Identity Project

Another Aadhaar-linked death alleged in Jharkhand: Woman who was denied rations succumbs to hunger

Activists claim Etwariya Devi, 67, a resident of Sonpurwa village in Garhwa district, was also deprived of her pension.

Another suspected starvation death linked to glitches in the Aadhaar-based Public Distribution System has come to light in Jharkhand. A 67-year-old woman named Etwariya Devi reportedly died of prolonged hunger and exhaustion in Sonpurwa village of Garhwa district’s Majhiaon block on December 25.

A fact-finding report released by the non-profit Right to Food Campaign on December 30 claims Etwariya Devi had been denied her monthly food rations under the National Food Security Act since October 2017 despite having a valid “priority household” card. She had also not received her pension under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme since November because of “technical glitches” and poor internet connectivity.

To survive, her family had to borrow food and money from their neighbours. It was not enough, though. After three months of getting little food, Etwariya Devi reportedly collapsed on her straw bed at 10 am on December 25 and died an hour later. She is survived by a son, his wife and three grandchildren.

The report claims block officials persuaded Etwariya Devi’s family to perform her last rites quickly, ensuring that there was no postmortem to ascertain the cause of death.

“To many, this case would come across as just a regular death of a 67-year-old, but the lack of adequate food and nutrition for so long is linked to the denial of rations under the Aadhaar-based food distribution system,” alleged Siraj Dutta, who led the Right to Food Campaign fact-finding team. “This is the fifth such starvation death that we have tracked in Jharkhand in the past few months.”

On September 28, Santoshi Kumari, 11, died asking for rice in Simdega district after her family’s ration card was cancelled for not being linked to Aadhaar, a 12-digit biometric-based unique identity number that the government wants every citizen to have. On December 1, Premani Kunwar, 64, died of starvation in Garhwa’s Korta village. She had been denied the subsidised rations for at least a couple of months despite having a valid card, and the Aadhaar-based payments system had redirected her pension to another person’s account without her knowledge.

In Etwariya Devi’s case, block officials claim that it was a natural death and that she was much older, between 80 and 90 years. “It is not a hunger death,” said Kamal Kishore, the circle officer of Majhiaon block. “The family had food to eat that morning and even before. We also found two blankets and warm clothes in the house.”

Etwariya Devi's straw bed in her house in Sonpurwa village. Photo courtesy Right to Food Campaign
Etwariya Devi's straw bed in her house in Sonpurwa village. Photo courtesy Right to Food Campaign

No fingerprints, no rations

Etwariya Devi belonged to an impoverished, landless family from the backward Lohar caste. Her son Ghura Vishwakarma works as an unskilled migrant labourer in other states, earning around Rs 220 a day. His wife Usha Devi is an unskilled agricultural labourer with an irregular income. Neither have ever worked under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as Sonpurwa and surrounding villages are yet to see any work done under the programme.

While Etwariya Devi’s grandchildren had regular mid-day meals at their local government school, the adults in the family were almost completely dependent on the 25 kg subsidised food rations they are entitled to as a Below Poverty Line household. The fact-finding report claims that on many occasions, the family would eat just rice and salt because they could not afford vegetables, dal, oil, or sugar regularly.

According to the report, when Usha Devi went to collect the family’s monthly rations from the local ration dealer in October, the Aadhaar-enabled point of sale machine failed to read her fingerprint. The dealer told her to come back later since the machine was “not taking the load”, but he still recorded in her ration card that she had received 25 kg food grain. When Usha Devi returned a few days later, she was told the ration stock was finished. In November too, the dealer claimed he had no stock.

Money was also scarce for the family. Etwariya Devi was entitled to Rs 600 a month as welfare pension, which she used to receive through a Community Service Provider, a local representative of the nearest Grameen Bank branch located more than 7 km from Sonpurwa.

Etwariya Devi’s October pension had been credited to her bank account, but the service provider, Anil Chowdhary, made her buy a new account receipt for Rs 360 before allowing her to withdraw her money. In November, Chowdhary told Etwariya Devi her pension had not yet been credited to her account. In December, he made the same claim as the ration dealer – Etwariya Devi could not withdraw her pension because the fingerprint authentication machine was “unable to take the load”. could not contact Chowdhary for a comment, but he told the Right to Food Campaign fact-finding team that his internet connection often went dead in the middle of bank transactions, making it difficult for people to withdraw their money.

Through December, Usha Devi managed to borrow 10 kg rice from a neighbour and buy some more from another ration dealer, but with six mouths to feed, it was not enough. The night before Etwariya Devi’s death, the family had to skip dinner because there was no food in the house.

Already weak from months of deprivation, the old woman succumbed before she could eat the rice Usha Devi managed to borrow that very morning.

Etwariya Devi's house in Sonpurwa.
Etwariya Devi's house in Sonpurwa.

Circle Officer Kamal Kishore, however, insisted that neither the pension nor the rations were amiss in Etwariya Devi’s case. “Her pension was credited to her account on December 4, and the balance amount is Rs 1,233,” he said. “And it is not that the dealer did not give her the rations. Her daughter-in-law did not go to collect it because she did not know when the ration stock came.” Kishore admitted that the biometric authentication machine with the Sonpurwa dealer was not working last month, but claimed that could not have been the problem since dealers have been told to provide rations to people with valid cards even without fingerprint scanning.

A history of violations

The denial of rations to Etwariya Devi and hundreds of other families in Jharkhand is rooted in a February 2017 Central government order making biometric Aadhaar identification mandatory for accessing subsidised food grain through the Public Distribution System.’s Identity Project series, though, has shown that even before this order was issued, ration shops in Jharkhand and Rajasthan had been denying rations to vulnerable citizens on the grounds that their ration cards were not linked to Aadhaar. This violates multiple Supreme Court orders issued since 2013, which emphasise that Aadhaar cannot be made compulsory for availing government welfare scheme benefits.

In March 2017, Jharkhand Chief Secretary Raj Bala Verma issued an order stating that ration cards not linked to Aadhaar would become “null and void” after April 5, 2017. Orders to this effect were also issued in several districts in the state. Over the next few months, the Right to Food Campaign activist claim, nearly 11 lakh ration cards were cancelled in Jharkhand, affecting nearly 25 lakh people who are otherwise eligible for subsidised food grains.

In October 2017, following Santoshi Kumari’s widely-reported starvation death, the Centre instructed all states not to deny rations to people whose ration cards have not been linked to Aadhaar. Jharkhand’s Food and Public Distribution minister also annulled the chief secretary’s order.

Despite this, at a public hearing organised by non-profit organisations in Latehar on December 8, scores of residents testified that they were still being denied rations, either because their ration cards were not linked to Aadhaar, or because the biometric authentication system did not work smoothly.

A linked problem, Siraj Dutta pointed out, is that under the Aadhar-based system, the state government allots grains to ration dealers on the basis of their online record of sales in the previous month. This means that if a portion of the grain is pilfered from the Public Distribution System in a particular month, ration dealers will get less stock for the next month as the pilfered amount would not reflect in the online records.

“In order to balance the online records and the actual ration allotment, ration dealers either tend to fudge their records, give beneficiaries less rations than officially stated, or tell people that they do not have ration stock to sell,” said Dutta, who claims that a large number of people in Jharkhand did not receive their rations in August and September 2017 because of this “quantity fraud”.

“The government had claimed that introduction of the Aadhaar-based system would curb the leakage of rations from the system, but quantity fraud still goes on unabated,” he said.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.