On a cold December 31, 2018 night, Basant Birijiyan lost his grandmother Budhni Birijiyan, an 80-year-old widow, to hunger and poverty in Jharkhand’s Latehar, one of India’s poorest districts. Located in a hilly area, they lived beside a farm in an isolated rented house away from the village’s main settlement in Ambatoli Mahuadanr block.
Basant, who was away when she died, claims Budhni must not have eaten food for at least three days as there was no foodgrains at home. Many a time, his family of five dependents, including Budhni, settled for one meal a day.
Basant and his family members used to pay the house rent in kind — as farm labour — after Budhni who lost her leg in an accident six years ago, remained bed-ridden ever since and depended on others for food.
The family often got free food from their neighbour who shared a portion of the house (one room under the same roof).
Basant’s family claims they had applied for ration card, filling the ₹10 form at least six times in the past. He recalls his mother quoting a government official as saying “aap Modi ke paas jao (go to Narendra Modi [for help])”.
“We had sent the form to the block supply officer at least six times. Yet, we did not receive a ration card. After Budhni died, some officials promised to get us one, but till date it has not come,” Basant said.
Basant worked as a daily wage labourer and earned a meagre ₹2,000-2,500 a month depending on availability of work. He occasionally got jobs in nearby brick kilns and farms. After her death, Basant and his family moved out of the house and lived in a nearby settlement.
Basant says his wife and daughter could not avail the benefits of hospitalised delivery nor the nutritional supplements from the anganwadi. The neighbour who had a six months old daughter, besides two other kids, said the anganwadi remained shut for more than six months now.
His family belonged to Birijiya community which is considered a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), a marginalised section of the Scheduled tribes of India, particularly low in development indices. As part of PVTG, they were eligible for Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) ration cards which entitled them to 35 kg of free foodgrains at subsidised rates.
None of the four adults in the family had an Aadhaar card nor MNREGA job cards. At the time of Budhni’s death, Basant did not have money to bury the body. The local police had provided ₹2000 to the family for conducting the last rites, besides 40-50 kg of rice.
Budhni’s family had no government authorised document to show their existence, nor did they have access to any of the welfare schemes of the government. Budhni never got any of the four pensions — widow, physically handicapped, elderly and the PVTG pension — available under various government schemes.
The danger of food insecurity was lurking around even as the government system had failed them. Budhni’s case was not a one-off instance.
The fact-finding team of Right to Food Campaign, an NGO in Jharkhand, identified 23 such starvation deaths in the state in the last three years.
While Budhni’s death made headlines and gave her family a temporary reprieve, there was no long term solution. At least three families in the same area aired similar problems of failure of Public Distribution System despite having Aadhaar and applying for ration card multiple times.
Bhogendra Thakur, district supply officer (DSO) of food and civil supplies department in Dhanbad district, said the department goes by the 2011 census and fixes an upper limit of total number of eligible beneficiaries for each district and taluk.
So when new applications come in, if that is over and above the upper limit, he says the block officer or any DSO would not process the application.
Thakur says as the ration system is online, it would reject new applications (above the limits) automatically. “Unless the government (ministry) removes the upper limit or makes an inclusive mechanism, DSOs cannot help,” he says.
Another DSO in Hazaribag district said one of the reasons why applications get rejected is because while applying online one is asked to give phone numbers and if they do not have one, the system cannot process one. In the case of Birjaniyas, none of the family members had a mobile phone.
“If someone does not have a mobile phone, we ask them to give the mobile number of their neighbours or relatives so that the online application can be completed. Else the system will not allow us to proceed,” Shail Prabha Kujur, DSO of Hazaribag said.
However, both the state and the Centre are in complete denial of starvation and hunger-related deaths. In an answer to a question in the Lok Sabha earlier this year, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs noted that no state government or Union Territory had reported any incident of death due to starvation in the country so far.
“The government, particularly after bringing the National Food Security Act, should ensure no one is excluded from the socio-economic schemes and make sure people get adequate quantity of quality food,” says Siraj Dutta of Right to Food Campaign.
@roysaryu 'ji, Hope you take note of the story of this elderly woman. #UshaDevi lives in Ranchi, has #Aadhar & #RationCard & hasn't received her entitled grains from #PDS dealer in last #6MONTHS. A widow with both her sons dead, she can be 'face' of next #hungerdeath. @DC_Ranchi pic.twitter.com/JoIapecQPV
— Hemant Soren (@HemantSorenJMM) June 9, 2018
“And when the state and Centre both are in denial of such deaths, the officials at the local level take it for granted and show no accountability or proactiveness to solve the impending problems,” he adds.
He further notes that Aaadhaar delinking should be done on priority so that poor people are not affected by the system and are not denied ration due to fingerprint verification failures.
The Food Security Act gives legal entitlement to 67% of the population (75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas) to receive highly subsidised food grains.
The poverty level in Jharkhand (both urban and rural), as measured by the Tendulkar Committee, remained highest amongst states in the country. About 46.5% of Jharkhand people still live in poverty. About 86% of all rural households are entitled to subsidised foodgrain under the Food Security Act.
With the five-phase polls scheduled to begin on November 30, political parties, particularly the opposition parties, are making it a poll issue. While the ruling BJP, which is hoping to retain power, ignore the ration card and Aadhaar issue, it has promised jobs for at least one member of every below-poverty-line (BPL) family in the state. Congress too made the promise.
Meanwhile, the regional party, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha mentioned that addressing PDS anomalies in the state was one of the key agendas of the party. It further said it would ensure earnings of every poor family was ₹72,000 per annum and promised a pension of ₹2,500 per month for the elderly and the differently-abled.
“Fixing the ration card anomalies will be our top priority. Unlike the BJP, we recognise the problem and work towards it, so no poor person is left out from the beneficiary schemes. We will also ensure strict action against errant officers if any villager complains of not receiving entitled ration,” Latehar Assembly constituency for JMM candidate Baidynath Ram said.