On June 14, Chintaman Malhar, 50, from Kundaria in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh district set to work early. It was only 7 am when he began to construct a make-shift tent to protect his son and himself from the rains. The previous night, his son, Bideshi Malhar, had returned home to the forest settlement after eight months of doing casual labour in Hazaribagh. He had come back with Rs 2,000 in savings.
By around noon, Chintaman Malhar felt giddy and fainted. Bideshi Malhar said that there was no food at home and all that his father had eaten the previous night was some leftover washed rice given to him by the neighbours.
Bideshi Malhar took his unconscious father to the government health centre 3 km-4 km away in a tempo. The doctor checked his father’s pulse and immediately told them to go to a larger government hospital 25 km away. Before they could get there, Chintaman Malhar died.
Several media reports have since claimed that Bideshi Malhar had submitted in writing to government officials that his father had suffered from a prolonged ailment. But Malhar denied this. He is certain that his father died of starvation. “My father had not eaten properly for two days and because of that he died,” he said.
Chintaman Malhar is the latest addition to the list of people in Jharkhand whose families say they have died of starvation. The media has been highlighting the deaths since September, when 11-year old school girl Santoshi Kumari died in her mother’s arms crying for rice. Though 86% of the state’s rural residents are entitled to 5 kg of rice at a nominal price every month under the National Food Security Act, scores of families have been deprived of this lifeline.
No ration cards here
The stories of the 25-30 families who live in Kundaria demonstrate that Chitaman Malhar’s death was not unusual. The residents of the settlement are collectively deprived – of their rights to food and basic entitlements. Not a single family has had a ration card for decades. On June 16, they told a Right to Food Campaign fact-finding team, of which this writer was a member, that they had failed to obtain their documents despite repeatedly submitting applications and paying bribes. Just the previous day, they said, touts had come to the village and collected Rs 10 from each of the families, promising to get them ration cards. Though some did have Aadhaar cards and a few had voter identity cards, more than 10 years after the enactment of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, they had also not heard of job cards or the guarantee of 100 days of work to which they are entitled by the legislation.
Few of the children in the settlement went to school or anganwadis. Some had severe skin rashes and open wounds.
There are no pucca houses in Kundaria. All the families live in homes made of dried leaves and pieces of plastic. Residents said that this was because they had been evicted from their homes on the other side of the woods three months before and forced to resettle on this spot. This was the third time they had been displaced over the last three decades.
Almost every family depends on money sent by sons working in distant cities, from Hazaribagh to as far as Bengaluru. But nevertheless, they do not manage to save any money as they are paid low wages by the contractors who recruit them. Many do not even have bank accounts.
Many media outlets have reported that Kundaria residents belong to a nomadic community, the Bihor tribe, which has been identified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group and is automatically eligible for ration cards under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. However, our team was not able to verify this claim. The villagers instead said that they belonged to the Malhar caste.
‘Not a natural death’
On June 16, the day after the Jharkhand media reported on Chintaman Malhar’s death, the forest settlement was filled with administrative personnel, police and journalists. Officials seated on plastic chairs asked the grieving family to add their thumb impressions on some documents. Soon, a ruckus broke out and the villagers started hurling abuses at the officials, who beat a quick retreat to their vehicles.
Bideshi Malhar said that though he had been forced to put this thumb impression on statements, he had no idea what he was endorsing since he had not been to school and does not know how to read and write. He pulled out his mobile phone to display a press clipping that he was puzzled about. He had been told that the headline read “Not from starvation, but natural death.”
“This is false,” he said. “I had told them that my father had not eaten for two days, still they have written that this death was natural.”
Just a fortnight ago, Jharkhand Food Minister Saryu Roy issued an order that a post-mortem should be conducted “in case of any suspected starvation death”. But in the case of Chintaman Malhar, this was not done because Ramgarh Deputy Commissioner B Rajeshwari told The Indian Express that the family had insisted that there was nothing unusual about the death. “We insisted on post-mortem,” Rajeshwari told the paper. “However, the family insisted it was a natural death. So the post-mortem was waived.”
Media reports on June 17 suggested that the government wanted Chintaman Malhar’s body to be exhumed. But the villagers were so incensed that they drove the officials away yet again.
Bideshi Malhar said that his father used to live with a child named Pawan, who was a relative. The morning after Bideshi Malhar returned, the boy said that there was no food at home and that nothing had been cooked for two days. Pawan asked Malhar to buy some food.
No one in the family has a ration card, Aadhaar card, pension, caste certificate or job card, said Malhar. His father subsisted on the money orders that his two sons sent him every two or three months.
After Chintaman Malhar’s death, his son said, government officials had given the family 5 kg of rice, 2 kg of dal, 2 kg of potatoes and Rs 5,000 as financial assistance. The government had also promised another Rs 15,000 and more benefits for the family. Since Bideshi Malhar’s family had now received some rations from the administration on the day the Right to Food Campaign team visited, his wife prepared a modest meal in the open air.
But none of the other villagers were given any rations. They have to continue to purchase rice in the open market, which at Rs 22 per kg is seven times more expensive than the price at which the grain is sold in the Public Distribution System ration shops.
In addition to Swati Narayan, the Right to Food Campaign team that visited Kundaria comprised Vivek Kumar, Taramani Sahu and Dheeraj Kumar.