Three Dalit brothers died of starvation in July near Karnataka’s Gokarna town after the family was denied rations for six months because they did not have an Aadhaar card, a fact-finding report by a civil rights group has claimed.

The report, by activists from the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, was submitted to the state government on October 13, three days before Scroll.in reported the death of an 11-year-old girl in Jharkhand whose family’s ration card was not linked to Aadhaar. The child’s mother told Right to Food activists that she died asking for rice.

The three brothers – Narayana, Venkataramma and Subbu Maru Mukhri – died between July 2 and July 13 in their village of Belehittala. Soon after, local activists claimed that the Maru Mukhri family, which was entitled to monthly subsidised rations because of their Below Poverty Line status, had not been given rations since December 2016 because they did not have an Aadhaar number. The men had died of hunger, they alleged. However, district officials denied the allegations of starvation deaths, claiming that the deaths had been caused by the brothers’ alcoholism.

Since there was no postmortem conducted on the deceased, the exact cause of the three consecutive deaths cannot be stated for certain. However, activists who carried out the fact-finding investigation were able to confirm that the family had no foodgrains at home when the brothers began dying in July. According to the fact-finding report, the local ration shop dealer and block-level food inspector both admitted that the Maru Mukhri family’s ration card had been deleted from the Public Distribution System list because it was not linked to Aadhaar.

In repeated orders since 2013, the Supreme Court has emphasised that the possession of an Aadhaar number cannot be made mandatory to avail of any government welfare benefits, particularly to buy subsidised foodgrains under the National Food Security Act, which guarantees five kilos of a monthly supply of subsidised foodgrains per person to two-thirds of the country’s population.

Despite this, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and several other states have made Aadhaar-linked biometric authentication compulsory at government-run ration shops. The Centre, too, made this linkage compulsory in a government order in February, and Scroll.in’s Identity Project series has consistently reported instances of eligible families being denied rations for want of an Aadhaar.

In Karnataka itself, days after the three deaths in July, Mysore district officials deleted 80,000 ration cards from their PDS lists because they were not linked to Aadhaar, labelling them as “fake” cards.

No Aadhaar, no coupons, no ration

Narayana, Venkataramma and Subbu Maru Mukhri of Gokarna’s Belehittala village belonged to the Maru Mukhri caste, Dalits who traditionally worked as farm and fishing labourers. The three brothers lived with their 85-year-old mother Nagamma Maru Mukhri and through the limited and inconsistent work they found around the village, they collectively earned around Rs 11,000 in the whole year, activists said.

The hut in which the Maru Mukhris live. Photo: Narasimha TV
The hut in which the Maru Mukhris live. Photo: Narasimha TV

According to documents accessed by the fact-finding team, the family had two ration cards – one in the name of the mother Nagamma and the other in the name of her fourth son, who lives separately with his wife and children. The records on her ration card indicate that Nagamma and her three sons last received subsidised rice, wheat and sugar in December 2016.

“After that, they didn’t officially receive any rations, although in March the ration shop dealer gave them some rice free of cost, of his own will,” said Narasimha TV, a member of the PUCL fact-finding team in Gokarna.

In his interviews with Nagamma, says Narasimha, the bereaved mother clearly stated that their problems of starvation arose after the local authorities began demanding that the ration card and Aadhaar card should be linked. “No one in the family had yet made an Aadhaar card, and they didn’t have their food coupons either,” said Narasimha.

The “food coupons” refer to the Karnataka government’s Aadhaar-authenticated coupons that Below Poverty Line citizens are expected to download in order to avail their food rations from any government ration shop in the block. “The [Congress] state government started this coupon system in 2014 because they claimed there were many bogus ration cards that needed to be deleted,” said Narasimha, who claims that the government went on to delete nearly 40,000 ration cards across the state during that year. “At that time, the government gave people just one month to link their phone numbers to their Aadhaar card, although people in tribal areas, with poor electricity and internet, couldn’t do it. Their cards automatically got deleted.”

The Maru Mukhris, say activists, missed at least two government-organised Aadhaar-making camps in Gokarna and Kumuta held in the past year. “They might have been at work,” said Narasimha. “Many people have had to miss their day’s wages in order to get these Aadhaar linkages done.”

‘Government failed in its duty’

On July 2, Subbu, 52, was the first of the Maru Mukhri brothers to die. This was followed by the death of Venkataramma, 46, on July 7 and Narayana, 55, on July 13.

After news of the first two deaths spread in the vicinity, activists from the non-profit Maha Ganapathi Samaj Seva Sangha visited the Maru Mukhri home. “We found that they had no food in the house, and they said it was because they didn’t have Aadhaar,” said Kumar Gowda, a member of the NGO. The family did not have any work or income at the time, he said. “The brothers were known to spend a lot of their income on alcohol,” the activist said. “It is possible that the mother survived because she went to a local temple to eat free food.”

According to the fact-finding report, this ironically became an excuse for some block-level officials when they were asked about the deaths. While denying that starvation could be a cause of death, the tehsildar claimed that that if the victims were really starving, they could have gone to a local place of worship to get charity food.

Despite making several efforts, Scroll.in was unable to reach the office or mobile numbers of the block and district-level officers.

However, Narasimha believes that irrespective of the brothers’ alcoholism or the immediate cause of death, the denial of food rations for several months cannot be brushed aside. “It is the government’s duty to provide ration to poor families, and here they failed to do it,” he said.