On October 11, Cyclone Titli made landfall near the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border. For the next two days, as heavy rain and high-speed winds lashed Deogan village in Odisha, 63-year-old Jugal Behera lay under the open sky. Home, for vision-impaired Behera, was the open veranda of a mutt that had long closed down.

After the storm passed, a few villagers came to check on him and found him feverish and shivering. He had faced the storm alone, without medicines and possibly without any food. They called an auto rickshaw to take him to hospital. But seeing his condition, they concluded that he would not survive for long and dropped the plan.

On October 14, the Odia newspaper Pragativadi reported a suspected starvation death in the state. The deceased was identified as Jugal Behera. He had reportedly succumbed to hunger a day earlier.

“The cyclone came as death for him,” said one of the villagers who visited Behera at the mutt.

Home, for Jugal Behera, was this open veranda of a mutt that had long closed down. (Credit: Right to Food Campaign)

Alone and starving?

A Right to Food Campaign team visited Deogan, a remote village 30 km from district headquarters Nayagarh, on October 17. It is home to around 160 families, mostly from the Other Backward Classes, and agriculture is the main occupation. However, many of these families depend on the earnings of younger members working outside the village. Jugal Behera had never married and the families of his two brothers are landless.

It was unclear from conversations with family members and villagers if Jugal Behera had been eating regularly. The villagers told the team he had survived on a monthly disability pension of Rs 500 and 5 kg of rice, which he was entitled to as a “priority household” ration card holder under the Public Distribution System. He bought food from nearby temples and gave the rice to his nephew Pradeep Behera, who provided cooked meals in return, they added.

However, Pradeep Behera, a daily-wage worker, said he gave his uncle food only once in a while. Kuni Behera, Jugal Behera’s sister-in-law, said he was too proud to live at the mercy of others and had, in fact, stopped visiting her family after a minor altercation.

Almost everyone the team spoke with said they believed Behera was getting his rice and pension regularly, but had no details to offer.

They also said Jugal Behera sometimes sat near the anganwadi centre when it was too hot to sit on the veranda. The team met the anganwadi helper Bidulata Biswal, who said she neither provided him food, nor did he ask for it. She said she was unaware of any provision of feeding destitute people under the Integrated Child Development Services scheme, which runs anganwadi centres in India.

Anganwadis are government-run creches that provide basic healthcare, nutrition and education to India’s vast rural population, especially young mothers and children.

The Right to Food Campaign team could not meet Pabita Sahani, the anganwadi worker in Deogan. The villagers said Sahani lives in Nayagarh town and does not come to the centre often.

Pradeep Behera and the villagers also said Jugal Behera had been sick with a fever and cough as well as an infection in his testicles in his last days. But he had received no treatment as he was too frail to be moved around.

Thatched homes in Deogan where some of Jugal Behera's family members live. (Credit: Right to Food Campaign)

Living with hunger

After Jugal Behera’s death, the gram panchayat provided Rs 2,000 for his last rites under the state’s Harishchandra Sahayata Yojna. Despite the newspaper article, no one from the administration has visited Deogan or Behera’s family, said journalist Ashok Mahaptra, who was the first to report the suspected starvation death. The government has not set up a fact-finding team to look into the cause of death either.

The case of Jugal Behera is the 11th instance of a starvation death in Odisha since 2015, according to a list compiled by the Right to Food Campaign on the basis of newspaper reports or verified by independent fact-finding teams.

Odisha hunger deaths record (2015-2018)

Name & Age Block & District Date of death
Bishnu Charan, 65 years Rajnagar Block, Kendrapara, Odisha October 2015 Name struck off PDS ration card list during National Food Security Act 2013 rollout. Had two sons, one disabled and one married. 
Suadei, 55 years  Ghutupali village, Bolangir, Odisha December 8, 2015 Did not get PDS grain the month she died.
TK Mohananda 63 years  Komna block, Nuapada December 14, 2015 Dalit, landless. Had two mentally challenged children. Was Antyodaya Anna Yojana beneficiary but name was struck off PDS ration card list during NFSA rollout.
Khetrabasi Pradhan, 80 years  Daspalla, Nayagarh March 2016 Could not get pension because age was wrongly recorded on voter card
Rankanidhi Khura, 39 years  Balichhara village, Junagarh, Kalahandi, Odisha March 25, 2017 Mentally challenged, he lived with his aged mother and brother (also mentally challenged). Family didn’t have PDS card or pension, depended solely on earnings of their mother. Died due to prolonged unavailability of food.
Bilas Singh, 30 years  Barchana, Jajpur, Odisha October 14, 2017 Her husband said she did not receive medical assistance although he contacted the ASHA (accredited social health activist), ANM (auxiliary nurse midwife) and anganwadi worker.
Gobind Behera, age unclear Shantipada, Binjhapur, Jajpur May 20, 2017 Living alone after wife’s death, was surviving on food provided by neighbours.
Kunti Sahu, 35 years  Khaprakhol, Bolangir, Odisha July 28, 2018 A Dalit, she died at Harishankar Road railway station, where she lived with her mother. Begged for a living, which she couldn't do for two months due to illness. Mother has old age pension. Not clear if they had ration card.
Kundru Nag, 68 years Khuntapalli, Sadar Block, Bargarh, Odisha June 12, 2018 Received Rs 300 as pension. Grain on Antyodaya card could not be given because of authentication requirements. Permission to give without authentication came too late.
Mungre Chhura, 59 years Jairpada, Bongomunda, Bolangir, Odisha August 22, 2018 Dalit and widowed 5-7 years ago, she did not have a pension. Used to have a PDS ration card but stopped receiving rations after NFSA rollout. Should have been entitled to pension and 35kg of rice with an Antyodaya ration card.
Jugal Behara, 63 years Deogan, Nayagadh district, Odisha October 13, 2018 OBC, vision-impaired, lived alone. Did not own any asset except a few clothes. Apparently, received 5kg ration in PDS and disability pension. But fact-finding team could not ascertain. Did not get cooked food or medical help for a couple of days before his death.
Source: Right to Food Campaign, on the basis of newspaper reports and/or verified through independent fact-finding teams.

His story also symbolises the hardships faced by hundreds of elderly people and those with disabilities who live with hunger despite being covered by social security schemes like pension and the Public Distribution System. It points to the lack of a government mechanism to identify and provide for such vulnerable people who may be at risk of starvation. It is high time that all people living with hunger are identified and provided with food, care and support. Odisha could perhaps engage state-sponsored groups like the Biju Yuba Vahini, a voluntary programme that promotes youth leadership, in such efforts.

It is also high time that civil society steps in to build collectives of citizens comprising young men and women, both in urban and rural areas, who do not look away when someone is in need of food and care.

Sameet Panda was part of the three-member Right to Food Campaign team that visited Deogan.