Starvation deaths continue in Jharkhand amidst government’s denial and lack of action

Collage of starvation deaths in Jharkhand

Over the past ten months, at least 12 persons have succumbed to hunger in Jharkhand. Instead of taking action against functionaries whose lapses have led to these deaths and measures to improve the situation of food security in the state, Jharkhand government has denied hunger as the cause of any of these deaths and absolved itself of any blame. Instead, the State Food Minister, Mr. Saryu Roy, has made a series of fallacious claims and accusations against activists who are highlighting the gross violations of right to food in Jharkhand.

The recent deaths of Savitri Devi in Giridh, Meena Musahar in Chatra and Chintaman Malhar in Ramgarh expose the government’s lack of seriousness to address the issue of starvation in the state.  Even after a spate of deaths before these three victims, the government took negligible cognizance of the alarming situation.

Savitri Devi, a 60-year old widow, died on 2 June 2018 after prolonged hunger and inadequate nutrition. Her family members do not remember the last time they cooked dal. The household did not have a ration card, despite applying for one at the Gram Panchayat a few months ago. This contradicts the government’s claim that Savitri Devi’s family did not apply for a ration card. Also, contrary to the claims made by the government, Savitri Devi was never admitted in RIMS Ranchi for treatment. Even though her widow pension was sanctioned in 2014, the first pension instalment was credited only in April 2018 after her Aadhaar was linked with the scheme. Savitri Devi was not informed that her pension was credited.

Fifty-year old Chitaman of Mandu, Ramgarh lived a life of extreme deprivation and died a hungry man. He too did not have a ration card. Rather than admitting the alarming situation of the family and its neighbours, government officials tricked Chintaman’s son into signing a statements that told a different tale. Not surprisingly, the Food Minister later claimed that the son himself admitted that his father died a natural death. His insensitivity towards the issue was also reflected when he suggested that the victim’s body be exhumed for post-mortem. He interpreted the son’s refusal for this as a proof that the victim did not die of starvation.

Meena Musahar, a ragpicker, also died in destitution and acute poverty. According to her neighbours, she was so malnourished that she could not feed her infant child who died a week before her.  She did not have a ration card. Jharkhand government has conveniently absolved itself of any responsibility as she may have come from Gaya, Bihar in search of livelihoods. The Food Minister even said that his department was not responsible for the starvation death of persons who did not have ration cards.

Contrary to government’s claims, the immediate causes of the 12 recent starvation deaths include denial of subsidised rice due to absence of a ration card, cancellation of ration card due to absence of Aadhaar linkage or failure of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. It is true that many of the starvation victims were also ill, but they would probably not have succumbed to hunger if they received adequate nutrition and medical care.

Denial of social security pensions and absence of work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act further contributed to the destitution of the starvation victims and their families. At least four victims were eligible to social security pension, but were either not issued a pension or did not receive their pension due to administrative lapses or Aadhaar-related issues.

The starvation deaths have exposed the exclusion of poor households from the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the alarming levels of food insecurity in the state. A highly effective measure of addressing these problems is the universalisation of the PDS in rural areas and inclusion of nutritious items in the PDS. The deaths have also raised questions on the coverage of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) as most of these families, despite living a life of acute poverty, did not have AAY ration cards.  Instead of any discussion on such moves, the Food Minister has instead proposed setting up of grain banks. Even if such banks are established, they will fail to ensure universal access to food security as a matter of right.

The government’s indifference towards people’s food insecurity is also revealed by its foot-dragging in the withdrawal of the “Direct Benefit Transfer for food security” pilot in Nagri block of Ranchi. By all accounts, the results of the pilot are disastrous. However, the Food Department is yet to roll back this pilot or compensate ration cardholders who are denied their legal entitlement to subsidised foodgrain in this ill-conceived initiative. In fact, it has even failed to make public the findings of the government’s own social audit of this pilot.

