A Supreme Court panel has asked the Orissa government to ensure no one succumbs to hunger in the state where 15 of the 30 districts have been hit by drought, amid allegations that over 400 people had died due to starvation in nine years.

The SC-appointed Commissioner and Special Commissioner have recommended a “protocol” for preventing hunger deaths in the state.

“Protocol for preventing starvation would ensure that the State response is appropriate to mitigate some of the distress faced by poor and vulnerable groups,” SC Commissioner N. C. Saxena and Special Commissioner Harsh Mander told State Chief Secretary T. K. Mishra in a letter.

The SC Commission’s letter, which reached the office of the chief secretary here recently, also sought an action taken report within a month.

“We are in touch with the Commission in this regard,” Mr. Mishra told PTI, adding the State administration was taking all steps to avoid hunger deaths.

“It is imperative in the present context of widespread drought in many districts of the country that the State governments should follow a protocol to prevent starvation among poor and vulnerable households,” the commission told the State government.

The State government has already declared 3,264 villages spread over 15 districts as drought-affected.

“The areas having sustained crop loss of 50 per cent and above during 2009 kharif season are declared drought hit,” Revenue and Disaster Management Minister S. N. Patro said.

The drought-hit districts include tribal dominated Kalahandi, Koraput, Kandhamal, Malkangiri, Mayurbhanj, Nawrangpur, Nuapada, Sundergarh and Deogarh.

The infamous starvation deaths and child sale in Kalahandi in 1980s had drawn national attention with many dying of hunger, though the then government had denied the allegations.

Stating that the district administration was found to be trying to establish that deaths were not due to starvation but health reasons, the Commission asked the State government to ensure that the focus should now be shifted to all the communities that were living in hunger rather than waiting to respond to the crisis after deaths are reported.

Allegations of 404 starvation deaths were made in the last nine years. The highest number of starvation death complaints (50) were received from Keonjhar district followed by 45 in Khurda, official sources said.

Other districts from where large number of reports were received include Bargarh, Ganjam, Jajpur, Kalahandi and Nuapada. Kalahandi reported 40 such incidents while Nuapada 20. 31 starvation cases were reported from Bargarh while 33 cases were reported from Ganjam followed by 27 from Jajpur district.

While the starvation death complaints reported in 2001, 2002 and 2003 were 64, 66 and 73, respectively, it had come down to less than 40 in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Three such cases were reported till July, 2009.

Revenue minister S. N. Patro said all the starvation death allegations were investigated by the State government and found to be not true.

“The district collectors probe into starvation death allegations within 48 hours of complaints,” Mr. Patro said.

In its recommendations, the Commission asked the State government to immediately provide relief to families of alleged starvation victims and ensure food availability to them free of cost for at least six months.

The families facing hunger should be provided foodgrain on highly subsidised rates and steps taken to ensure early sanction and release of insurance under NFBS (National Benefit Family Scheme), the Commission said, adding they should be covered under livelihood schemes like Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Mid-day Meal and rural employment guarantee scheme, besides old age, widow and disability pensions.

For children, it said the administration should ensure their admission to SC-ST hostels. The Commission also asked the administration to double food quotas for children, expecting and nursing mothers.