Updated: January 23, 2018 5:39:08 am
Budhni Soren, 45, had not gone to the jungle to collect leaves for the last couple of days leading up to her death on January 13. When The Indian Express visits her mud-house four days after her death, pattals, or plates of leaf, are still strewn in one dark room, which was also her kitchen. In a corner of the only other room lies about 10 kilos paddy lies beside a stone mill, commonly used for grinding flour and other cereals in rural households.
Although local media initially described it as yet another “starvation death” in Jharkhand, the administration stresses there was no question of food shortage. What Budhni’s death has highlighted, however, is that she did not have a ration card or an Aadhaar card. The administration agrees that Budhni — of Baratand Tola of Sevatand village in Tisri block of Giridih district, 265 km from Ranchi — was not in the food security net, while food rights activists claim she was left out because she was poor. None of her family members has even a photograph, a must for any identity-establishing document.
No one in her family has even a photograph, a must for any identity document.
“We have got the inquiry report. It is clear that there was no shortage of food,” deputy commissioner (Giridih) Uma Shankar Singh says over phone. “In fact, food was cooked the day she died. She was suffering from asthma.” Singh says the family, while not having a ration card, had an agreement with a PDS dealer, who had opened shop on the family’s land, to give them 50 kg rice every month. “But food security is a right and, therefore, we have sought a clarification from the PDS dealer, and also another dealer with whose shop residents of Baratand were tagged,” Singh says. “They have been asked to explain why they did not get a ration card of the family made. We will take further action after their reply.”
Budhni had married Tuddu Hembrom after the death of the first wife. Tuddu died two years ago, leaving behind Budhni and her son, Amit, now 5. Budhni’s stepson, Sammil Hembrom, and his wife, Premika Hembrom, live in an adjacent mud-house. Sammil works in a factory in Surat earning Rs 4,000 a month. His sister, Sunita, is married.
“I cannot say if she had rations or not,” says Premika. “A few years ago, she had a quarrel with me and, after that, she would never tell me what she needed or wanted.”
Premika has an Aadhaar card but did not have a ration card. The family also got a ration card after Budhni’s death.
“She was ill. She had a cold,” Premika says. “On Saturday [January 13] some people came and tried to take her to a doctor, but she collapsed and died. She used to go the jungle, but had not gone for a couple of days.”
Premika says the family’s ration needs were often taken care of Hari Ravi Das, the PDS dealer who has opened his shop on land belonging to Tuddu. The family had got rations around December 25, she says. “Hari Ravi Das gives us 50 kg rice, of which we get 35 kg and my mother-in-law 15 kg. After that, I did not check with her if she had rations or not.”
“I used to work with Hari,” says Jitan Marandi of the village. “Since he had built his shop on Tuddu’s land, I had asked him to give ration every month to his family as rent.”
Sammil, who went to Surat two months ago and has returned following his stepmother’s death, says, “I had made arrangements for 10-15 kg rice. After that I don’t know.” He says he had applied for the card one year ago, but the process did not get completed.
Marandi adds that Tuddu’s father, Chuduka Hembrom, had got an Indira Awas Yojana house awarded to him in the 1990s. “At that time, he had a ‘lal card’,” he says. Neither Chuduka nor Tuddu were able to complete the Indira Awas house, a roofless structure opposite Budhni’s house.
People of Baratand go to Rang Matia, 3 km away, to avail ration card-linked benefits from a dealer called Jageshwar Sahu. “My son and I have asked the villagers so many times to get their ration cards and Aadhaar cards made. But people still get left behind. What can I do?” says Jageshwar.
Akash, a Right to Food Campaign activist is visiting the village. “There is little concrete evidence to call it a starvation death,” says Akash, It could be that Budhni Soren was not eating well, or did not have anything to eat and then illness in that situation proved fatal. Our point is that she was not in the food security net.”
Activists have alleged that there have been many cases in Jharkhand where beneficiaries have been left out due to one reason or the other, leading to deaths. On the other hand, they claim, government claims credit for getting “fake people” removed from the list and saving subsidy.
Budhni would go to the jungle, collect leaves and sew them into pattals, which she would sell in the village market. “She managed barely Rs 5 or Rs 10 a day. Sometimes, she would take the pattals and barter it for ration,” says the elderly Bishu Marandi, who earns Rs 100 a month herding some villagers’ cattle.
There is some land around Budhni’s house and she had sown potatoes, which were not yet ready. Sammil had left after sowing a little mustard and some vegetables. “We never have enough to sell in the market. All of it gets used up at home,” he says.
Villagers say youths either go out to different states for a living or earn as labourers breaking mica stones, a few kilometres from their village. “They get around Rs 50-60 a day,” says Bishu.
With undulating terrain making irrigation difficult, villagers agriculture is usually not a viable option.
Subdivisional magistrate (Khori-Mahua), Ravi Shankar Vidyarthi says the administration keeps trying to bring people in the security net. “On December 20, we had got a camp held and called all panchayat representatives of the area where the incident has come to light. After the incident, we appealed to them to help us bring everybody in the net. We are going to carry out a block-level concerted drive for this,” he says.
Asked why the administration does not do this at regular intervals, Vidyarthi says, “It is not true. We keep doing it. But it is also the responsibility of panchayat representatives. We do have infrastructure problems, but it is equally true that the administration is making every effort to help the people.”
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