The Right to Food Campaign demands immediate withdrawal of the “Direct Benefit Transfer for food security” pilot.  It also demands the universalisation of the PDS in rural areas and inclusion of pulses and edible oil in the PDS – a promise made by the Food Minister himself. The government should also immediately remove the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar from PDS – and all other public services – and strengthen the grievance redress system to be established under the National Food Security Act.

For more details, please contact Asharfi Nand Prasad (9334463332) or write to [email protected]. All the fact-finding reports and other documents referred to in the press conference can be downloaded from the following link – Testimonies of members of Savitri Devi and Chitaman Malhar can be viewed here  –


Details of recent hunger deaths in Jharkhand

  Name of victim Age (yrs) Block, District Date of death Details
1 Santoshi Kumari* 11 Jaldega, Simdega 28 Sep 2017 Family denied ration for five months as its ration card was cancelled in want of Aadhaar.
2 BaijnathRavidas 40 Jharia, Dhanbad 21 Oct 2017 Despite repeated applications, the family did not get ration card.
3 Ruplal Marandi* 60 Mohanpur, Deoghar 23 Oct 2017 Family denied ration for two months as thumbprint of Ruplal and his daughter did not work in the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) Point-of-Sale machine.
4 Premani Kunwar* 64 Danda, Garhwa 1 Dec 2017 After September 2017, Premani’s pension was redirected to someone else’s bank account linked with her Aadhaar. Premani did not receive her ration in November 2017 even though she successfully authenticated herself through ABBA. NREGA work unavailable.
5 Etwariya Devi* 67 Majhiaon, Garhwa 25 Dec 2017 The family did not get ration from October-December 2017 due to ABBA failure. Etwariya’s old pension was not credited in her account in November. In December, the Common Service Point operator did not give her the pension as the internet connection was disrupted just after she authenticated through ABBA. NREGA work unavailable.
6 Budhni Soren 40 Tisri, Giridih 13 Jan 2018 The family was not issued a ration card (presumably as it did not have Aadhaar).Budhni Soren was also not issued a widow pension.
7 LukhiMurmu* 30 Hiranpur,Pakur 23 Jan 2018 The family was denied its PDS rice since October 2017 due to ABBA failure. In June 2017, the family’s AntyodayaAnna Yojana card was converted into a Priority ration card without its knowledge. No NREGA work available in the village.
8 SarthiMahtain* Dhanbad April 2018 She was denied her ration and pension for several months as she could not go to the ration shop and bank for Aadhaar-based biometric authentication due to illness.
9 Yurai Devi Ramna, Garhwa May 2018 Denied ration
10 Savitri Devi* 60 Dumri, Giridih June 2018 Did not have a ration card despite having applied for it.She was sanctioned a widow pension in 2014, but the first pension instalment was transferred in her account in only April 2018 as her Aadhaar was not linked with her bank account. No NREGA work available in the village for the past two years.
11 Mina Musahar 45 Itkhori, Chatra June 2018 Did not have ration card or shelter. Was forced to beg for food and was hungry for 4 days.
12 ChintamanMalhar 50 Mandu, Garhwa June 2018 Was not issued a ration card or PVTG pension. Lived in makeshift shelter. No NREGA work available. Lived in state of semi-starvation.

*Cases where Aadhaar-related failures clearly contributed to starvation.

Report of inquiry into the death of Savitri Devi in Giridih, Jharkhand

Sixty-year-old Savitri Devi of Margadhi village in Chainpur Gram Panchayat of Dumri block of Giridih district died on 2 June 2018. As per media reports, she died of starvation. Members of Right to Food Campaign Jharkhand investigated the circumstances of the death on 4 and 17 June. They spoke with members of Savitri Devi’s family, her neighbours, Gram Panchayat members and the ration dealer.

Details of the family

Savitri Devi was a widow, whose husband Dwarka Mahto passed away about ten years ago. Dwarka Mahto worked as a manual worker. She had two sons – 28-year old Hiralal Mahto and 25-years old Ullas Kumar. The elder son studied till class 5 and the younger son till class 10. Hiralal and his 27-year old wife Purnima Devi have three children – an eleven-year-old son, a seven-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. Ullas and his wife Soni have a three-year-old girl and a new born son. Purnima Devi is illiterate while Soni Kumari has studied till class 10. Savitri Devi also has a married daughter.

