An 11-year-old girl in Jharkhand’s Simdega district has died of starvation last fortnight, months after her family’s ration card was cancelled because it was not linked to their Aadhaar number, say Right to Food Campaign activists. With no school mid-day meals available during her Durga Puja holidays, Santoshi Kumari had gone with barely any food for nearly eight days before she died, they said.
Santoshi Kumari, who came from an impoverished family in Simdega’s Karimati village, died on September 28. With no land, jobs or steady income, the family is eligible for subsidised rations under the National Food Security Act. However, according to local news reports and an independent fact-finding report by members of the non-profit Right to Food Campaign and NREGA Watch, the local ration dealer had refused to give Santoshi’s family their rations for the past six months on the grounds that their ration card had not been linked – or “seeded”, as its known in official language – to their Aadhaar number.
His move followed a Central government order in February making Aadhaar compulsory for accessing subsidised food grain through the Public Distribution System. Even before that, as Scroll.in has extensively reported in its Identity Project series, several ration shops in Jharkhand, Rajasthan and other states have been denying rations to eligible citizens by insisting on biometric authentication linked to Aadhaar instead of accepting people’s ration cards.
According to activists, this is in clear violation of several Supreme Court orders issued since 2013, which state that possession of an Aadhaar number cannot be made compulsory to avail of benefits under government welfare schemes, particularly to buy subsidised food grains.
Despite this, Jharkhand continues to impose Aadhaar on citizens even more stringently. In the state’s Latehar district, a September 30 order by the district supply officer warned that people whose Aadhaar numbers are not linked to their ration cards by November would be deleted from the Public Distribution Scheme list.
“This will mean excluding a huge population of eligible citizens from the scheme,” said Dheeraj Kumar, an activist with the Right to Food Campaign in Jharkhand and a member of the fact-finding team that investigated Santoshi Kumari’s death.
In Simdega district, the ration shop dealer who sold subsidised food grains to Santoshi Kumari’s family also dealt with at least 700 households in and around Karimati village. Of them, 10 families had been deleted from the public distribution system list because they were not linked to their Aadhaar numbers. According to the fact-finding team, the block development officer in Simdega’s Jaldega block confirmed that Santoshi’s family’s ration card had been deleted because it was not linked to Aadhaar.
Activists from the village had raised this issue of cancelled ration cards at a janta darbar or public hearing organised by the district collector on August 21. After this, on September 1, a written complaint was sent to the district supply officer along with a photocopy of the Aadhaar card of Koyli Devi, Santoshi’s mother. The complaint included a request to get a new ration card made.
However, the new ration card was not made for the rest of the month, and eventually arrived two weeks after Santoshi’s death. According to the fact-finding report, the block officers claimed that the delay was due to the online portal not working during that time.
“This is a common problem we are seeing in Jharkhand – even when people have an Aadhaar card, the authorities are not able to link it with their ration cards because internet networks are often absent, their servers are down, the technical operator is absent or the portal just doesn’t work on some days of the month,” said Dheeraj Kumar, who says he suspects that many eligible public distribution scheme beneficiaries have been struck off the scheme in the past few months because of the state government’s haste to achieve targets.
At a press conference on September 7, Vinay Chaubey, state secretary of food and civic supply, announced that Jharkhand had achieved 100% Aadhaar seeding with ration cards. During the process, he claimed that 11.6 lakh people had been deleted from Public Distribution System lists because they held fake or duplicate ration cards.
However, of the 2.3 crore Jharkhand citizens who are covered under the Public Distribution System, the government’s own records available online show that only 1.7 crore have seeded their Aadhaar numbers, say activists. “The seeding rate in the state is quite low – at least 25% of the population has not been able to link their Aadhaar to their ration cards,” said Kumar.
Died asking for rice
The imposition of Aadhaar in violation of Supreme Court orders has had fatal consequences for 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari of Karimati village.
For months, the village and its surrounding areas have had no jobs offered under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Since Santoshi Kumari’s father is mentally ill and cannot work, her mother Koyla Devi and her 20-year-old sister go around the village offering to cut grass for others. This brought home Rs 80 to Rs 90 a week. The lack of food has been a consistent problem for the family, which sometimes has to eat the take-home rations given to Santoshi Kumari’s one-year-old brother at the local anganwadi or rural crèche.
Despite several attempts, Scroll.in was unable to contact Vinay Chaubey or the block officers in Santoshi’s taluka. However, activists allege that local administrative officials are now claiming that Santoshi Kumari died of malaria and not starvation.
“But the mother of the girl has clearly told us that she had no food to eat for eight days,” said Asharfi Nand Prasad, the convener of the Right to Food Campaign in Jharkhand. “So far, no doctor’s report has indicated that she had malaria.”
In a video interview that the fact-finding team conducted, the mother Koyli Devi can be seen recounting Santoshi’s death. On September 28, the starving child had asked her mother for rice as she began blacking out. The family took her to the local doctor, who also advised feeding the girl since her body was failing due to hunger. But there was no food at home, and at 10.30 pm, Santoshi died asking for rice.