Monday, 30th October 2017

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Food activists slam govt on hunger deaths

State ignoring ground realities of malnutrition, busy trying to prove every victim was ailing, says Drèze

By Our Special Correspondent in Ranchi
  • Published 22.06.18

Ranchi: Right to Food Campaign activists claim the Jharkhand government was doing precious little to arrest the circumstances that force people to starve and die, but was continuing to "shamelessly marshal" all resources to prove after every starvation death that it was because of illness and not hunger.

According to noted economist and activist, Jean Drèze, as many as 12 people had died in various districts of the state due to prolonged hunger. Yet, except for piecemeal and futuristic announcements by the state government nothing had moved on the ground.

Most victims, he said, were from the Dalit and tribal population, who had a history of living in abject poverty without proper access to social security benefits to various reasons. "When an underprivileged person survives on a half-empty stomach, prolonged starvation will automatically lead to medical complications and trigger death. Why can't the government see the larger picture?" he told the media on Thursday at a press conference in the wake of recent alleged hunger deaths in Giridih and Chatra.

Siraj, another activist who was present at the media interaction, said he and three others had visited Giridih following reports of the death of Savitri Devi earlier this month and claimed that their findings were at variance with what the government had claimed.

Savitri and her family, he claimed, were compelled to starve because of government apathy.

"The government said Savitri's widow pension was credited to her account in April 2018. But that is a half-truth. She had applied for widow pension in January 2014 and received her first payment in April 2018. Despite necessary approvals, her pension wasn't credited because officials had not linked her account to her UID," he said, displaying video footage of the local mukhiya and her family members issuing statements.

Siraj said Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) was in a shambles in Giridih. "Savitri's household has a job card (JH19005010005/12), but the last time she got work, to build a doba (pond) under the scheme was for 11 days in 2016. Neither she nor her daughters in-law were members of any self-help group. As for as ration card, when they applied two months back, the mukhiya suggested they go to the local block office and fill a form online. Her family said they went a few times but stopped thereafter," he claimed, raising the question why the government had not acted on the delay in her widow pension.

Swati Narayan, an activist who had accompanied a team to Chatra where a ragpicker, Meena Musahar, had died in June, raised similar questions.

"According to Meena's neighbours, she was so malnourished that she could not feed her infant child who died a week before. She did not have a ration card. The state government has conveniently absolved itself of any responsibility as she may have come from Gaya in Bihar in search of livelihood. Doesn't the Food Security Act guarantee food to all?" Swati said.

Another activist spoke of the death of Chitaman (50) of Mandu, Ramgarh. He claimed Chitaman died of extreme deprivation and lack of food.

Drèze said the deaths of 12 people in the last year indicated how they all lost their lives due to constant denial of subsidised rice either because of the absence of a ration card or because of the failure of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication.

"It is also true many were ill. But perhaps they would not have succumbed if they received adequate nutrition and medical care. Denial of social security pensions and absence of work under NREGS further contributed to the destitution of the starvation victims and their families," he said.

Drèze said the best way to address these issues was to universalise the public distribution system in rural areas and include nutritious items in PDS rations. "The government cries financial aspects, but it is any time better than denying people right to dignified living," he said.

The activists also demanded a rollback of DBT (direct benefit transfer) of funds currently on as a pilot in Nagri block of Ranchi.

"We said long back that it was a failure. Now, the government's own social audit report says so. Moreover, we learnt that the government recently wrote to the Centre requesting permission to discontinue the Nagri DBT pilot arguing that it violates the National Food Security Act. Then why was it started in the first place?" Drèze pointed out.