The family lives in a two-room kuccha house on barely a decimal of land. There are only some basic utensils in the kitchen. The family shares around 25-30 decimal of land (mostly upland) with its relatives. It cultivates paddy and uses paddy seeds saved from last year’s produce and cannot afford to use fertilisers. Annually it gets about 20-25 kg of rice from its land. The family does not own any livestock.

Family’s access to employment and money

Savitri Devi’s sons and daughters-in-law did some manual labour in and around the village. The women would get work about once or twice a week and earn Rs 80-100/day. In December 2017, Ullas went to Rampur (Uttar Pradesh) for work. He got Rs 2,000 per month, of which he was unable to save anything for his family. Soon after Ullas left the village, his elder brother also left for work. He worked as manual labourer in setting up transmission lines and earned Rs. 200 per day. Hiralal is yet to receive most of his wages. Both the brothers were unable to send any money to the family.

Both the brothers were away at the time of their mother’s death. Hiralal was given money only for the train ticket by the contractor. After paying for the train ticket to return home, Hiralal was not left with even Rs 15-20 for the auto fare from Parasnath railway station. He thus walked this distance (around 5-6 kms).

The household has a Job Card (JH-19-005-010-005/12) which only includes Savitri Devi and her husband’s names. According to the electronic Job Card, Savitri Devi last worked in a scheme of dobha for eleven days in 2016.

Neither Savitri Devi nor her daughters-in-law were members of the self-help groups in the village. However, the family took a loan from a self-help group which remains unpaid. It was hesitant to reveal the loan amount.

Family’s access to food

No food was cooked in Savitri Devi’s house for three days preceding her death. Neighbours and local ward member did not find any grain in the house on the day of the death. Savitri Devi drank some milk on 1 June. The family received cooked rice (enough for only one person) from a neighbour on one of the three days.

The family regularly faced shortage of food. According to Purnima, 2 kg of rice per day was required for feeding all the members. But they often had to make do with much less than that.  The family usually aterice or maadh-bhaat. It also slept hungry at times. Sometimes it cooked potatoes and locally available saag. It does not remember the last time it cooked dal. Sometimes it would receive food from neighbours. At times, the neighbours would provide food to the children and the pregnant daughter-in-law on their own. The family received 2.5-3 kg rice from a self-help group in the village a week before the death. The older daughter-in-law Purnima said that she felt ashamed to ask neighbours for food. The family also received some rice from the families of their in-laws sometimes. It could not afford to buy sugar.

The family was not issued a ration card to get subsidised grains from the Public Distribution System (PDS). According to the son Ullas, the family applied for a ration card whenever there was an announcement that new cards would be made. According to the Mukhiya of Chainpur Gram Panchayat, one of the daughters-in-law approached him to authorise a ration card for the family a few months back. The Mukhiya did so and told the daughter-in-law to fulfil the online procedures for ration card applications (to be done at the block office which is around five kms away from the village). One of the daughters-in-law says that Savitri Devi went to the block a couple of times for this whereas the Mukhiya claims that she did not. The ration card application was found at her home at the time of death and it was taken by the Mukhiya.

Soon after Savitri Devi’s death, both her sons’ families were issued a Priority (PH) ration card. Also, according to the Mukhiya, the family’s details were missing from the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011.

