Forty-two-year-old Bhukhal Ghasi from Kasmar block in Jharkhand’s Bokaro district died of hunger on Friday, March 6. He had not been able to work for the last year because of illness, and was thus unable to earn enough to sustain himself and his family of seven. His family could not procure ration despite being eligible for it, as they did not have a ration card. His uncle, Manbodh Ghasi told Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar that Bhukhal had applied for a ration card in August, 2019, but the card could not be made. Because he did not have a ration card, he could not get treatment under the Ayushman Bharat scheme, despite being eligible for it. The family did not receive any help from the state government either.
According to the Right to Food Campaign in Jharkhand, this is the twenty-fourth starvation death to have occurred in the state since 2016. However, a day prior to his death, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-led Government claimed in the State Assembly that there have been no starvation deaths in the last five years. On Thursday, CPI(ML) MLA Vinod Singh asked the Government in the Assembly if it was correct that more than a dozen people had “died due to hunger and malnutrition” in the last five years as they did not receive ration through the Public Distribution System (PDS).
In his reply to Singh’s question, Jharkhand Minister of Food, Public Distribution and Consumer Affairs Rameshwar Oraon denied the same, saying the information was not correct. Singh pressed further, asking that if the deaths did take place, then does the government intend to give ration and compensation to the families of the deceased? The Government did not respond to the question, but went on to explain that it had achieved 99.6% of the total target of providing ration cards in the state, The Indian Express reported.
A day after this statement, Bhukhal Ghasi lost his life because of starvation. Bhukhal’s wife Rekha Devi told Prabhat Khabar that they did not have a single grain of food and that the gas stove in their had not been lit for four days before her husband’s death. The family received some food from their neighbours, but it was not enough for all of them to survive. Oraon’s statement reeks of irony, because CM Hemant Soren’s JMM-led Government made hunger- deaths in the state a key issue during its election campaign in 2019.
Speaking to NewsClick, Singh said: “The government denied the occurrence of starvation deaths in the state. However, even in the government’s own reports, it was found that several people lost their lives because they could not get the benefits they were entitled to under the PDS, either because they did not have a ration card, or because they Aadhaar cards were not linked to their ration cards and their biometrics could not be verified.” Singh added that while the state government claimed that it had achieved 99.6% of its target of providing ration cards, “if there remains even a single person who cannot receive ration because of the lack of ration card, this achievement means nothing.”
The Right to Food Campaign in the state has been actively working to collate and investigate cases of starvation deaths in the state. Talking to NewsClick about Oraon’s statement, Siraj Dutta, an activist with the Campaign in the state, said, “The statement is completely unacceptable. Before the Assembly elections, the JMM tried to take a pro-poor stand by repeatedly raising the issue of starvation deaths. However, after winning the elections, they show the same attitude as the previous government by denying that these cases occurred.” He added the state’s budget for the current year barely saw any allocations that would help the government deal with these issues. “In the budget speech, the words ‘hunger’ and ‘malnutrition’ were not even mentioned, despite Jharkhand being one of the states with the highest prevalence of malnutrition,” he added.
However, the Jharkhand Government has not been the only institution denying the existence of such cases. On December 13, 2019, Minister of State for Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, Danve Raosaheb Dadarao, denied the occurrence of starvation deaths in the country in an answer to a question in the Rajya Sabha. When asked whether the Ministry had laid down a definition for deaths caused by starvation, the MoS said, “The Department of Food & Public Distribution has not defined starvation or
hunger death. No State Government/UT Administration has reported any incident of starvation death during the last four years. Media reports alleging starvation deaths from time to time have not been substantiated.”
These answers came after the country slipped to a rank of 102 out of 117 countries analysed in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2019. India was categorised as a country with “serious hunger issues”, and had slipped behind neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.