Identity Project

Denied food because she did not have Aadhaar-linked ration card, Jharkhand girl dies of starvation

Supreme Court guidelines have made it clear beneficiaries cannot be denied access to welfare schemes even if they don’t have Aadhaar, activists say.

An 11-year-old girl in Jharkhand’s Simdega district has died of starvation last fortnight, months after her family’s ration card was cancelled because it was not linked to their Aadhaar number, say Right to Food Campaign activists. With no school mid-day meals available during her Durga Puja holidays, Santoshi Kumari had gone with barely any food for nearly eight days before she died, they said.

Santoshi Kumari, who came from an impoverished family in Simdega’s Karimati village, died on September 28. With no land, jobs or steady income, the family is eligible for subsidised rations under the National Food Security Act. However, according to local news reports and an independent fact-finding report by members of the non-profit Right to Food Campaign and NREGA Watch, the local ration dealer had refused to give Santoshi’s family their rations for the past six months on the grounds that their ration card had not been linked – or “seeded”, as its known in official language – to their Aadhaar number.

His move followed a Central government order in February making Aadhaar compulsory for accessing subsidised food grain through the Public Distribution System. Even before that, as Scroll.in has extensively reported in its Identity Project series, several ration shops in Jharkhand, Rajasthan and other states have been denying rations to eligible citizens by insisting on biometric authentication linked to Aadhaar instead of accepting people’s ration cards.

According to activists, this is in clear violation of several Supreme Court orders issued since 2013, which state that possession of an Aadhaar number cannot be made compulsory to avail of benefits under government welfare schemes, particularly to buy subsidised food grains.

Despite this, Jharkhand continues to impose Aadhaar on citizens even more stringently. In the state’s Latehar district, a September 30 order by the district supply officer warned that people whose Aadhaar numbers are not linked to their ration cards by November would be deleted from the Public Distribution Scheme list.

“This will mean excluding a huge population of eligible citizens from the scheme,” said Dheeraj Kumar, an activist with the Right to Food Campaign in Jharkhand and a member of the fact-finding team that investigated Santoshi Kumari’s death.

Play
Koyli Devi, Santoshi Kumari's mother, speaks to activists.

In Simdega district, the ration shop dealer who sold subsidised food grains to Santoshi Kumari’s family also dealt with at least 700 households in and around Karimati village. Of them, 10 families had been deleted from the public distribution system list because they were not linked to their Aadhaar numbers. According to the fact-finding team, the block development officer in Simdega’s Jaldega block confirmed that Santoshi’s family’s ration card had been deleted because it was not linked to Aadhaar.

Activists from the village had raised this issue of cancelled ration cards at a janta darbar or public hearing organised by the district collector on August 21. After this, on September 1, a written complaint was sent to the district supply officer along with a photocopy of the Aadhaar card of Koyli Devi, Santoshi’s mother. The complaint included a request to get a new ration card made.

However, the new ration card was not made for the rest of the month, and eventually arrived two weeks after Santoshi’s death. According to the fact-finding report, the block officers claimed that the delay was due to the online portal not working during that time.

“This is a common problem we are seeing in Jharkhand – even when people have an Aadhaar card, the authorities are not able to link it with their ration cards because internet networks are often absent, their servers are down, the technical operator is absent or the portal just doesn’t work on some days of the month,” said Dheeraj Kumar, who says he suspects that many eligible public distribution scheme beneficiaries have been struck off the scheme in the past few months because of the state government’s haste to achieve targets.

At a press conference on September 7, Vinay Chaubey, state secretary of food and civic supply, announced that Jharkhand had achieved 100% Aadhaar seeding with ration cards. During the process, he claimed that 11.6 lakh people had been deleted from Public Distribution System lists because they held fake or duplicate ration cards.

However, of the 2.3 crore Jharkhand citizens who are covered under the Public Distribution System, the government’s own records available online show that only 1.7 crore have seeded their Aadhaar numbers, say activists. “The seeding rate in the state is quite low – at least 25% of the population has not been able to link their Aadhaar to their ration cards,” said Kumar.

Play
Koyli Devi, Santoshi Kumari's mother, speaks to activists.

Died asking for rice

The imposition of Aadhaar in violation of Supreme Court orders has had fatal consequences for 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari of Karimati village.

For months, the village and its surrounding areas have had no jobs offered under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Since Santoshi Kumari’s father is mentally ill and cannot work, her mother Koyla Devi and her 20-year-old sister go around the village offering to cut grass for others. This brought home Rs 80 to Rs 90 a week. The lack of food has been a consistent problem for the family, which sometimes has to eat the take-home rations given to Santoshi Kumari’s one-year-old brother at the local anganwadi or rural crèche.

Despite several attempts, Scroll.in was unable to contact Vinay Chaubey or the block officers in Santoshi’s taluka. However, activists allege that local administrative officials are now claiming that Santoshi Kumari died of malaria and not starvation.

“But the mother of the girl has clearly told us that she had no food to eat for eight days,” said Asharfi Nand Prasad, the convener of the Right to Food Campaign in Jharkhand. “So far, no doctor’s report has indicated that she had malaria.”

In a video interview that the fact-finding team conducted, the mother Koyli Devi can be seen recounting Santoshi’s death. On September 28, the starving child had asked her mother for rice as she began blacking out. The family took her to the local doctor, who also advised feeding the girl since her body was failing due to hunger. But there was no food at home, and at 10.30 pm, Santoshi died asking for rice.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.