Three girls – Mansi, eight, Shikha, four, and Parul, two – died on July 24 in East Delhi’s Mandawali area. The post mortem reports listed starvation as the cause of death.

The news of this tragedy in this low-income suburb of Delhi created a brief, transient storm. People responded variously with empathy and grief, anger, consternation, disbelief and outright denial. The three major political parties that have governed Delhi – the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi Party, which is currently in power –
traded charges over the tragedy.

A later report by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, saying that the children may have been given some “unknown medicine” by the father the night before their death, added a new twist to the story. The troubling collective reflection on the possibilities of hunger persisting in India’s shining metropolises morphed quickly into a more titillating whodunit. This was welcome, as this new turn is much easier on our consciences: rather than children dying because they had not eaten for days, it became another mysterious crime. The storm predictably subsided.

The three writers of this report have engaged for many years on questions of hunger and the Right to Food, two as campaigners for the Rights to Food and Information and one as Special Commissioner of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case for over a dozen years. We have also worked with homeless populations for nearly two decades. To us, the news of the reported hunger deaths stirred not surprise, only anguish. In our work with homeless children and adults, we have witnessed significant food crises, and even higher levels of malnourishment caused by repeated infections because of importable water and insanitary living conditions.

These are almost equally pervasive in Delhi’s myriad slums, old inner-city ghettoes, upgraded village settlements, juggi jhopdi or JJ clusters and resettlement colonies. We have pointed repeatedly to the unconscionable levels of hunger and malnourishment in Delhi. But this does not fit visions and aspirations for Delhi as a glittering, global city, so Delhi typically continues to live in complete denial.

What is hunger death?

Before we try to understand what actually took the precious lives of these three girls, a word about what actually constitutes a hunger death, or a death by starvation. The popular perception is that if a person dies of hunger, he or she would not have eaten any food for a prolonged period of time. State administrations for decades hotly deny charges of starvation deaths using this popular interpretation, with the help of autopsies that might show that the person had consumed even a few morsels. This happened in Delhi as well, and the bodies of the little girls were subjected to not one but two forensic autopsies. It is significant that both showed no food in their bellies and no fat in their bodies. Therefore, it seemed that these three girls had literally starved to death.

However, it is important to recognise that for a person to die of starvation, it is not necessary for them to have not eaten any food at all for several days. It is enough if they are denied adequate nutritious food, the amount that is necessary to lead an active and healthy life, over a long period. With these long denials, they may succumb to ailments or shocks that would not have killed them had they been adequately nourished.

For long, therefore, as commissioners for the Right to Food for the Supreme Court, we have suggested that we shift the discourse from death by starvation to living with starvation. Does the evidence confirm that the person who died lived in conditions of destitution and extreme poverty, with prolonged denial of adequate nutritious food imperative for an active and healthy life? Autopsies only compound the suffering and humiliation of the deceased’s loved ones. These should be replaced by what we call verbal or social autopsies, or in other words, an inquiry about the living conditions of the people who died and the other members of their households. This verbal or social autopsy is what we attempted for the three girls whose precious lives were taken far too early.

The area in which the three girls used to stay in Mandawali, Delhi. Credit: Vijayta Lalwani

The quest for facts

In our visit to Mandawali on July 28, we met several people who had known the family – the three girls, their mother Beena Singh and father Mangal Singh, who has been missing since the day before the girls were found dead – to try and understand the circumstances around the tragic deaths. We first went to the single-room dwelling in Pandit Chowk, Mandawali, where the family had been staying since July 21 (they moved here from another part of Mandawali) and from where the girls were taken to the hospital and declared brought dead.

The family had not hired the room; they stayed with their friend, Narayan, on the ground floor. The room is in a two-storey building with 28 similar rooms and a common toilet. The tenants are mainly migrants and typically stay for only a few months at a time. Most of them work as daily labourers at construction sites or pull rickshaws.