Savitri Devi’s access to social security pension

Savitri Devi was entitled to widow pension. When the right to food campaign members updated Savitri Devi’s bank passbook on 4 June, a balance of Rs 2375 was found in her account. Rs 1800 – three months’ pension – was credited in the account on 4 April 2018. However, as no one in the family was aware that Savitri Devi’s pension was credited, no attempt was made to check the account balance in the months preceding her death. According to Purnima, Savitri Devi would keep going to the local bank to check for her pension and would come back exasperated after not having received it. Punita Devi, a neighbour, took Savitri to the block office multiple times to check for her pension. She last went to the bank in March 2018. According to the Mukhiya, Savitri Devi’s pension was sanctioned in 2014, but the pension amount was credited only after he got her Aadhaar linked with herpension scheme a few months back. Ullas said that Savitri Devi’s bank account was opened in Chainpur branch of Allahabad bank in 2014 for the purpose of getting widow pension.

Official account of Savitri Devi’s death

On 4 June, Giridih’s Additional Collector submitted his report on Savitri Devi’s death to the Deputy Collector of the district (there is also another government report on the death). The report mentions the following facts:

  • Savitri Devi’s sons earned monthly salaries of Rs 7,000 and Rs 3,000.
  • According to Savitri Devi’s husband’s younger brother Bhola Ram Mahto, he looked after Savitri Devi for ten days before her death and also gave her food.
  • Savitri Devi was on her death bed for 8-10 days.
  • A woman named Shanti Devi gave food for 8-10 days.
  • Savitri Devi was ill and was also treated at RIMS. She was diagnosed with Parenchymal haematoma.
  • According to Dr Barnwal at the Dumri referral hospital, Parenchymal haematoma is also called head injury and it can lead to the clotting of blood. Haematoma can affect the respiratory system, which can even lead to death.
  • Savitri Devi has a bank account in the Chainpur branch of Allahabad Bank. Rs 1,800 were credited in the account on 4 April. If the family was indeed facing hunger, it would have withdrawn this amount from the bank.
  • Savitri Devi did not die of hunger. There was a steady stream of people around Savitri Devi when she was on her death bed.

On 12 June, the Food Minister held a press conference to make public the findings of a second investigation in Savitri Devi’s death. This investigation – allegedly done as the first investigation was unsatisfactory – was conducted by the Additional Director with the Directorate and the Joint Secretary with the Department. The following information was given in the press conference:

  • Illness is the probable cause of Savitri Devi’s death.She was twice treated at RIMS for paralysis and another brain related ailment.
  • Other members of Savitri Devi’s family were in good health.
  • The family did not have a ration card, but it never applied for one.
  • Despite the insistence of officials and local representatives, the family did not allow for a post mortem.
  • The family gave a written testimony that Savitri Devi’s death was normal.

According to Ullas, the official account of Savitri Devi’s death differs from the statement given by the family members. He said that he was made to sign on a statement which included Rs 3,000 and Rs 7,000 as the monthly incomes of the brothers. According to the family members and neighbours, Savitri Devi did not suffer from any illness and was walking till at least 3-4 days before her death. She was never admitted to RIMS. The family had no clue that Rs 1,800 were transferred in her account. The BDO promised Rs. 20,000 to the family that they are yet to receive.

Implementation of welfare programmes in the village

There are some poor families in the village without a ration card. Ration cardholders receive 2 kg less than their entitled quantity of rice, but are forced to pay for the full entitlement. They also complained that they do not receive a receipt from the ration dealer. Children get food at the Anganwadi and school midday meals (including eggs twice a week). No one in the village has received maternity entitlement, or filled the forms for claiming it.Some elderly persons do not get old age pension. According to the Mukhiya, like Savitri Devi, there are 4-5 other persons also in the Gram Panchayat whose pension was sanctioned but the amount was not getting credited as their Aadhaar numbers were not linked with their pension schemes. No work under NREGA has happened in 2018-19 and only a well was implemented in 2017-18. People said that they needed work but NREGA schemes were not implemented in the village.

List of contacts

Ullas Kumar Savitri Devi’s son 8002379856, 9076778141
Manoj Up Mukhiya 9110154661
Mukhiya 8969036074
Mukesh Kumar Sinha Ration dealer 9931003837


Acutely Malnourished Mother from Homeless Musahar Family Dies in Chhatra (PDF)
Fact-Finding Report by The Right to Food Campaign

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