra to Jharkhand, hunger and starvation-related deaths continue to occur.
Further, due to agrarian distress and lack of livelihood opportunities, a large number of poor are migrating to urban areas in search of livelihood, living under inhumane conditions in the slums. Presently, the Public Distribution System (PDS) is one of the most important measures available as not only as food security but also as essential income support, freeing some part of the wages to buy other essentials.
National Food Security Act and PDS
National Food Security Act (NFSA) was implemented in 2013 — four years after its first draft was prepared.The preamble of the Act states, “An Act to provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
Under the NFSA, there are two kinds of cardholding households —“Priority” and “Antyodaya”(poorest of the poor). Priority households are entitled to 5 kilograms (kg) of food grains per person per month. Antyodaya households are entitled to35 kgs per month per family. National Food Security Act is not restricted to the PDS but includes important provisions related to child nutrition programmes through the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme and Midday Meal scheme,as well as maternity entitlements to all women.
The Case of Jharkhand
Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in the year 2000 after decades of struggle and has been plagued with abject poverty. Housing2.72% of the total Indian population, 26.21 % of the total population of the state are Schedule Tribes and12.08 % are Scheduled Castes(Census 2011). As per the socio-economic and caste census 2011, a staggering 80.65% of households of the Scheduled Tribes in Jharkhand have a monthly income of less that Rs 5000 while 82.12% of Scheduled Caste households in Jharkhand have a monthly income less than Rs 5000.
The National Food Security Act was implemented in Jharkhand in October 2015. It covers a whopping percent of the total population of Jharkhand — 86.4 percent of the rural population and 60.2 percent of the urban population. For the purpose of implementation, eligible households were identified using the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) of 2011. In Jharkhand, PDSprimarily consists of disbursement of rice. Prior to the implementation of NFSA, PDS, like in most part of the country, was plagued with corruption and leakages, hardly making its way to the beneficiaries. A series of PDS reforms coupled with the NFSA sanctions improved the situation.
However, just as the situation got better, the Indian government came up with Aadhaar — a “unique” 12-digit identity.
No authentication, no food
7 out of the 12 starvation deaths in Jharkhand documented by the Right to Food Campaign were directly related to the problems with Aadhaar linking. Santoshi Kumari, a 11-year-old minor girl from Jharkhand’s Simdega district, died due to hunger in October 2017. Right to Food campaign activists allege that her father’s ration card was canceled because it was not linked to his Aadhaar number as per the directions issued by Raj Bala Verma theChief Secretary of Jharkhand: “All the ration cards which have not been linked with Aadhaar number will become null and void on 5th April. Aadhaarbased ration card will be considered for food grains by the PDS outlets…”.
With the school shutting down for Durga Puja vacation, the 11-year-old Santoshi did not get any food to eat for eight straight days, eventually succumbing to hunger. Santoshi’s father was denied food entitlements accruing from the NFSA and PDS for six months. Jharkhand government very proudly claimed to have deleted 11.6 lakh ration cards from the public distribution system lists because they were found to be “fake or duplicate”, as Santoshi’s father and many others like him “fake” cardholders struggle to live.
Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) in the PDS entails point of sales (PoS) machines at PDS shops and verifying the identity of cardholders by matching their fingerprints against the Aadhaar database over the internet every time they buy their ration. Further, the 12-digit number has to be correctly “seeded” in the PDS database. With bad network and erratic electricity supply in rural areas of Jharkhand, the system is bound to fail. In case of senior citizens, persons engaged in rigorous manual labour, or individuals with specific disabilities, face difficulties in fingerprint authentication — most often not being “authenticated”and thereby losing their rightful entitlements to rations.
With Santoshi’s death leading to an outrage against the ruling party, state’s PDS Minister Saryu Roy told the Indian Express, “When this came to light, I asked my officials in a written order on April 5 to ensure that no ration card gets deleted due to non-linking with Aadhaar. It is possible that some names got deleted due to the confusion.” Simultaneously, the state shirked all responsibility by maintaining that the 11-year-old had died because of malaria and not starvation.
This death of 11-year-old Santoshi is not the last in the chain. 67-year-oldEtwariya Devi of Jharkhand’s Garhwa district succumbed to hunger on December 25, 2017. The fact-finding report by Right to Food Campaign (Jharkhand) claims that “Etwariya Devi had been denied her monthly food rations under the National Food Security Act since October 2017 despite having a valid “priority household” card. She had also not received her pension under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme since November because of “technical glitches” and poor internet connectivity.