Several neighbours said they had seen the children and the mother though they had not interacted with them. The neighbours described the children as looking extremely weak and said they had been coming out of the room only to defecate in the corridor, as they did not have the strength to go up to the common toilet. They claimed to have not seen any food being cooked in the room for the three days that the family lived here. They added that the mother was also looking extremely weak and found it difficult to move around and also communicate.

We next went to Pankaj Rickshaw Garage in Saket Block, Mandawali, where Mangwal Singh worked as a rickshaw puller. He would hire the rickshaw for Rs 50 a day, which he would ply to make a living. Since Mangal and his family had lived in the Saket Block area for several years before shifting to Pandit Chowk, the rickshaw pullers and locals knew them well. We met about 20-25 rickshaw pullers, most of whom hailed from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar and had migrated to Delhi for work. Most had been in Delhi for several years and lived in the area. Only one rickshaw puller had a ration card. The others could not get a ration card, they said, owing to bureaucratic hurdles and because they lacked some required documents.

Dileep, a rickshaw puller hailing from Madhubani in Bihar, knew Mangal well as he hired rickshaws from the same garage. He said that until about four years ago, Mangal used to run a local food cart where he would cook and sell parathas and tea. He was doing fairly well and had even hired someone to assist him. But he shut the cart down – some said this was because of financial difficulties while others said he had taken to alcohol. For the last four months or so, Mangal had been renting rickshaws from this garage. The three girls would often play in the area with the children of other rickshaw pullers. He said their mother was mentally ill, as several media outlets had reported.

Dileep said that in recent years, Mangal had started drinking heavily and there would often be reports of him falling asleep on the pavement. Dileep and other rickshaw pullers had an inkling that the children were going hungry and would often buy them some food. Around 10 days before the family moved out of Saket Block, the rickshaw that Mangal had hired had been stolen, Dileep told us. Then, a day before they shifted out, another rickshaw that Mangal had hired was stolen. Because of the losses, Mangal left the Pankaj Rickshaw Garage and moved his family out of the area.

We visited the room in Saket Block where the family lived for several years. The windowless room, measuring about seven feet by seven feet, was located in a by-lane of Gali No 2, Railway Colony. An open drain and an overflowing manhole ran along the bylane. On a wall, the word “laadli” was poignantly scribbled in silver ink. Drawings and words were scribbled on the walls, which neighbours said were the handiwork of the eldest daughter, Mansi. A neighbour said that the mother was able to look after the girls and would sometimes cook food in the room. However, the mother would often be disheveled and was extremely thin, the neighbour added. She also talked about Mangal’s drinking problem. They knew that the family was having a hard time making ends meet.

We inquired about the local anganwadi centre. The girls aged two and four should have been enrolled at the government-run child care centre sand were entitled to receive free food there. As per the rules, the two-year-old was entitled to take home rations while the four-year-old was entitled to a snack and a meal. However, neighbours and shop keepers in the area said that there was no functional anganwadi in the area. People claimed that the anganwadi existed only on paper and money was being siphoned off without providing any kind of facilities for the children. They accompanied us to an open area with a room, which they claimed was supposed to be an anganwadi till around a year earlier, though it was now being used as a cow shed. We met several families with young children in the surrounding area and none of them were aware of any anganwadi centre.

Delhi BJP President Manoj Tiwari with the mother of the three girls. Credit: PTI

What killed the girls?

This clearly was a family living for years precariously on the brink. These multiple vulnerabilities with regard to health, employment, housing, sanitation, and lack of state provisioning made life extremely precarious for them even in the times of relative normalcy. A few shocks would have been enough to tip them over. These came variously from the closure of the food cart, the theft of the rickshaws, the father’s resort to alcohol and the mother’s mental health. There was no safety net to buffer their descent into destitution, severely impacting their ability to provide even food to the girls.

