Her hair brushed back, a comb tucked in her bun, Gudiya (26) is at ease this Tuesday afternoon. People from the administration are hovering around her, while six policemen keep a vigil on visitors. Officials from Jaldega block in Jharkhand’s Simdega district, a Naxal-dominated area, have come to the house in Karimati village to help the family encash a cheque of Rs 50,000 given by the administration to Gudiya’s mother, Koyli Devi (45). They escort her to the bank located at Jaldega, where Koyli is told she can withdraw the money next week.
Breastfeeding the youngest of her children, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, half-an-hour later, Koyli talks of all she can buy with the money. Or could have bought for Santoshi. On September 28 night, her 11-year-old daughter died — Koyli says of starvation — seven months after the family stopped getting their rations as their Aadhaar wasn’t linked to PDS. Later, the family’s name was struck off the ration card list. Santoshi was the third child Koyli lost; the other two died of illness.
Read | Santoshi died of starvation
Apart from the Rs 50,000 cheque and the Rs 15,000-odd in aid given by visiting leaders, Santoshi’s death has brought the family 75 kg of rice from the government and other benefactors, 20 kg of potatoes, two litres of edible oil, adequate kerosene oil, 10 soap bars, some green vegetables and tomatoes. Koyli is planning to stock up on more vegetables and pulses at the Wednesday haat.
Then, once the cheque is encashed, Koyli will make other purchases. “Family members are saying I should get a mobile phone. Also, we need things for the house. We will buy a box (suitcase),” she says. The family, including Koyli, husband Tatya Naik, daughters Gudiya and Chando Kumari, and son Prakash, lives in a mud house, with mud-baked tiles for roof. The house comprises a large room, with a small area partitioned off as kitchen.
The rest of the money she would keep in the bank, Koyli says, as “saving” — a new luxury for her.
Earlier that day, Koyli indulged in another small “luxury”. When Chando, 8, asked for something to eat, she gave her Rs 10 to buy coconut biscuits. “She likes fancy things to eat and was crying,” Koyli says, with a faint smile.
Santoshi was never fussy about food, the 45-year-old adds. “She only kept asking for rice, but there was not a single grain at home.”
Rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, rice for dinner. That’s been Hemanti Kumari’s routine all 10 years of her life. She is in Class 5 of Upgraded Primary School, Karimati. Santoshi cleared Class 5 from here too early this year, but never went on to the middle school (Classes 6 to 8), in the nearby Pangur hamlet.
A sprightly girl, barely over 3 ft in height in her slippers and school uniform, Hemanti is happy as today has been a special day. In the morning, she made herself two chappatis and boiled some potatoes — that will be her evening snack, a rare fourth meal.
Her mother Padma Devi sits next to an earthen chulha, dug in the verandah of their mud house. She has placed twigs as cooking fuel, and from time to time, stirs a potato curry with tomatoes on the chulha.
Hemanti’s father Gurucharan Mahato works as a labourer, taking up odd jobs. Padma can’t do much work as both her legs are amputated. They live at her brother Naresh’s home, and are grateful they have only two children to raise. Most families here have five to six children.
Describing a regular day, Hemanti says she and her friends eat rice gruel in the morning, have rice with pulses and a seasonal vegetable for mid-day meal at school, and rice gruel again for dinner, sometimes supplemented with guda (a local shrub eaten raw). Only the mid-day meal sees variation, mostly in the form of papad and pickles on Saturdays, fruits three days a week, and eggs once a week.
Shiv Nath Singh, a student of Class 3 in Hemanti’s school, has not gone to school. Mother Rukmani Devi remains silent when asked why. Putting plain rice before him for lunch, the 40-year-old says potatoes cost Rs 10 a kg. “We can’t get potatoes daily. We have pulses, but we only cook them sometimes.”
Ask what they consider a “good meal”, and she breaks into a laugh. “Yahi sab na… bhaat, daal, sabzi (It’s all this only… rice, pulses, vegetables).” Once in a while, for a feast or a family function, villagers buy chicken or mutton.
PDS doesn’t provide more than 150-250 gm of rice per person per day on a ration card (see box). With their large sizes, families struggle to feed mouths. In the open market, rice of similar or lower grade costs at least Rs 22 a kg, while 2.5 litres of kerosene that they are also entitled to under PDS comes for Rs 75. Families can’t afford these rates, and even buy their ration in bits and pieces as they never have enough money to buy in bulk.
