Pooja Chaudhuri Chaudhuri
The only fiction I enjoy is in books and movies.
The death of 11-year-old Santoshi Kumar from Simdega, Jharkhand has raised serious questions about the state government’s administration.
Santoshi died of starvation as her family was unable to procure ration from the local Public Distribution System (PDS) because her ration card was cancelled. Even as the district administration says the probe claims that Santoshi died of illness, Jharkhand PDS minister confirmed to Newslaundry that the family was denied ration.
“The claim that she was denied ration, is true. Her ration card was deleted on July 22,” the BJP minister said. He added that the PDS chief secretary, Raj Bala Verma, had directed them to cancel ration cards of all those who hadn’t linked it to Aadhaar.
“On April 5, in a written communication, I asked the principal secretary of my department that on what basis such an order was passed. I am yet to get a response,” Rai told Newslaundry.
“I am not concerned, whether I will remain a minister in this government or not,” he added. “Badi karwai to bade padh par baithe logon par honi chahiye (Strict action should be taken against the senior officers responsible for this crisis.) This will not change until they are penalised.”
Earlier, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which administers Aadhaar, said that all the six members of the family had Aadhaar and stringent action must be taken against those who allegedly denied her benefits under food subsidy scheme.
Interestingly, after Santoshi had died on the night on September 28, activist Dheeraj Kumar had told The Logical Indian that officials told the locals to say that she was sick and did not die of hunger.
An 11-year-old girl, Santoshi Kumari, from Simdega district, Jharkhand died of starvation on the night of September 28 after going without food for at least five to six days.
The Logical Indian contacted Right to Food activist, Dheeraj Kumar, who had first brought this issue to light. In his interview with the girl’s mother, Koyli Devi, she informed that the family’s ration card had been cancelled as it wasn’t linked to their Aadhaar, thus, they were unable to procure food.
Santoshi was in a state acute hunger as her school was shut for Durga Puja holidays so she couldn’t get food from the midday meal scheme. The other members of the family also hadn’t eaten since the past few days. As per the Right to Food activists, the family’s ration card was cancelled in February; since then, they were surviving on bits and pieces. The mother and the elder daughter who is 20 years of age sustained by doing menial jobs like trimming grass in people’s houses, making cow dung cakes, datoon (sticks used to brush teeth) and pattal (plates made out of leaves). They used to earn around Rs 70 after six days of selling these items. The elder daughter sometimes used to take care of cows and goats owned by people in the village and would, in turn, get rice for the work.
Koyli Devi’s youngest child is a one-and-half-year-old boy who is taken care of by Anganwadi workers. He is entitled to take-home ration which the family used to dilute and feed everyone.
Right to Food activists had informed local officials more than a month before Santoshi’s death, on August 21, that the family was starving as they weren’t getting any ration. But the authorities did nothing because the family’s ration card wasn’t ‘seeded’ (as said in the local language) to Aadhaar.
The local Public Distribution System (PDS) dealer refused to give ration, citing the Central government’s February order that had made Aadhaar mandatory for availing subsidised foodgrains. However, activists say that this is in clear violation of the Supreme Court’s 2013 order which said that the Centre cannot make Aadhaar mandatory for availing of government benefits and schemes.
Furthermore, it is unfair to hold the family responsible for the delay in making the ration card as the process is lengthy and not without bureaucratic exploitation or technical glitches. When their details were uploaded on the Jharkhand PDS website, the server was down. Problems with the system and logistics were beyond the family’s control. When The Logical Indian tried to access the PDS server, it remained inaccessible even today.
In the Aadhaar-enabled PDS system that uses electronic Point of Sale (ePOS), a person has to give their biometric data each time they use the scheme. There are two issues with this system; one, it works on network connectivity that might be poor in rural areas, and two, if one doesn’t have Aadhaar, they are not eligible for ration.
“This wasn’t an isolated incident of the government’s push for Aadhaar. Across India, state and central governments are violating the SC’s order,” said Dheeraj Kumar, adding that the plight of the family that resides next to Santoshi Kumari’s family is the same. Even their ration card was cancelled and they haven’t been getting any food to survive.
“The administration was informed about them too but no action has yet been taken and their card is still not made. There are several others who come to us complaining that their ration card was cancelled but the government remains apathetic to their cause,” he said.
The ones who had their cards cancelled are asked to get them made again. This is a time-consuming process and even after the ration card is made, they still might not be eligible to receive ration. Koyli Devi’s ration card was made after two weeks of Santoshi’s death and even now the family is unable to procure food because the Store Issue Order (SIO) is yet to be generated. SIO is an online number and ration is received only after it is generated.
Presently, Right to Food activists are taking care of the family. They have been giving them food – more than 20 kgs of rice and bread, tea and dal. They also provided medical help to Koyli Devi.
“The family has received no compensation yet, instead, the government is trying to establish that the girl did not die of starvation. They are attempting to prove that her death was caused due to malaria. They are also putting pressure on the locals to say that she died due to falling sick,” said Dheeraj Kumar.
When The Logical Indian contacted the Additional District Collector of Simdega, Mr Arvind Kumar, he too claimed that the girl died of “some” disease. “The state food commissioner and the district collector had come to inspect the issue, after which, they concluded that the girl was ill for the past few days before her death,” he said. When asked what the girl was suffering from, he said that it is “yet to be known”.
Meanwhile, the office of the Deputy Commissioner refused to give any comments to us, stating that they cannot give any official statement in this regard. They added that a report is underway and will soon be made public.
Right to Food activists are also fighting to urge the government to include pulses in the PDS as rice hardly has any nutritional value. “For the needy, the PDS is their lifeline. When you cancel their ration cards, you take away their shot at survival. You cannot make a regulation mandatory to offer basic necessities to citizens and then throw them to die of starvation when they cannot live up to your rules,” said Dheeraj Kumar.
The government’s entire premise of Aadhaar was helping the poor. They said that it would aid them in receiving social benefits in a better and a more transparent manner. But we’re talking about people who have low technical knowledge, are not adept with the internet and reside in areas with poor network connectivity. Problems like fingerprint mismatch and banks lacking enough branches in rural areas have marred Aadhaar-linked welfare schemes like the public distribution system. How is Aadhaar the need of the hour when our rural areas lack electricity, water, food, banks and irrigation facilities? Without basic infrastructure and human rights remaining unfulfilled, what does the government truly wishes to achieve with Aadhaar?
The Logical Indian community strongly condemns the manner in which the government is pushing to make Aadhaar compulsory. Santoshi Kumari came from a family that has no steady income or property, thus, was eligible for the government’s subsidised rations under the National Food Security Act, 2013, that includes midday meal scheme, Integrated Child Development Services scheme and the Public Distribution System. The gross incompetence to properly implement these are not unknown – children have lost lives due to the consumption of unhygienic midday meals, their ration is sometimes lost in transit, public distribution systems are rigged and hundreds die hungry because of their failure to link Aadhaar with their ration card.
As per the recently released Global Hunger Index of the World Bank, India ranks 100 out of 119 countries. A fifth (21%) of children in India suffer from wasting (acute malnutrition), which, has hardly improved in the last 25 years. Furthermore, the prevalence of stunting in children under 5 years of age is 38.4% and the under-5 mortality rate is 4.8%.
India is one of the largest grain producers in the world, despite which, more than 20% of its 1.3 billion population goes to bed hungry.
For every Indian to be able to feed themselves, food needs to be available, accessible and affordable. Availability suffers due to corruption and bureaucracy, while accessibility and affordability are hampered due to the existing inequality.
Food is our right, not luxury and the government needs to set its priorities straight.
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