A day after the alleged starvation death of a 58-year-old woman in Jharkhand’s Giridih district, an official team that visited her home found no food in the house. A probe has been ordered into why Savitri Devi, a resident of Mangargaddi village in Dumri block, did not have a ration card and whether she had formally applied for one.
Savitri Devi died sometime on Saturday, after reportedly being without food for three days. She lived with her two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren, all surviving on the little money sent by her elder son, working in a private company in Maharashtra.
The information of the death reached the administration on Sunday after Savitri Devi’s younger son, Hulas Mahato, reached home. Her husband died in 2010.
No postmortem was conducted, and Jharkhand Food and Supply Minister Saryu Roy said on Monday that they would fix responsibility for this “lapse”. He also said he had directed the Deputy Commissioner to hold a detailed inquiry. Officials will probe if Savitri Devi or any other member of her family was getting any other government benefits.
Executive Magistrate and Dumri Block Development Officer (in-charge) Rahul Dev said, “We reached her home on Sunday afternoon after getting the information. Prima facie, there was no food in the house. The family did not have a ration card. We are probing whether an application was submitted and, if so, whether it was properly processed.”
Efforts to reach Giridih Deputy Commissioner Manoj Kumar did not yield results.
Talking to The Indian Express over the phone, Hulas Mahato said, “I came to know about my mother’s death on Saturday. I was undergoing training for farm-related work through a private company in Rampur (Uttar Pradesh). I returned late Sunday afternoon. My elder brother Hiralal, who works in a power transmission company in Bhusawal (Maharashtra), also reached home Sunday.”
Hulas says it was they who told the administration not to go in for postmortem before they conducted the cremation.
Hulas says the little produce from the small farm the family owns lasts barely two-to-three months. “It finished in February. My elder brother has not been getting salary regularly, while I get paid a small stipend. The last I called home, my elder sister-in-law had managed foodgrains from a self-help group in the village. However, that too had got over and she told me that for nearly three days, no food had been cooked in the house.”
Following the death, Hulas adds, a local dealer had arranged some 50 kg of rice for the other members of the family.
Sunita Devi, one of the core members of the self-help group, called ‘Maa Kali Swayam Sahayata Samooh’, confirms the family had approached them. “Around eight days ago, Savitri’s elder daughter-in-law had called asking if we could help as there was no foodgrain in the house. We managed to provide 3 kg. We were supposed to meet the family again on Tuesday this week, and could have arranged for more. But, in the meantime, Savitri died. With a family of seven to feed, that amount was obviously not enough.”
The mukhiya of Chainpur panchayat, under which Mangargaddi falls, Ram Prasad Mahato, says they had no information the Mahatos were in such dire straits. He also claims that their application for a ration card was in process. “Savitri’s elder daughter-in-law had come to me about two months ago for verification of her application. I had verified it. But I don’t know whether she submitted it at the block office or not.”
Ram Prasad claims that Savitri had also been selected for widow pension in 2014, “but she was not getting it”. “I don’t know why.”
Minister Saryu Roy pulled up officials for not insisting on a postmortem. “Not having a ration card is one thing, dying due to hunger is another. Once there was information about a suspected starvation death and the administration reached before the final rites were conducted, the officials should have insisted on a postmortem. It would have helped establish the cause of death.”
The minister said ‘a social audit’, including the health profile of the family, its income and bank account details, would be done to arrive at the reason behind the incident.
Since October 2017 and the death of a 15-year-old girl in Simdega, Jharkhand has seen more than half-a-dozen cases of alleged starvation deaths. In most cases, the state government has attributed the deaths to old age and diseases. However, in each of the cases, those who died were not in the food safety net.
In February this year, the government announced a committee, largely comprising activists in the field of right-to-food, to define the criteria on the basis of which a death could be categorised as having been caused due to hunger or starvation. It was also supposed to draw an inquiry protocol for the same.
One of the members of the committee, Balram, said that work on it was on. “We have visited Deoghar and we plan to visit other regions. It took some time as the actual notification came nearly a month after the announcement. Also, it is taking time to find references. Nevertheless, we hope to finish the work by July.”
Roy said he had also suggested setting up ‘grain banks’ at block and panchayat levels for families facing food shortage. “Under the Right to Food Act, we can’t give ration to anybody who does not have a ration card, even though he/she may be eligible on all other parameters. Therefore, I suggested that a certain amount of grains be kept at panchayat or block level as buffer. So far, nothing has happened and my department can’t make rules regarding this,” he said.