In wake of the recent starvation deaths - from an 11-year-old girl to a 64-year-old widowed woman - activists from the Right To Food Campaign held a press conference in Delhi on 9 December. The conference was also attended by the bereaved mother of the 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari.
Newsclick publishes here the press statement issued by the Right to Food Campaign in full:
Press Release of Right to Food Campaign
December 9, 2017, New Delhi
Starvation deaths in Jharkhand and implementation of the NFSA
Since September 2017, several hunger deaths have been recorded in Jharkhand. In September, Santoshi Kumari an 11 year old child died in Simdega district months after her family’s ration card was cancelled because it was not linked to Aadhaar.
In late October, Ruplal Marandi died in Deoghar district after being denied grains as his family members’ Aadhaar based biometric authentication failed.
On December 1, 2017, 64-year old widow, Premani Kunwar, died of hunger and exhaustion in Danda Block of Garhwa district (Jharkhand).
Two months earlier, the Aadhaar-based payment system had redirected her pension money to a different account, without her knowledge. She was also denied her food grain entitlement in August and November.
Jharkhand government claims it has cancelled 11.6 lakh ration cards which were found to be bogus after the drive to link Aadhaar with ration card.
On December 9, 2017 a press conference was held in Delhi which was addressed by Koili Devi (mother of Santoshi), Guddiya Devi (sister of Santoshi), Taramani Sahu (Right to Food Campaign Jharkhand) and activists associated with the Right to Food Campaign- Annie Raja, Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri and Aditya Srivastava.
Guddiya Devi recounted the circumstances surrounding her sister Santoshi’s death. She said that the family had not cooked any food for 8 days as there was no grain in the house. On the day of her death, September 28, the whole family was desperate for food. They asked their neighbours for food. The neighbours said that if any food is leftover, they will give them something.
On that day, the family only had some tea leaves and salt in the house and therefore, their mother (Koili Devi) made tea of that. Around 8 pm Santoshi started complaining of stomach ache and died around 10 pm. She said that Santoshi was not ill and was not suffering from Malaria as the administration has been claiming and said that Santoshi died asking for food.
Santoshi’s father suffers from mental impairment and is unable to work. The family relies on collecting leaves and datun from the forests and selling these or taking goats of other villagers for grazing or working on planting in the farms from which they make about Rs. 30-50 per day.
Taramni Sahu, an activist with the Right to Food Campaign Jharkhand recounted that she had met with the family before Santoshi had died. She had met with them in August and had identified 3 families who were not receiving ration. She had taken their complaint to the Janta Durbar and had put up their case before the DC highlighting that the family was extremely poor and was suffering from starvation.
After filing the complaint, they were informed by the administration that the ration had been stopped since February 2017 as their ration card was not linked to their Aadhaar. Taramani repeatedly followed up with the administration but there was no redress. On September 1, 2017, the administration stated that now the ration card had been cancelled and deleted from the database. They were told to apply again for a new ration card. Taramani helped the family apply for a new ration card and despite reminding the government on September 25 of the dire condition of the family and the urgent need for a ration card, there was no action from the government. On September 28, 2017, Santoshi succumbed to starvation.
Anjali Bhardwaj of the Right to Food Campaign & NCPRI said that Aadhaar was leading to exclusions of the poorest in at least three ways.
Firstly, those who did not have Aadhaar were not eligible to apply for social security rights and entitlements.
Secondly, even if they possessed an Aadhaar, if it was not linked or seeded with their ration card/ pension then they were denied their entitlements.
Thirdly, if their biometric did not match at the point of delivery of entitlements (Point of Sale devices in ration shops), then they are denied their entitlements.
Anjali said that it was most distressing that the government’s drive to identify ‘bogus’ and ‘ghost’ beneficiaries and weeding them out of the system was leading to large scale exclusions. She said that the Jharkhand government has done nothing so far to reinstate the ration cards that were mass-cancelled earlier this year for lack of “Aadhaar seeding”.
She said that it was families like Santoshi’s which are termed ‘bogus’ and denied their ration. Money ‘saved’ by denying the poorest their basic entitlements is proudly proclaimed by the government as savings. Anjali stated that Aadhaar was being promoted on the pretext that it will address corruption in social sector programmes but there was no evidence to support such claims.
Further, most of the state governments, despite passage of more than 4 years when the NFSA was enacted, have failed to put in place the statutorily mandated grievance redress and accountability frameworks. An effective grievance redress framework would have ensure that the complaints filed by Taramani on behalf of the family would have been looked into in a time-bound manner and addressed.
