OPINION
OPINION

PDS Failure Behind ‘Hunger Deaths’ In Jharkhand

By Smriti Sikri The failure of the Public Distribution System (PDS) has engulfed Jharkhand severely, resulting in non-availability of rations, administrative apathy and cries of hunger. Since September 2017, 12 cases of alleged hunger related deaths have been reported in the state. On 24th July, the 13th case was reported where Rajendra Birhor, resident of Mandu district was suffering from jaundice and after starving for three days, he succumbed to death. A recent report by News18 revealed that the entire village of Chandurpara in tribal majority Pakur district does not have ration cards.  The villagers claimed that they were excluded from enumeration under Census 2011 and subsequently from receiving rations under the PDS. India is a nation of contradictions where starvation deaths and budgetary allocation for bullet trains are imagined in the same space and time. This is an unfortunate and disturbing reality across the country now. Starvation deaths are the last straw of hunger insecurity that plagues the whole country.  As per the Global Hunger Index, India’s rank has gone down from 55th in 2014 to 100th out of 119 countries in 2017.  Among the BRICS nations, India ranks last and neighbors Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh fare better in the ranking. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, 35.4 % of women and 25% of men in rural areas have Body Mass Index (BMI) below normal in Jharkhand. In such a situation, the PDS which guarantees food grains to entitled families under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) is an important intervention to ensure that people do not stay hungry. With the introduction of biometric authentication through AADHAR, several difficulties have risen. The process, in the name of saving costs, is in fact excluding people who need it the most. The government’s agenda appears to project crores of savings as an Aadhaar revolution rather than saving lives. The first case of starvation death in Jharkhand came to light in September 2017, when Santoshi an 11 year old girl, died crying for rice in Simdega district. While the family maintained that she died of starvation, the officials insisted that it was due to an illness. This official view echoed with Santoshi’s neighbor who was noted saying, “Aaj ka jug mein koi bhookh se mare hao (Does anybody die of hunger in this day and age)?” which indeed is an eye-opening statement. The Jharkhand government officials have repeatedly denied the existence of hunger deaths. After the 12th case of death caught national media attention, the deputy commissioner of Giridih reportedly said, “If it was starvation, it should have struck all the members”. A statement like this, is clearly ill-founded and smirks of apathy, ignoring the stark structural realities of caste, class and gender dynamics at play within spaces of limited public resources.  This official apathy intensifies the vulnerability of already marginalized people where their issues remain unidentified and ignored in the dominant public policy framework. The leader of opposition in Jharkhand, Mr. Hemant Soren shared a comprehensive list of the 12 alleged deaths and the causes associated with them on his twitter handle. A detailed analysis of these case studies reveals that all of them were dalits or tribals and 9 of the 12 who died of starvation, were women. Most of them were old and frail who without any income means could not sustain without the entitled food (rice) under the PDS given that even their pensions were not disbursed. A paper on Gender and Food Security by the International Food Policy Research Institute discusses how the the problem of food insecurity is ‘multidimensional and interconnected’. In the context of India, gender intersects with caste, ethnicity, religion and also age, to shape vulnerabilities confronted by people and the opportunities available to them. Food insecurity then becomes a result of injustice based on social identity. During the Monsoon Session in Jharkhand, Mr. Jagarnath Mahtoa of the key opposition party Jharkhand Mukti Morcha raised questions related to the death of Savitri Devi from Dumri Block.  The minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Food & Supply Department, Mr. Saryu Rai, however out rightly denied hunger as the cause for death. The food minister also shirked any possibility of providing government compensation to the family. Several civil society organizations across the country including the Right to Food Campaign organized a protest meet on 13th July 2018 at Jharkhand Bhawan, New Delhi. They condemned these ‘hunger deaths’ and demanded ‘universalization of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and social security pensions’ and ‘withdrawal of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) for food security in favour of the earlier prevalent system of PDS’. Noted economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera along with other activists have discussed the problems with biometric authentication whereby almost 10-15% of the most vulnerable population in Jharkhand has been excluded from the system. On similar lines, Ms. Ankita Aggarwal, volunteer with the Right to Food campaign told the writer that ‘despite media attention on the issue of starvation deaths, there are many cases that still remain unreported. She also felt that linking of Aadhar to PDS, despite being a major reason for what is happening in Jharkhand, is not the sole problem. She says that ‘the exclusions within the PDS have led to cancellation of almost 11 lakh ration cards and that is portrayed as savings of the government.’ Given the already dismal condition of PDS and a further setback with the introduction of compulsory biometric authentication, it remains to be seen how political will and empathetic decision making results in some ground level change, specifically with the forthcoming Assembly elections to be held in Jharkhand in  2019. (The writer is a postgraduate in Social Work with specialisation in Criminology and Justice from TISS, Mumbai and is working as an associate consultant with the Policy & Development Advisory Group, New Delhi.)

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