#PDS ration card of Basanti Devi of Sonmer village of Pantha Panchayat in Basia block of Gumla district (#Jharkhand) was cancelled more than a year back as her #Aadhaar was not linked with the card. Since then, she is not getting her grain entitlements. https://t.co/NF3YuWD5tJ
— Right to Food, India (@rozi_roti) July 23, 2018
Rationalising systemic exclusion
The rationale given for the introduction ofAadhaar by the government is to reduce leakages in government subsidies and welfare schemes, eventually to pave the way for direct cash transfer to beneficiaries. However, apart from the question of breach of privacy and the mass surveillance that this system enables, researchers and activist have, time and again, pointed out the flaws in Aadhaar’s stated intention to reduce “leakages” in social welfare schemes.
In contravention of various Supreme Court orders, the Jharkhand government has gradually extended the system of ABBA to most of the districts for accessing PDS, NREGA, etc. This has not only resulted in absolute chaos in the rural areas, but also has been incapable of solving the “leakages” problem to even a miniscule extent. Academicians Jean Dreze and ReetikaKhera, in a study of Jharkhand’s Ranchi district, claim that the question of corruption in PDS is not because of bogus cards but due to fewer rations being distributed to the beneficiaries by the dealers. Aadhaar, far from resolving that, has made matters worse in Jharkhand.
61-year-old Savitri Devi died in Jharkhand’s Giridih district on June 2, 2017. The fact-finding report by the Right to Food Campaign states that she did not have a ration card. Furthermore, like Etwariya Devi, she had been sanctioned the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme in 2014. Under this scheme, individuals from BPL families of rural and urban areas are entitled to pension at the rate of Rs 600 per month. However, because her account was not “seeded” to Aadhaar, she did not receive any pension until April,2018. The three-month pension amount in her account went unnoticed by Savitri Devi who had no way to know that she no longer had to stay hungry.
The Right to Food Campaign has reported cases where pension was redirected to someone else’s account linked with the person’sAadhaar; where PDS grains were not sanctioned by the dealer because the thumbprint did not work in ABBA; where Antyodaya card was converted to priority card without any information to the cardholder.
The latest news is of MeenaMushar, allegedly a migrant from the neighboring state of Bihar who succumbed to starvation in Jharkhand’s Chhatra district on June 17, 2018. The fact-finding report by the Right to Food Campaign quotes neighbours of the deceased who inform that prior to the death of Meena Mushar, the family lost an infant who couldn’t be breastfed by its severely malnourished mother. The report informs that after the death of two members, the shattered, hungry family has moved from PremnagarMohalla, Ikhtora Block and are untraceable.
In all the cases documented by the Right to Food campaign, the government has taken zero responsibility for the deaths and blamed illnesses like malaria and tuberculosis as having claimed the lives. This is, however, a self-defeating argument as it is well documented that the malnourished are easy preys to these diseases. The odds of these diseases claiming lives are against those malnourished and starving. Further, in all the cases, irregularities in accessing PDS grains and other social welfare schemes are explicit.
Starvation deaths: Extreme manifestation of regular happenings
In almost all cases of reported starvation deaths, there is absolute inaccessibility to various social welfare schemes and entitlements from NREGA to Pension and PDS. For instance, both Savitri Devi and Etwariya Devi were eligible for pension but could not access it. The fact-finding report on Etwariya Devi’s death notes that there is no NREGA work being conducted in and around her village. Similarly, in the case of 11 year Santoshi, her father too did not have any access to work under NREGA. In MeenaMushar’s case, the family did not, or rather could not avail any of the social welfare schemes for little or no attention is paid to the migrant population.
As the country makes progress at the cost of pushing the most vulnerable to the margins, these schemes have increasingly become the last thread for their survival. Starvation death is not an aberration but an extreme manifestation of disturbingly regular happenings. The Aadhaar makes matters worse. This is a wholly inappropriate technology for rural India, especially in the poorest of states and yet the government of India has implemented Aadhaar use in 436 schemes on a “voluntary” basis.
As Jean Dreze writes in his column in The Hindu:
“The most disturbing aspect of this trend is a lack of concern for the hardships that people face. Aadhaar-less ration cards are cancelled without notice. Pensions are discontinued without the victims being told what the problem is. Job cards are cancelled just to meet the “100% seeding” targets. Elderly persons with rough fingerprints are deprived of food rations without compensation. Cash payments are automatically redirected to Aadhaar-linked bank accounts that people sometimes know nothing about. In effect, they are treated as guinea pigs for undependable technologies, without any effective arrangements for grievance redressal or even information sharing. Let people perish if need be, Aadhaar must prevail.”