At these levels of vulnerability, even the seemingly most innocuous of changes could have ramifications. Like, for instance, the recent death of the kindly cobbler who worked round the corner and – according to the neighbours - used to feed the kids often. While the anganwadi in the area remained largely dysfunctional as stated by the locals, it was the relative strength of such social networks that kept a family afloat. The family was dependent on the goodwill of neighbours to survive and perhaps their move to a new area, where no one knew them, meant that even this crucial support stopped. This could have been the proverbial final nail in the coffin – or stick in the funeral pyre. It is probably futile to look for that one clue that would seemingly solve the riddle. The immediate factors then may act as catalysts hastening the descend towards the inevitable of a family living always on the edge.

The two post mortem reports from different hospitals that confirmed starvation as the cause of death also found no food or water in the girls’ stomach and found zero grams of fat on their bodies. The Sub Divisional Magistrate’s report has not been made public in its entirety. The report claims that the eldest daughter had about Rs 1,800 in her bank account, though the fact that the girls were starving and were not getting adequate food is undeniable. In our visit, none of the neighbours or locals referred to any sort of medicine being given to the children by the father or of the possibility of any foul play. They said the father was gentle and loved the girls dearly.

Left out of the system

There seemed to be no systemic support for the family either. The family, especially the children, were entitled to various rights under the National Food Security Act, including at least 25 kilograms of grain per month at very low cost (less than what their father would earn plying a rickshaw in a day). Apart from this, the mother should have been receiving support and treatment for the mental health issues that she was grappling with.

Additionally, based on criteria laid down by the Delhi government, the family was eligible for a ration card to get subsidised food grains through the Public Distribution System. However, it did not one. In practice, a quota system is followed under the Public Distribution System, where the number of people to be given ration cards is pre-decided. Therefore, even if people meet the eligibility criteria, they are excluded.

Further, many people get left out due to insistence on furnishing of identification proof, address proof and Aadhaar card. Of the 28 families who live in the building where the girls eventually died, only one or two had a ration card. Similarly, none of the neighbours in the Railway Colony had ration cards. Only one rickshaw puller from among the 25 we met possessed a ration card. There was also no functional anganwadi at the place where the family lived for several years. According to neighbours and locals the eldest girl had been regular in attending school prior to the summer vacations but had attended only a couple of days of school in July. Perhaps the lack of provision of school meals during the vacations may have contributed towards her untimely death.

Questions remain

The full facts of why and how the three sisters died are still not clear, and may never be fully known. But there is no doubt that they lived in a precarious situation for a long time, and there were no social or state systems that existed to protect them.

It is important to note that the settlements that they spent their lives in are by no means the most impoverished or wretched in the city. The tiny claustrophobic room in which they lived is sadly much superior still to many in the unauthorised slums in which more than a third of Delhi’s population lives. Therefore, a large number of people in Delhi live in similar or worse conditions of food precariousness. Some overcome these, others do not, and they die unnoticed and unmourned, every day. They do not even become official statistics.

The precariousness is caused fundamentally by the attitude of successive governments to impoverished migrants in the city. The AAP government is more sympathetic than earlier regimes, but the architecture of social protection programmes still substantially (or completely) excludes them. The situation is most precarious for circular migrants, those who spend several months every year away from their villages in search of work. But almost as precarious are migrants like the parents of these three girls, from a village in Malda district of Bengal, who may have lived for a decade or longer in the city, but do not have the social capital or documents to be able to get even a ration card.

There are also gaping holes in India’s social protection programmes. Unlike many cities in the world, we don’t have soup kitchens or what we call community canteens serving subsidised or free cooked meals to migrants and the destitute, in the way that Amma Canteens in Chennai did magnificently. We don’t have care systems for impoverished persons with mental health issues, like the girls’ mother, or de-addiction services that their father could have used. And we don’t have robust child protection systems for those like these girls who lack or lose responsible adult protection.

If there is one overarching reason why these three girls died, it is because neither government nor the larger society cares. Their deaths will finally end up as just one statistic, as well as one more transient reminder of our collective failures of public compassion.