SANTOSHI’S cousin Soni is busy grinding mango chutney on a grindstone, while another, Gopi, sits outside the house eating, his plate piled with plain rice. Santoshi’s mother Koyli Devi doesn’t do daily labour anymore, while her elder sister Janaki Devi, 22, is about to leave for the weekly market nearby to buy provisions, including “saag, vegetables, rice, potatoes etc”. Santoshi’s youngest sister Chhando says earlier they wouldn’t eat every day, but now they have “everything daily”. “Sometimes daal too.”
Nine months after Santoshi, 14, died, of suspected starvation in Karimati village in Jharkhand’s Simdega district, food is no longer an issue at her house. The single-room mud hut now has a door, a tin sheet fitted inside an iron frame, following the time policemen spent guarding Santoshi’s home in September 2017, after neighbours took exception to her mother’s claims that she had died of hunger. The house has an LPG connection and a toilet, located just outside, though water has to be carried in, while the PDS dealer providing rations is now located closer to the village.
The government continues to maintain that while Santoshi’s family had not been getting rations for six months before her death, the 14-year-old had died not of starvation but illness. The then PDS dealer had stopped rations on the ground that Koyli’s ration card was not linked to her Aadhaar.
It’s the same claim the government has made in the case of Savitri Devi, who died on June 2, in Mangargaddi village of Giridih district. The family hadn’t completed the ration card process, but two government inquiries have said that while Savitri didn’t have food at home, her death was due to an old ailment.
Before Santoshi’s death, Koyli and her eldest daughter Gudiya would go into the jungle, collect twigs and sell them in the nearby Lachragarh market to earn money. But the barely Rs 100 they made, every second or third day, only got them rice for a couple of days. Koyli’s husband Taya Nayak is mentally challenged. Says Janaki, “Life is still not easy, but regular rations provide crucial support. They also help us tide over days when we don’t get work.”
With Koyli and Gudiya away at a relative’s place due to an illness, Janaki says she is not too sure what happened to the compensation amount they got after Santoshi’s death, including Rs 50,000 from the government and around Rs 15,000 from other forums.
Officials had escorted Koyli to the bank to get her account opened at the time. The 22-year-old doesn’t remember Koyli going to the bank ever again. “I think the money is lying there,” Janaki says, admitting they had initially hoped to buy things such as a mobile phone for themselves.
She also wishes the government would provide them a pucca house, recalling that their grandfather once had one under the Indira Awas Yojana. It now lies in ruins on the outskirts of Karimati.
The village, that was initially angry at Koyli for the “starvation stigma”, is now grateful for the changes Santoshi’s death has brought, including a new 3-km road, an auxiliary nurse cum midwife at the local health sub-centre, and toilets for almost all the households. While the health centre hasn’t changed much, villagers note with appreciation that the new auxiliary nurse, Kripa Toppo, lives nearby and is available at all hours. Her predecessor Mala, incidentally, had been shifted to another block after she gave statements in the media that Santoshi was not ailing and had died of starvation.
Toppo has conducted nearly 35-40 institutional deliveries from four villages around since she joined in November last year. Many of those procedures were done by her in the light of her personal solar battery, she says, hoping that the health centre will get power soon.
Says one villager Rajendra Singh, who is in his 20s, “After the incident, the atmosphere had become vitiated, but it’s good that it forced the administration to take note. For our part, we have put the anger at Koyli behind us. We are just hopeful the assurances made by the administration (after Santoshi’s death) will be fulfilled.”
One of those promises was to start cottage industries in the village. “They took the list of those interested, for vocations like poultry farming, goat rearing, mushroom farming etc. We are waiting for its implementation,” says villager Birendra Singh.
He adds that besides this, a watershed management programme, to lift water from the nearby Dev river to irrigate their fields, has been pending for at least three years.
Assuring that the project was “under process”, Jaldega Block Development Officer Sanjay Kongari lists all that they have done, including getting everyone in the village Aadhaar cards and ration cards. “We have started a mushroom cultivation project, a couple of ponds have been allocated, and we are beginning training under the Krishak Kalyan Yojana. Things will start getting implemented.”
Till then, for many like Rajendra Singh, migrating for work is their only option. Rajendra says he was away at Bengaluru to learn ‘shuttering (for building construction)’ under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana when Santoshi died. After finishing the course and working in several projects, he returned two months ago. “There is work here, but not so regular,” he says. “There I would make Rs 350 per day. Here, it is mostly Rs 200.”
For Santoshi’s family too, money remains an issue. Gudiya still works as a daily wager, taking up odd jobs as construction labourer or domestic help, or as farm hand during harvest season, earning not more than Rs 1,500 a month, with which she supports her parents and siblings. Gudiya’s husband Ramu Singh is also a daily wager, and earns less than her, around Rs 1,200 a month.
Both Gudiya and Janaki are married to Ramu. Asked why she married her sister’s husband, Janaki, 22, says, “He fell in love with both of us.”
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