Activists in Jharkhand have reported another starvation death they suspect is linked to glitches in the Aadhaar-based Public Distribution System. Lukhi Murmu, a 30-year-old woman from Dhawadangal village in Pakur district, reportedly died of under-nutrition and exhaustion on January 23. According to a fact-finding report by activists from the non-profit Right to Food Campaign, Murmu had been denied rations since October because the Aadhaar-enabled point-of-sale machine at the local ration shop had failed to authenticate her biometrics.

The report was released on Friday and also claimed that Murmu’s ration card was transferred from the Antyodaya category (meant for the poorest of Below Poverty Line families) to Priority category without her knowledge in June. This change reduced her household’s grain entitlement from 35 kg a month to just 20 kg.

This is the seventh alleged starvation death in Jharkhand since 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari died crying for rice in Simdega district in September, according to the Right to Food activists who have been independently investigating these deaths. “Five of those seven deaths have been linked to the enforcement of Aadhaar in food distribution,” said Ankita Aggarwal, one of the activists who conducted the fact-finding investigation in Murmu’s case.

The most recent case was that of 67-year-old Etwariya Devi, who died of hunger in Garhwa district on January 2 after having been denied rations since October. However, block officials in Garhwa claimed Etwariya Devi had died of natural, age-related causes.

In a similar vein, officials in Pakur blamed Murmu’s death on an unnamed illness. “She was ill for a long time, I do not know what illness she had,” said Dilip Kumar Tiwari, the district supply officer. “There was grain in her house, and the family had land. There was no ration shortage. She did not go to the ration shop because of her illness.”

However, the Right to Food Campaign’s report claimed Murmu had not been diagnosed with any particular illness. It said she was taken to a community health centre by health workers on January 6 and tested for tuberculosis and kala azar, but tested negative for both.

The report also quoted her neighbours as saying that Murmu had lost a lot of weight and become considerably weak in the past four months because of inadequate and irregular food supply.

No work for a month

Since the death of her parents over a decade ago, Lukni Murmu had cared for her four younger sisters by working as a labourer on others’ farms. Three of those sisters are now married and live in their marital homes. Murmu lived with the youngest sister, 14-year-old Phulin Murmu. They owned less than an acre of land on which they grew paddy, but only when the sisters’ husbands were available to plough it.

Two years ago, lack of money had forced Phulin Murmu to drop out of school and join her older sister in working as a wage labourer, earning Rs 100 a day for about three days a week during farming season. At times, the two worked in people’s homes in exchange for small loans to buy food. But they had not been able to get any work since December.

According to the report, the two sisters’ only possessions in their partially broken house were some clothes, utensils, a blanket and a few bags of paddy for emergencies – it would take four days of soaking to extract rice from the threshed paddy. On the morning of Lukni Murmu’s death, Phulin Murmu had reportedly soaked a bowl of paddy since there was no food to cook at home. The only food they had eaten in the days before was 5 kg of rice given to them by a neighbour, because the sisters had been struggling to get food from the ration shop.

Phulin Murmu, Lukhi Murmu's 14-year-old sister, dropped out of school two years ago. (Photo credit: Right to Food Campaign)

Denial of rations

The Murmu family ration card has the names of four of the five sisters, but only Lukni Murmu’s and Phulin Murmu’s Aadhaar numbers are linked to it. This Aadhaar-ration card linkage was informally enforced by the Jharkhand government much before a Central government order in February 2017 made biometric Aadhaar identification mandatory for accessing subsidised foodgrain through the Public Distribution System.

In March, 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. Orders to this effect were also issued in several districts in the state. The Right to Food activists claim that over the next few months, some 11 lakh ration cards were cancelled in Jharkhand, affecting 25 lakh people who are otherwise eligible for subsidised foodgrains.

In October, following Santoshi Kumari’s widely-reported starvation death, the Centre instructed 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, multiple reports from Jharkhand – covered widely in’s Identity Project series – reveal that on the ground, ration dealers in many parts of the state continue to deny rations to vulnerable citizens either because their cards are not Aadhaar-linked or because of technical glitches in the biometric authentication process.

In the case of Lukni Murmu, entries in her ration card indicate the family received 35 kg of foodgrain per month up till April (although there were some missing entries in previous months). From June, the ration dealer gave her just 20 kg of grain a month. She was not aware her ration card had been moved from the Antyodaya category to Priority household category.

“This is a matter that needs investigation,” said activist Ankita Aggarwal. “The Jharkhand government is officially transferring people from one category to another without any transparency, and the beneficiaries are not told why.”

Lukni Murmu's ration card.

‘Authentication failure’

Lukni Murmu last received grain from the ration dealer in September, after which there are no entries in her ration card. According to the fact-finding report, while she was too weak to walk to the ration shop – which is one kilometre uphill from her house – Phulin Murmu did visit the shop a few times since October. However, she was denied rations because of biometric authentication failure on the shop’s Aadhaar-enabled point-of-sale machine.

In his statement to district officials, the ration dealer Chetan Murmu claimed that neither of the sisters had visited his shop for months. But the fact-finding team said that when they questioned him, he admitted Phulin Murmu had visited the shop and failed to authenticate her biometrics. “He claimed he did not know about the government order asking dealers to give rations to beneficiaries even if their ration cards are not Aadhaar-linked,” said Aggarwal.

When spoke to Chetan Murmu, though, he claimed he has been giving rations even to those whose cards are not linked to Aadhaar. “They [the Murmu sisters] never came to me for four months, so how could I give them ration?” he asked. “The younger sister had come to me before October.”

Meanwhile, district supply officer Dilip Kumar Tiwari said he was not clear on whether Phulin Murmu had visited the shop and attempted to buy subsidised ration. “There is some confusion about this, but locals are saying she did not go,” he said.

Aggarwal, however, said the fact-finding team had found otherwise. She asked, “Anyway, why would a family not go to the ration dealer when they needed food so desperately?”