Around 20 km from the district headquarters of Bargarh, Khuntpali seems to be quite developed compared to most villages in Odisha. Located in the irrigated region of the district – often referred to as the “rice bowl” of the state – Khuntpali is also a fairly big village with seven wards and over 1,000 families, 450 of them skilled in weaving.

There are five anganwadi centres, three government schools, a public school, a government high school and a Plus 2 (pre-university) college in Khuntpali. It also boasts of several highly educated residents including an Indian Administrative Service officer, 20 doctors, and some scientists and researchers settled abroad. A metalled road links it with the highway while the concrete village road has several two-storey homes on either side. There is greenery all around.

It is an unlikely place for a starvation death to occur. Which is why the alleged starvation death of 68-year-old Kunduru Nag on June 12 came as a shock.

Following her death, the Bargarh district administration ordered an inquiry. Sadar block development officer Sarat Bag said the inquiry found that Nag and her 78-year-old husband Jadumani Nag had been receiving their pensions and the family’s quota of rice under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana regularly. “The inquiry report has revealed that it is not a case of starvation death,” he said.

Jadumani Nag, who belongs to an Other Backward Classes community, is landless. He and his wife lived by themselves after their only daughter got married a long time ago. The couple used to be farm labourers but had stopped working five years ago. Their only income since then was the Rs 600 both received every month as old age pension, along with 35 kg of rice under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, which is meant for the poorest of the poor.

With Jadumani Nag having become mentally unstable a few years ago, Kunduru Nag was the sole breadwinner of the family and did odd jobs in some households in exchange for food or money.

No rations, no money

When this reporter visited Khuntpali days after Kunduru Nag’s death, Jadumani Nag lay on a torn bedsheet inside the half-constructed, windowless home the couple had received in 2016-2017 under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. The house, small even by the housing scheme’s specifications, had an uneven and rough floor. It was bereft of any household items barring a few aluminium utensils. Jadumani Nag’s bony face, frail and wrinkled limbs and shrunken stomach spoke volumes of the family’s poverty.

“Kunduru had fever a month and a half back and found it difficult to cook food for both,” said Hrusikesh Bag, Jadumani Nag’s nephew and neighbour. “Whenever she felt better, she went out seeking food from families in the village where she used to work earlier as a domestic help.”

Bag’s wife Kumudini said they offered the couple food once in a while, but it was not possible to do so regularly. Bag’s family, comprising his wife and two daughters, is also landless, as is the family of his elder brother Ekadasia Nag, also a neighbour of the old couple. “We solely survive on daily wages and have our own constraints,” Kumudini said.

Before Kunduru Nag’s death, the couple last received their pension on May 15 and foodgrains from the fair price shop on April 7. Under the Targeted Public Distribution System, rice is distributed in the gram panchayat once in two months. The distribution of rice for May-June began on June 9. Unable to go to the fair price shop on account of her ill-health, Kunduru Nag asked Kumudini to fetch her quota of the rice. On June 11, Kumudini went to the shop carrying Kunduru Nag’s ration card but was turned back by the official in charge of the distribution, who said the transaction could not be completed without the ration card holder’s Aadhaar-based fingerprint authentication. Kunduru Nag died the following morning.

Silently slipping into hunger

Rupabanta Kumbhar, the husband of Khuntpali sarpanch Anupama Kumbhar who appeared to speak on her behalf, said they did not have prior information about Kunduru Nag’s illness. Rupabanta Kumbhar was also the contractor for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana home built for the Nags. “I would have surely helped her had I known about her illness earlier,” he said. “When I was a ward member in 2014, I had got Jadumani and Kunduru in the list of old age pension beneficiaries.”

Like Rupabanta Kumbhar, most people in the village said they were unaware of Kunduru Nag’s failing health, or that the couple had been battling chronic hunger. This seems to be an indication of the weakening of the traditional village system of backing up vulnerable residents.

“It is essential to form a caring citizen collective including youth, self-help group members and other concerned individuals who are sensitised on the plight of the elderly and people living with hunger, said Right to Food Campaign activist Sameet Panda. “The collective can act as a social safety net to ensure that no one suffers from chronic hunger and starvation.”

The Nags are among hundreds of vulnerable households in Odisha with access to the basic social security cover provided by the government – ration cards and pension – but still in danger of succumbing to an ailment as basic as fever. The administration does not appear to have a proper mechanism to monitor elderly residents who may be in a situation similar to theirs. Meetings at the gram panchayat level do not discuss the condition of vulnerable households slipping into hunger. There is no outdoor publicity, such as posters and writings on walls, to make people aware of the symptoms of chronic hunger, of the need to identify people suffering from these symptoms, and of the available government mechanisms to support such people.

Making Aadhaar-based authentication mandatory to avail of social welfare schemes has made the elderly even more vulnerable. Their inability to go to the fair price shops – which are often several kilometres away from their villages – due to illness or lack of mobility may cost them their quota of rice because no one else can accept it on their behalf. And skipping a single quota of rice can jeopardise the economics of an elderly couple living on their own because a part of the rice is often exchanged for vegetables, oil, salt, soap and even medicine.

In this grim situation, a step taken by the Department for Social Security and Empowerment of Person with Disabilities holds out some hope. On April 7, it wrote to district collectors asking them to ensure that pensioners received a health check on the day pensions were distributed so that minor ailments could be diagnosed and remedial measures taken. However, this has to be followed in letter and spirit if it is to help vulnerable people like Kunduru Nag.

Government officials may deny that starvation exists, but chronic hunger is a reality. It needs an all-out effort to combat it.

This article first appeared on Orissa Post.