As per the October 2017 figures on the Jharkhand government’s portal, 2,212 people in Karimati are under the PDS. Villagers claim almost every household has one member’s Aadhaar linked to their ration card.
After Santoshi’s death, officials suspended the licence of the PDS dealer and Block Supply Officer for failing to ensure uninterrupted ration supply to her family, despite non-matching of Aadhaar. On October 21, Jharkhand Minister for Public Distribution System and Consumer Affairs Saryu Roy annulled an order by Chief Secretary Rajbala Verma to delete ration cards not linked with Aadhaar.
“I know families in Karimati who just scrape through,” says Sudama Kachhap, a para-teacher heading the Upgraded Primary School. Santoshi used to be his student.
Kachhap says Santoshi��s mother had promised to send her to middle school. “But she didn’t… They are just so poor,” he says.
Even in this village of mainly daily wage labourers and farmers with small fields and poor yields, Kachhap adds, there was no family in as pitiable a state as Santoshi’s. “Agar is gaon mein koi antim vyakti ya antim parivar hai, to yahi hai. Inse buri sthiti kisi ki nahin hai (If there is that last man or last family in this village, they are the one. Nobody is in as poor a condition as them),” the 40-year-old says.
As part of his duties, Kachchap also supervises the mid-day meal at the school.
For the allocated Rs 4.13 per child per day, a mid-day meal is supposed to provide 450 gm of calories and 12 gm of proteins to children at the primary level. Children in middle school (Classes 6-8), are entitled to Rs 6.18 per day, for 700 calories and 20 gm proteins. Additionally, at Rs 4 per child per day, egg or seasonal fruit is given to the students on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“If the school remains closed for, say, four days, more than 90 per cent children would have eaten only rice those days,” says Kachhap.
The rations for the mid-day meal are sourced from the PDS block godown. The cost of the cook, appointed locally, comes out of the money allocated for children. Kachhap says the money is too less, going by the prices of eggs and vegetables that they have to buy from the open market, but they “manage”.
There is another reason Kachchap is closely linked to Santoshi’s case. Till September last year, this para-teacher was also the Booth Level Officer (BLO) of Karimati, responsible for ensuring that villagers got themselves enrolled in Aadhaar, and got ration cards made. But, following an order that para-teachers should not be engaged in non-teaching works, his name was struck off.
“However, since Kachchap knew the people, he continued to do the work. We have got complaints against him and are inquiring,” says Jaldega Block Development Officer (BDO) Sanjay Kongari, referring to charges that Kachchap took money to get ration cards made. Kachchap denies the allegations.
Hirawati Kumari, 17, claims he demanded Rs 1,600 from the family for a ration card. Her father Chhotu Ram died 18 months ago and her mother Keriyo Devi sustains the family working as a help in houses or through odd jobs in fields, earning around Rs 50 per day.
Without a ration card, the family depends on the PDS Chhotu Ram’s elder brother gets. Giving a break-up of what it costs to buy from the market, Hirawati talks about last Wednesday when the family got 10 kg rice from the haat for Rs 22 per kg. “Mother took an advance from a person she works for. She will now work four-five days without any reimbursement to pay back.” She spent an additional Rs 30 to buy 3 kg of potatoes.
It’s a week later, and the family of four is left with only some rice, potatoes and guda. Hirawati says they have run out of sugar, tea and kerosene.
She is lucky though, the 17-year-old amends. Thanks to her enrolment at Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, 7 km away, where she studies in Class 8, she gets regular food. These schools were set up to ensure quality education for girls, predominantly from SC/ST, OBC and minority communities, in difficult areas, and admit children after a test. Hirawati’s younger siblings, aged 10 and 4, depend on help from relatives.
At Karimati’s anganwadi centre, K D Chaudhary, the in-charge of the Jaldega Community Health Centre (CHC), is holding a “health check-up” camp. That is another thing Santoshi’s death has brought to Karimati. Chaudhary admits he does not remember the last time such a camp was held in the village, though a mobile medical van does the rounds every three-four months.