Annie Raja of the Right to Food Campaign & NFIW said that instead of increasing allocations of grains under the Food Security Act and diversifying entitlements by including pulses, oil and vegetables, the government was creating hurdles like Aadhaar which was leading to denial of basic entitlements.
She recalled that when the Food Security Ordinance was passed, Mr. Modi who was at the time the CM of Gujarat had written to the then PM stating that entitlements under the ordinance were not adequate as it would fail to address both calorific and nutritional security of the poor. Yet, as PM he has not taken any steps to increase entitlements and allocations under the NFSA.
The government has been making proclamations of the benefits of Aadhaar and giving out statements about the number of ghost beneficiaries eradicated and money saved. Anjali Bhardwaj stated that none of these claims stand up to scrutiny. On February 7, 2017 the Prime Minister in the Lok Sabha had stated that use of Aadhaar and technology in ration led to discovery of nearly 4 crore (3 crore 95 lakhs) bogus ration cards. When RTI applications were filed seeking state-wise number of the bogus ration cards and also the details (name and address) of the bogus ration cardholders, it became evident that there was no proof backing the PM’s statement. Subsequently, the Lok Sabha in its corrected version of the proceedings of Lok Sabha modified the transcript which now attributes the PM as having stated "4 crore meaning 2.33 crore" bogus ration cards were detected in the last 2.5 years through use of Aadhaar and technology.
On the same day as the PM's statement i.e. February 7, 2017, the Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution (Shri Ram Vilas Paswan) In Reply To Starred Question No. 93 stated in Parliament that 2.33 crore ration cards have been deleted between 2013 and 2016. The reply included a state-wise list.
However, the figures provided in the list do not match with the figures provided under the RTI Act by the state government. Another RTI Application was filed asking for the state-wise break-up and list of bogus ration cards as per the corrected statement of the PM in Parliament records of "4 crore meaning 2.33 crore bogus cards". On Oct 27, the Ministry of Food provided a reply which gives a state-wise break-up of bogus/deleted ration cards from 2013 to 2017.
The figures in this, do not match with the figures provided by the Food Minister in Parliament or with the information provided by state governments under the RTI Act!
The tabulated comparison of the Response provided by the Food Minister in Parliament and information provided by state governments under the RTI Act is attached. And separately, the reply dated October 27, 2017 is also enclosed.
Amrita Johri of the Delhi Right to Food Campaign said that the government was cancelling ration cards without doing any field or on ground enquiries leading to genuine people being weeded out of the system and denied their basic rations and pensions. She recounted that in a meeting with the Commissioner of Food Department of Delhi, the commissioner stated that 56000 families had been found to be bogus and their ration cards cancelled on the basis of a ‘desk top verification’.
Later several of these families went to the department and their cards had to be reinstated as they were genuine and had been wrongly removed. Such arbitrary removal especially impacts vulnerable families who are the most dependent on the government for their survival and may not have the means to challenge their exclusion.
When exclusions due to biometric failure due to POS devices have been pointed out, the government has responded by saying that iris authentication will also be introduced to reduce exclusions.
However, information obtained under the RTI Act shows that the government has not undertaken any feasibility studies on the viability of Iris biometric authentication.
Despite the spate of recent deaths due to starvation arising from mandatory linking of Aadhaar with ration cards, Aadhaar remains compulsory for PDS users there.
At a public hearing in Manika yesterday, where Jean Dreze was also present, the District Supply Officer (DSO) kept explaining to the audience that without Aadhaar there was no chance of their getting their food rations. Aadhaar is required both for ration card applications and for ABBA.
Right to Food Campaign demands that:
· The government should take strict action against officials responsible for the hunger deaths in Simdega, Dhanbad, Devghar and Garhwa.
· The list of households whose ration card is cancelled should be shared publically with the reason of cancellation of the ration card.
· The eligible families, whose ration cards have been cancelled, should be re-issue within a stipulated time frame. Alternative arrangements for distribution of grains should be made for them till the ration card is made. The families whose ration card has been cancelled should get grains of those months as compensation.
· Pulses and oil should also be included in the PDS.
· Provisions of National Food Security Act 2013 related to Grievance Redressal and accountability must immediately be enforced across the country
· If there is a complaint against the dealer or any officer, strict action should be taken against them within a stipulated time frame.
· Aadhaar based authentication is leading to large scale exclusion. This insistence on ABBA must immediately be stopped and no one should be denied ration because their biometrics did not match across the country.