“Kanoon ko jo tode, woh kya desh banayenge? Chahe jo bhi kar lo, hum toh badhte jayenge (Those who break the law, how will they contribute to nation-building? Do what you may, we will keep going forward).”
This was among the slogans that rang out loud at New Delhi’s Gandhi Peace Foundation auditorium on March 15. Voicing them were people who had gathered to share stories about how their government-mandated right to food was being violated, repeatedly.
Organised under the umbrella of the Right to Food Campaign (RTFC), the gathering included activists, journalists, lawyers, scholars and trade union leaders. They heard the testimonies of a diverse group of people who had either been denied rations or pension or had seen Aadhaar-enabled starvation death(s) in their families. RTFC is an informal network of individuals and organisations working towards the realisation of the right to food in India.
The people had come from at least 14 different states, including Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Telangana and Karnataka. The stories they shared, however, were very similar – of being denied rations despite being eligible and such denials (in the absence of Aadhaar or non-disbursal/denial of pensions or other entitlements) leading to extreme hardships, including deaths in several cases.
Jharkhand’s Etwariya Devi, a 67-year-old widow, for instance, passed away on December 25 last year in the absence of “sufficient food and nutrition over a long period of time”. Her daughter-in-law Usha Devi travelled over 1,200 km to Delhi to attend the gathering.
It was only an hour before speaking to this correspondent that she had arrived in Delhi to share the story of her family’s loss and hardships. “Thand aur bhook se mar gai (she died because of cold and hunger),” Usha said of her mother-in-law’s demise.
Etwariya, a pensioner under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme and heavily dependent on the state-sanctioned ration under the National Food Security Act, had not received her share of ration or pension since October. While the POS machine did not read Usha’s (who collected the ration on behalf of the family) fingerprints in October, the dealer claimed he hadn’t received the ration stock for November. In December, he claimed that the POS was not working and needed repairs, as stated by a fact-finding report into Etwariya’s death.
Similarly, repeated instances of internet failure at the Pragya Kendra, from where Etwariya withdrew her pension, denied her access to her monthly allowance. In the absence of grains at home, in part due to the aforementioned hardships, the family had gone to sleep on an empty stomach on the night of December 24. Already weak, Etwariya passed away the next morning.
Usha Devi shows Etwariya’s Aadhaar card.
Etwariya’s death — due to hunger, furthered by Aadhaar-based biometric authentication failure — was neither the first nor has been the last hunger-related death in Jharkhand. Between September 2017 and January 2018, at least six other deaths have been reported, the majority of which involves biometric authentication failure leading to inability to access grains.
Speaking about the deaths in Jharkhand, Vishwanath, an RTFC member from the state campaign, said: “Jharkhand mein logon ko marne dene ke liye ek sazish hai (there’s a conspiracy to allow deaths in Jharkhand).” Technology too is among the reasons for these deaths, he added, referring to non-disbursal of ration due to mismatch of biometrics.
Many stories of Aadhaar-enabled hardships were narrated by people from several other states.
In Delhi, Somwati, in her 60s, Jagdamba, 64, and Mohini Devi, 77, did not receive grains in January because of biometric authentication failure. A group of Delhi residents confirmed that in the case of such failure, they were asked to provide one-time passwords sent to their registered numbers to avail their ration. But several of them no longer had cellphones and, consequently, were being denied their share.
A widow from Rajasthan’s Ajmer district, Suva Devi, has been repeatedly denied her share of ration over the last 12 months for similar reasons. From Karnataka’s Gokarna, Narsimha shared the details of three hunger-related deaths. He explained how the insistence on Aadhaar had resulted in discontinuation of their rations.
In addition to these testimonies, Shardaben from Gujarat’s Kumbariya village also reported that at least 50 Dalit families in her village had been denied rations cards and ration for the last one year. Debashish, a sarpanch from Odisha’s Koraput, shared details about the situation of food security in his area. He said that of the 1,393 households in his gram panchayat, 175 do not have a ration card, even though they applied for it over a year ago.
These testimonies underline the scale and impact of issues with food security in India. While Aadhaar has added to the problems of a broken system, the country’s hunger problem persists and has been constantly highlighted by International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI) in its report on the state of hunger worldwide every year.
To India’s embarrassment, in IFPRI’s latest survey of 119 countries, India’s Global Hunger Index score (31.4, which placed India at the high end of the serious category) was placed at rank 100 – worse than that of Iraq, Bangladesh and even North Korea.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little recognition of the problem.
In an opinion piece published in The Hindu in December 2017, two members of the NITI Aayog, Ramesh Chand and Shivendra Kumar Srivastava, called the Global Hunger Index “a misleading hunger index”. In an attempt to present nutritional standards among Indians in a better light, both Chand and Srivastava went on to pick holes in the report by “tweaking numbers” and adding additional indicators. Sadly, proving the ranking inaccurate will do little to solve or address the issues concerning food security in India.
What we need instead are solutions such as the ones that have helped India improve its GHI score by 6.8 points over the past 17 years*. These interventions include a “massive scale-up” of two national programmes that address nutrition — Integrated Child Development Services and National Health Mission. But a lot more needs to be done.
“A lot of people remain outside the scope of the Right to Food Act as budgetary allocations are made on the basis of the 2011 Census — and the population has increased so much over the last seven years,” a member of the campaign said. Dipa Sinha, another RTFC member, told Newslaundry: “There is a need to build pressure on the government… to highlight and bring attention to the issues right at the bottom of the pyramid.” And public hearings such as these serve that purpose, she said. She added: “There is a false narrative about vikas (development), which has begun crumbling now.”
A lot more needs to be done, and “one of the ways is through the media”, Sinha said, pointing out: “The media lost interest after the first two deaths (in Jharkhand)… and hunger-related deaths are only the tip of the iceberg.” So to continue discussions and to highlight these issues such public hearings are needed, Sinha said.
*Most recent data from October 2017.