The death of the three sisters in the national capital due to starvation Tuesday is a testimony to the failure of systems and schemes which were meant to address a case like theirs: from the school to the neighbourhoods to the government’s food scheme.
Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that the bank account of one of the sisters, Mansi, opened by school authorities, still had money in it and ATM cards were given to the family. “There is a little over Rs 1,800 in her account, which seems to be the money that the government gives as direct benefit transfer to purchase school books or uniform,” a source said.
The oldest of the three, eight-year-old Mansi, was in Class III at the Poorvi Dilli Nagar Nigam Balika Vidyalaya in Mandawali, where she was entitled to a meal every school day under the midday meal programme. But in the month of July, she had attended school just twice — on the 10th of the month and the day before her death.
Mansi and her sisters, Shikha (4) and Paro (2), were found dead on Tuesday at a house they had temporarily moved into three days ago. According to the postmortem, the three had died of malnutrition/starvation and its complications. A second postmortem report has confirmed death due to starvation and that there was no trace of fat on their bodies.
Police Thursday intensified efforts to locate their father, who has been missing since the three bodies were found. Delhi government sources also said that they were probing how three girls of different age died at the same time.
Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia – who is also the MLA of the area – admitted the system had collapsed. “The incident is shocking and worrying and is a collective failure of the system. I have asked the officials to prepare a report on whether a record of the children eligible for care at anganwadis was maintained, as it should be. If yes, why did the incident occur? If not, why weren’t the surveys carried out,” he said.
While the oldest sibling Mansi and the mother had Aadhaar cards, the family did not have a ration card, which gives BPL families access to subsidised pulses and grain. According to Sisodia, other families in the area have also said they don’t have ration cards.
“We will check why people who deserve these cards don’t have access to them. I have asked for a report on why this lapse happened,” he said
Mansi’s class teacher said, “When the child was absent for so long, I called up the contact number in the school record to ask about it. I was told that the child had gone back to her village for a while and didn’t think much about it.”
Mansi had joined the school in 2014 as a nursery student. According to both the class teacher and the principal, the child’s attendance in school was always irregular though she was a fairly good student. Both said she always walked back home by herself because no-one would come to pick her up.
“When we would ask her about it, she would say that it was because there was nobody at home,” the class teacher said, requesting anonymity. Asked if they had ever met the child’s parents all these years, they said that they had but had spoken to the father only in passing. They also mention that her mother was mentally unstable and incapable of communicating clearly.
According to their neighbours, the sisters’ father was allegedly an alcoholic who worked as a rickshaw-puller and was rarely home and their mother was mentally unstable, which meant neither of them was capable of looking after the children.
Neeraj Kumar, a neighbour, said, “They were in a very poor economic condition. It was us neighbours who used to give the children food from time to time, or give them a little money to buy something to eat.”
Former chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee Rajmangal Prasad said that the failure of the school to follow up on the status of the child when these signs were present was a major act of negligence. “Is it not their duty to get in touch with the family of a child, especially when there are signs that she comes from a vulnerable background?”
The children and the family were also eligible for care and relief under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), as well as the Public Distribution System.
The ICPS is an umbrella scheme for child protection introduced by the Centre aimed at creating preventive measures to protect children from situations of vulnerability and risk. A State Child Protection Society, Delhi, was registered in 2010 – presided over by the State Women and Child Development minister and mandated to hold at least one meeting every year. However, not a single meeting has been held in the last two years.
Prasad also flagged two schemes under the ICPS which the family could have benefited from. “One is the sponsorship scheme under which financial assistance between Rs 2,000 and 3,000 could have been provided to the family on a recurring monthly basis. The other is the foster care programme which would have involved separating the children from their parents and putting them under the care of another family, whom the government would have provided financial aid. However, because of the inactivity of the state government, not a single rupee has been released under these schemes in all these years,” he said.
The ICDS – under which anganwadis are run in Delhi – would have meant that the children would have been entitled to supplementary nutrition such as khichdi, pulses, rice etc once a day.
According to the Deputy Director ICDS, Nisha Agarwal, “The family had shifted into a new accommodation a few days ago and there is no way to monitor such movement in such a short period of time. It should have been brought to the notice of the anganwadi worker by either parents or the neighbours.”
Arvind Singh of Matri Sudha – an NGO that works in the field of nutrition education – who had visited the anganwadi centre which is a stone’s throw away from the family’s current accommodation pointed out to larger problems in the implementation of the scheme.
“The issue is as Delhi has a lot of migrant population so it is imperative to carry out the household survey regularly but the survey is held quarterly or in six months. Even if these children were malnourished the AWC does not have a monitoring mechanism and that is where the problem lies,” he said.