Whiff of starvation in Jharkhand deaths

Updated - December 03, 2021 10:41 am IST

Published - October 28, 2017 09:41 pm IST

The public distribution system (PDS) and its disbursal of rations to the poor have come under the scanner in Jharkhand after three persons died recently, allegedly owing to lack of food.

What happened?

On September 28, Santoshi Kumari, an 11-year-old from Simdega district, died. Her mother, Koyli Devi, said the child died of hunger as the family was not getting rations under the State-run PDS for the past several months. The family was removed from the list of PDS beneficiaries as their ration cards were not linked to Aadhaar, government agencies claimed. The death triggered widespread criticism. When two more deaths followed — and the families of the victims said they had not been getting rations either — it drew attention to the glitches in the PDS.

The family of Baidyanath Das, who died on October 21 at Jharia in Dhanbad district on October 21, said they had applied for ration cards several times, but were yet to be enlisted. The third death was reported from Deoghar district. Ruplal Marandi, a daily wage earner in his 60s, died on October 23. His daughter Manodi told journalists that her father died of hunger as the family could not collect rations because of a biometric mismatch at the PDS shop.

What is the government stand?

In all the three instances, the district administration said the deaths were not due to starvation. The Simdega district administration said Santoshi Kumari died of malaria. The administration of Dhanbad said Baidyanath Das was not keeping good health for a month and his wife and son did odd jobs, so the question of one family member dying of hunger did not arise.

At Deoghar, the administration said the family had a ration card and got timely supplies. But in all three cases, there were discrepancies about the functioning of the PDS. Even in the Deoghar incident, the family said it got rations only till August, though dealers and the district administration claimed that the family had collected foodgrains in September too. The gaps were glaring at both Simdega and Jharia: while Santoshi Kumari’s family was struck off the beneficiary list for not linking Aadhaar card to the PDS, the family of Baidyanath Das had never been enrolled.

Why were names deleted?

At the centre of the controversy is an order by Chief Secretary Raj Bala Verma in March, directing the district administration to delete the names of PDS beneficiaries whose ration cards were not linked to Aadhaar. The aim was to prevent leakages but it attracted sharp criticism from several quarters.

Economist and social activist Jean Dreze said the main problem is the linkage with Aadhaar. He said that as per conservative estimates, 10% of card holders in Jharkhand were unable to get rations in the past few months because of problems in biometric authentication.

Minister for Food and Civil Supplies and senior BJP leader Saryu Rai insists he has not yet got any clarification from the Chief Secretary on why such a decision was taken. Mr. Rai said that earlier this month, he had issued orders to cancel the directive.

He said there were about 86.4% PDS beneficiaries in rural areas and about 60.2% in urban areas. Jharkhand has about 2.5 crore PDS beneficiaries. According to official data, 11.30 lakh names of card holders were removed from the list of beneficiaries, and they included a considerable number without linkage to Aadhaar.

The Minister admitted that deleting ration cards for not being able to link them with Aadhaar had adversely affected the poor. He cited the Supreme Court order which says Aadhaar cannot be made compulsory for social welfare schemes.

“I don’t know about other deaths but as a Minister, I cannot run away from the responsibility of the death of an 11-year-old girl from Simdega,” Mr. Rai said.

What is the way forward?

The Food and Public Distribution Department has directed officials to adopt a humane approach by giving rations to even those who are not on the list yet. The Department is also trying to provide compensation as per the National Food Security Act to those who have not got PDS supplies.

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