Jharkhand: Why Starvation Deaths Are Not a Poll Issue?
The death of a 40-year-old tribal man in Ramgarh district of Jharkhand in July 2018 had led to a lot of uproar after his wife had claimed that he had died due to hunger. The dead person was Rajendra Birhor from the Birhor tribe.
Birhor's wife Shanti Devi said that her husband had jaundice and they did not have enough money to buy food or the medicines prescribed by the doctor. Also, his family did not have a ration card at the time, which would enable them to get subsidised foodgrains under the state government's public distribution scheme. The father of seven children was the only earning member in the Birhor family.
It should be noted that Rajendra Birhor did not even get the Rs 600 per month social security pension for the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). The Supreme Court has given a clear order that the PVTGs—of which the Birhors are a part of—have a right to 35 kg ration per month under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. Also, families of the PVTGs of Jharkhand should be provided with free ration at their home.
Talking to NewsClick, Shanti said that even though she is now receiving the 35 kg rice she is entitled to, she has still not gotten a job despite the plethora of promises made by government officials. She added that it is difficult to raise her seven children in such a situation. She now earns a meagre amount of money by doing menial jobs such as disposing used plates and cleaning up after weddings.
However, the district administration officials denied that the cause of death was starvation, and claimed that Birhor died due to illness. Even though the government refuses to accept the deaths due to hunger, a fact-finding team led by noted social activist Ritika Kheda found that at least 22 people have died due to hunger in Jharkhand in the last five years. Kheda has also released a list of deaths due to hunger. According to this report, most of the people included in the list of starvation deaths were from disadvantaged communities.
Earlier, 11-year-old Santoshi, who lived in Karimati village of Jaldega block in Simdega district of Jharkhand, died on September 28, 2017. There was no food in her house. The young, starving girl also had fever. According to her mother Koyli Devi, Santoshi died asking for rice. This was reportedly one of the first starvation deaths in Jharkhand.
There were a lot of discussions in the national media and international media following her death. The Raghubar government also faced many criticisms, but despite that, the government's argument was that Santoshi had died not from hunger but from illness.
However, upon looking carefully at the alleged cases of starvation deaths, it becomes clear that all these families had a history of not having enough food and nutrition. Their families had no grain or money in the house when the victims died. The family members did not have adequate means of livelihood and employment either. However, political parties in the state refrain from talking about it.
Balaram, a social activist associated with the Right to Food Organisation, said, "Deaths due to hunger in the state have not been taken up as an issue during the ongoing elections. Actually, 20-25 deaths due to hunger do not shock people. They feel that the number of people dying in accidents is higher than this. I think that hunger should be seen from the context of starvation deaths. In Jharkhand, nearly half of the population is starving, they lack access to quality nutrition. Several reports have been published about this. If the issue of starvation is talked about, perhaps more people will be able to connect to the issue. In the present situation, when it is not an electoral issue, the political parties also do not take the stand that is required of them in an issue as sensitive as this.”
Social worker Siraj Dutta also believes in something similar. He said, “In their election speeches, leaders of the opposition parties are talking about starvation deaths in the state. But death is the last stage of starvation and malnutrition. These deaths happen when families are deprived of their social and economic welfare schemes. This is an indicator of underlying issues. All the people who died of hunger had been deprived of ration cards, MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) jobs, etc. The benefits of pension schemes were not made available to them.”
He added, “Even the opposition parties are not giving this enough importance. No opposition party has made any major promise regarding ration cards or pension. Only Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) has said that they will provide a pension of Rs 2,500. There have been so many problems because of Aadhaar, but no one has promised that they will delink Aadhaar from the welfare schemes. Congress merely said that no one would be deprived because of Aadhaar. JMM has also not talked of delinking Aadhaar. Neither party has made any specific promises regarding malnutrition. The focus for this election should have been food safety and nutrition, but they are missing from the manifestos of political parties.”
Except Congress, which has talked about increasing the amount of ration under the public distribution system per month and adding pulses, no other parties’ manifestos talk about starvation and malnutrition.
No party has talked about increasing the coverage of the public distribution system and social security pension schemes. Although Jharkhand is the state with the highest prevalence of malnutrition in the country, no party has announced to increase the number of eggs provided under the midday meal scheme and in anganwadis.
On the issue of starvation deaths, Supriyo Bhattacharya, spokesperson of the main opposition party, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, said, “We have raised the issue of starvation deaths again and again. Even though there have been more than 16 deaths so far, the government continues to give a clean chit in every case. The postmortem reports in 99% of cases say that the victim suffered a stroke or was brain dead. This is what the government wants everyone to believe. Our government had started the Mukhya Mantri Dal Bhat Yojana for free foodgrains. This government has shut it down. If we come to the power this time, we will start it again. Also, the PDS system should be monitored online, but in areas with poor digital connection, it should not stop anyone from getting food.”
On the other hand, the ruling party BJP says that the government has investigated every case, and found that no one has died from starvation. They also claimed that Jharkhand is the first state in the country to set up a committee to determine the definition of death due to hunger.
BJP spokesperson Deendayal Varnwal said, “This is a bogus issue. It is just a conspiracy by the opposition parties to malign Jharkhand in a planned manner. Attempts were made by the Opposition to represent deaths due to illnesses and other reasons as hunger deaths, but the people of the state have given them a befitting reply in the Lok Sabha elections.”
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