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Volleying the blame

The response of the bureaucracy to starvation deaths has been appalling as Aadhaar linking is pursued to demonstrate loyalty, writes Arun Srivastava.

Volleying the blame

Jharkhand's PDS Minister Saryu Roy, despite acting late, nevertheless, in one stroke, demolished the myth of the government diktat of the Aadhaar card being indispensable. On September 28, Santoshi, a girl belonging to an extremely poor family hailing from Simdega, died of starvation. This occurred in the aftermath of Chief Secretary Rajbala Verma's directive that rendered the ration card of the family ineligible as they were not linked to the Aadhaar system. The family had not received any ration since February but subsisted on doles from villagers and the mid-day meal Santoshi received at her school.

Roy was shocked at the death of the poor girl and sought a clarification as to how such an order could have been issued when the state government had not announced any directive to this effect. In fact, he sought to know whether his own government had directed that ration cards not linked to the Aadhaar be cancelled.
The action of certain officials of the state administration has been the most disheartening and dehumanising. They are adamant to prove that Santoshi died of malaria and not due to the non-availability of ration. It is bizarre that these officials have been active in spreading confusion. Does blaming malaria as the reason for deaths absolve the government of its welfare obligation and responsibility? It is an undeniable fact that a significant proportion of Indian children go hungry across several days of the year.
These officials, in their quest to shield Verma, conveniently forgot the fact that they were publicly admitting the failure of the health department to check the spread of malaria, which has been claiming the lives of children belonging to poor families. Nonetheless, activists in Simdega alleged that Santoshi Kumari died after her family was denied ration because their card was not linked to the Aadhaar.
Once the Central government made Aadhaar a mandatory requirement, a rat race has ensued amongst the bureaucrats and ministers to push it. Incidentally, it has turned into an instrument actively used to pledge loyalty to the ruling elite and political bosses.
A couple of days ago, the minister claimed that as soon as the directive from the administration came to light, he had issued an official order to ensure that no ration card was omitted due to the non-linking with Aadhaar. It is possible that some names were nevertheless deleted due to prevailing confusion. However, later developments make it explicit that the officials of the Jharkhand government willfully ignored the instructions of the minister.
Trying to put the record straight, the government claimed that the Chief Secretary's directive followed a review meeting with the PDS officials. "In the course of the review in March, the CS has said that by April 5, all ration cards without Aadhaar would become ineligible and only the Aadhaar-based system would be used for lifting ration." It is astonishing that no cognizance of the order of the minister was taken by the administration.
Though Chief Minister Raghubar Das has ordered a probe into the death of Santoshi and how the ration card of her family was deleted from the list, efforts have been initiated by vested interest groups to suppress the fact and protect the government from being maligned. Even Simdega deputy commissioner, Manjunath Bhajantri, confirmed that he had received complaints that the family was facing threats and asked the police to provide security. Food activists said that late on Friday night some panchayat members stormed into the family's hut to ask them why they had persisted with the starvation death theory. The family hid in another village till they were herded back by the administration. Later, Santoshi's sister Gudia lodged an FIR against 25 villagers. While SP Rajeev Ranjan Singh said a probe had started, he did not say why no arrests were made.
Santoshi's mother continued to assert that her daughter did not die of malaria, she was instead, crying for rice while breathing her last. She said she has not given her thumb impression on any such report saying the girl died of malaria. The most deplorable action of the government officials was their allegation that the family had kept a sack of food grain in the house. They tried their best to send the message that Santoshi's death was a part of the plot to malign the BJP government. A five-member team of Right to Food activists that visited the family in Simdega said, the family lived in penury and slept on an empty stomach every night. Koili Devi, Santoshi's mother, was quoted by the team as saying that the family at times survived on packaged food from the Anganwadi centre.
It is an open secret that death due to hunger has escalated into a major crisis in India. Over 25 lakh people die of hunger, every year. Of these, nearly 65 per cent are kids. Even while people are shocked by the death of Santoshi, yet another hunger death has surfaced in Jharkhand.
Rooplal Marandi, 62-year-old, died of hunger on Monday in Jharkhand's Deoghar district, after the biometric reader at the PDS shop couldn't read his thumb impression and he was refused ration, his family alleged. This is the third time in a month that a family in the tribal-state has claimed to have lost a member after being refused access to subsidised supplies they are entitled to under a nation-wide food programme for the poor. In this case, too, the doctor confirmed it to be an instance of natural death.
It is deplorable that the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA), the most decisive intervention to check hunger death, was not being properly implemented in Jharkhand. In July 2017, the Supreme Court found that in many states the bodies charged with implementation had not been set up and described the situation as "pathetic". The budget for this programme has also been getting slashed, gradually.
(Views are strictly personal.)

Arun Srivastava

Arun Srivastava

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