Talab Chowk is a neighbourhood in East Delhi’s Mandawali area, with overflowing drains and narrow alleyways where bicycles, cars and scooters try to squish their way through. In a dimly-lit building, there are several windowless rooms lined up one after another, but a crowd has gathered outside only one.

This locked room is where three girls starved to death, while their father was missing, and their mentally challenged mother was unable to help.

The deaths came to light on Wednesday, July 25, when the bodies of the girls were taken to a hospital. A postmortem said the cause of death was malnutrition and starvation. Amita Saxena, the medical superintendent of Lal Bahadur Shastri Hospital, told NDTV there was not a speck found in the stomach, bladder and rectum of the children. “It looked like they had not eaten since eight-nine days,” she said.

The girls were aged 2, 4 and 8. Their father, Mangal Singh, made a living by driving a rented rickshaw, said Narayan Yadav, who claimed to be his friend and had been summoned to the office of district magistrate’s office. Speaking to officials there, he said Singh was from West Bengal, and had moved to Delhi about 15 years ago. A few years later, he had gone back to his village to marry and had returned with his wife Bina.

Until a few days ago, the family lived in Saket Block, also in Mandawali, about a kilometre from Talab Chowk. Their home was a small room in a building mostly inhabited by families from Bihar and West Bengal. “Mangal would get drunk very often. His wife would always sit quietly while the children would play around,” said Neeraj Kumar, who lived next door.

For reasons not entirely clear, the family abruptly left the neighbourhood on July 21.

“His cycle rickshaw got stolen twice in the span of eight days,” said Kumar. The owner of the rickshaw also happened to be Singh’s landlord. He was not around to throw more light on what had happened.

Vinod Ram, who ran a grocery store in the neighbourhood, said a man took away the family on July 21. “He claimed to be their brother and also said that Mangal owed him some money. We had never seen him before.”

Outside Mangal and his family's residence in Talab Chowk, Mandawali

Yadav said Singh’s family had been kicked out of their house and he gave them shelter on July 23, in a room he owned in Talab Chowk. Singh left the room and never came back. He is still missing.

“That night, I got some food for the family,” said Yadav. “Later, the girls started feeling sick. They were vomiting and had loose motions till early in the morning. During the day, I held their hands and it was cold. Bina indicated to me that they are no more.”

The sub-divisional magistrate, Arun Gupta, fell back on Yadav’s account to argue that it was not lack of food that had caused the deaths, but “some kind of a stomach infection”.

“Narayan [Yadav] said he was continuously providing food to the family,” said Gupta. He also claimed the eldest daughter had attended school on July 23, where she had eaten a mid-day meal. “I confirmed this with the class teacher.”

Gupta added: “All the three children were suffering from loose motions and vomiting. [Yadav] said the children were constantly asking for water, due to dehydration. But they are uneducated and not aware so they were simply providing simple water, not ORS [oral rehydration solution].”

Asked about the results of the postmortem which clearly attributed the deaths to starvation, Gupta refused to comment, saying a second postmortem was being conducted.

Inside the family's previous home in Saket Block, Mandawali.

No safety nets

To cushion poor families from shocks and upheavals, and ensure a basic minimum supply of food, governments in India have for decades been running food programmes. In 2013, the National Food Security Act was passed, which makes five kilos of foodgrains at Rs 2-Rs 3 per kilo a legal entitlement for nearly three-quarters of the Indian population. The foodgrains are made available at ration shops run as part of the public distribution system. In addition, children upto six years of age are entitled to supplementary nutritional support in the form of dry rations and hot cooked meals at anganwadi centres under the Integrated Child Development Scheme. Older children must be given free mid-day meals at schools.

But the Singh family seemed to have slipped through the cracks.

The nearest anganwadi was less than a kilometre away but it was not clear if the children were enrolled there. The eldest daughter, Mansi, went to a government-run primary school. However, contradicting Gupta’s claims, the child’s teacher told The Indian Express she had not attended classes for several days.

Singh’s wife, Bina, and one of their daughters had an Aadhaar card. But the family did not have a ration card, despite living in Delhi for more than a decade. Most of their neighbours shared the same predicament. “We don’t have ration cards,” said a resident. “If we go to get it made, they ask us all sorts of questions: give this bill and that bill for [residence] proof.”

Some had argued the difficulties faced by migrants in accessing government services in the absence of residential documents could be solved by giving them Aadhaar, the 12-digit biometrics-based identification number. However, despite large-scale enrolment in Aadhaar, migrants are still unable to access government help, because it is not accepted as a residence proof.

Right to Food activists say Aadhaar has become another hurdle to accessing food rations, ever since the government linked the public distribution system to the Aadhaar database, and made it mandatory for people to furnish their Aadhaar numbers at ration shops.

“Making the food security conditional upon people’s’ ability to produce identity proof/ residence proof, Aadhaar, etc, is inhumane and a violation to the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution,” said a statement of the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan.

Inside the Shakarpur Anganwadi at Talab Chowk. The worker here said she did not know about the family since they had moved to the neighbourhood recently.

All photos by Vijayta Lalwani.