In October, Koili Devi lost her young daughter to creeping hunger. Life gave her no chance to grieve – this was only the beginning of her long nightmare. The state administration, even at its highest levels, stigmatised her for bringing shame to her village and the nation with her claim that her daughter had died of starvation. Her predicament is a mirror to what we have become as a nation.

Life was hard enough for Koili Devi before her husband descended rapidly into mental illness five years ago. They own a tiny rump of stony land in their village in Simdega district of Jharkhand, which yields nothing. He would constantly look for work. Some five days a month, he would earn maybe Rs 100 a day in exchange for hard labour in the fields or house-building. Koili Devi would bring in even less, cleaning cowsheds or collecting leaves from the forest. But now, he only sleeps or wanders about, and the burden fell on Koili Devi’s thin shoulders to feed and tend to him, his aged mother, and their four children.

She married off two daughters when they were around 12; one has returned home. A young boy she holds to her breast. Santoshi, 11 years old, was her youngest daughter. Koili Devi pulled her out of school after she completed Class 5, to graze the cattle of landlords and bring a little money home. This is not unusual in their Dalit habitation.

Critically dependent on the subsidised rations they receive through the public distribution system to keep hunger at bay, catastrophe struck the family when the state administration made it mandatory for all ration cards to be linked to biometric identification through Aadhaar. Koili Devi’s was only one of around 11 lakh households whose ration cards were cancelled in the state because they failed to link these to Aadhaar.

Subsidised grain was the thin thread that held the family aloft above hunger. When this thread snapped, the family plunged into starvation. This was aggravated with the collapse of a range of other social entitlements as well. There was no wage work available under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – the government scheme that promises every rural household 100 days of work a year – because contractors illegally used big machines and wage registers were fudged. Koili Devi’s mother-in-law had not received her pension for months. Even though Santoshi had dropped out of school, she would still take a break from her cow-grazing to eat the mid-day meal served in school. But the school had closed for the Durga Puja break.

Koili Devi says her 11-year-old daughter Santoshi died crying "bhaat, bhaat". (Credit: YouTube)

Unable to find work, Koili Devi and her daughter begged for food outside the homes of their richer upper-caste neighbours. But, as she said to me when we met later, “You cannot force anyone to give you food, can you?”

Santoshi’s health began to slide, and she whimpered all the time, begging for rice. Her stomach ached unbearably, so her mother took her to the vaid. He gently told her, “There is nothing wrong with your child. All she needs is food.” But all they had in their hovel were tea leaves and salt. She gave her child salted tea to assuage her hunger. The child finally died, crying “bhaat, bhaat” (rice, rice), her mother recalled.

The custom in their caste is to bury rather than cremate the dead, so she tearfully laid her child down in a shallow grave. Activists from the non-profit Right to Food Campaign had been helping her and many others facing the same problem for months before the child’s death, demanding that her ration card not be cancelled. When they learnt of Santoshi’s death, they announced to the media that the child had died because of the state administration’s callous denial of rations to the family because of their failure to link to Aadhaar. This story somehow penetrated the customary indifference of the national press and Santoshi’s story nudged its way on to the front pages of newspapers. In this way, it briefly pierced our conscience.

Punished for telling the truth

Officials in the area were swift in their defence. They claimed the child had not died of starvation but of malaria. Koili Devi stoutly refuted this claim. “Why should I say she died of malaria when she was not sick at all?” she said. The story refused to die down. Instead, it exploded, with dozens of air-conditioned vehicles, some with flashing beacons, winding their way into this dusty village. Some visitors took pictures and selfies holding candles at the child’s grave, some offered charity to the family, and officials and members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party remonstrated that Koili Devi should abandon her claim that her child had died of starvation and accept that she succumbed to malaria.

Officials told her that if she did this, she would be adequately rewarded. But destitute Koili Devi displayed exceptional resolve, determined to stand firmly by the truth of the circumstances of her daughter’s death. When rewards did not work, they threatened that if she persisted, the officials would have to take her child’s body from its grave and cut it up for a post-mortem. But here again, Koili Devi replied with calm rationality, “Now that my daughter is dead, how does it matter what anyone does with her body?”

Chief Minister Raghubar Das announced that Koili Devi had brought a “bad name” to her village by claiming that her child had died of starvation. Taking this cue, the upper-caste residents of her village also reproached her for disgracing the village with her contention. Some went further and said she was bringing shame to the nation. After she resisted every attempt to force her to backtrack, they imposed a boycott on her family. No one will employ them, or sell them anything. When the residents heckled and threatened to assault her, the right to food campaigners demanded that she be given police protection. A police guard now stands outside her hovel.

The question remains, what brings shame to a nation? Is a nation diminished because a destitute and unlettered mother insists simply that she must uphold the truth of how her child died? Or is it shamed because a callous administration thinks nothing of cutting off the lifeline of the country’s poorest people because they fail to adhere to its digital imagination? Because we have still not built a robust social protection to guard against destitution and want? Because galloping economic growth and overflowing government warehouses of grain have done nothing to prevent children from dying, crying out for food until their last breath?