Accompanying him is Dr Binod Oraon, the single man responsible for 174 primary schools and 132 anganwadi centres in Jaldega under the Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram. It is an initiative under the National Health Mission for early intervention for children from birth to 18 years to cover 4 D’s — Defects at birth, Deficiencies, Diseases, and Development delays.
Ask when he last visited Karimati, and Dr Oraon tells you to do the math. “There are 365 days in a year. You add 174 and 132. Plus, there are several other issues to be looked into. How many times can I come in a year?”
Chaudhary is despondent about what he has seen so far at the health camp. “Alcoholism is rampant. Their livers are weak, eyes are damaged, many have lost their senses. Jaundice, Hepatitis, TB… There is severe lack of awareness,” he reels off.
As for malaria, the official cause of Santoshi’s death, Chaudhary says it is common, “though not endemic”. In fact, no malaria deaths have been reported from here in the last few years.
It’s easy to slip out of the net, like Santoshi and her family did. BDO Kongari claims it was “technicalities” that led to their name being taken off PDS list.
“Koyli’s husband Tatya, who also went by the name Tetwa, had a ration card. A few years ago, the government policy was changed when it was felt that ration cards should be in the name of women heads of the family, as they were more sincere. Ideally, in Koyli’s case, Tatya’s name should have been replaced by Koyli’s. But, somehow, it got transferred to the name of Balmati Devi, Tatya’s mother. The problem is that Balmati died 10 years ago,” he says.
In 2016, the Point-of-Sale (PoS) machine system was introduced, for biometric identification through Aadhaar of ration card holders. It required the Aadhaar number of at least one member of the family to be linked to their ration card. Both Koyli and Gudiya had Aadhaar since 2013. “But nobody from the family got their Aadhaar linked to the ration card, as a result of which Balmati’s name finally got deleted,” says Kongari.
Right to Food Campaign activist Tara Mani Sahu, who had raised the issue of Koyli’s ration card when Santoshi was alive, says, “I tried to raise the matter at the district level, but nothing happened. We also get constant complaints about beneficiaries getting less than entitled ration. Dealers cut 1-2 kg, giving one or the other reason.”
There are also cases of members of families left out of ration cards. “In the case of Lal Card holders (see box), the amount of ration a family gets will be less,” points out Sahu.
Kongari, however, maintains that the process of Aadhaar seeding with schemes has been smooth, and that nearly 100 per cent of the work is done in his block. “New people will be added, but for all the programmes using direct benefit transfer (DBT, cash being transferred into accounts), Aadhaar seeding is almost complete,” he says.
But some villagers complain about MNREGA payments being irregular. Dupatti Devi worked under MNREGA a year ago and should have got over Rs 3,500. But she has got just Rs 800, she claims. Her husband Bideshi Baraik, she says, is a “pagla” — a euphemism for a chronic alcoholic in these parts. With four children to support, Dupatti is desperate. “Only I know how I run my house,” she says.
District Supply Officer Nanki Ram admits there are problems. “But we are trying to put in place a system where beneficiaries get payment without middlemen. Some names may have got left out. We are launching campaigns to get them enlisted,” he says.
PDS minister Saryu Roy says, “What I mentioned in the order (annulling the order of the Chief Secretary), the same thing has now been said in a circular of the Government of India. It is very clear-cut (that non-linking of Aadhaar should not be used to deny benefits).”
Further, Roy says, he has asked the department to provide him month-wise and “reason-wise” break-up of the 11.3 lakh ration cards deleted after the PoS system was introduced. In the same period, the department has added nine lakh beneficiaries. “I want to be sure that any deserving candidate has not got his name struck off,” he says.
Among the villagers, Santoshi or Koyli find no sympathy, with the people backing officials’ assertion that she died of malaria. “Aaj ka jug mein koi bhookh se mare hao (Does anybody die of hunger in this day and age)?” questions a woman.
With Tatya unable to work, Koyli and Gudiya support the family through odd jobs at Lachragarh, or collect wood from the jungle and sell it at Rs 30-Rs 40 per bundle. The day-long task of picking up the twigs, bundling and selling them fetches only a little more. Labourer jobs, for around Rs 200 a day, are few and far between.
None of the villagers was around to witness Santoshi’s slow descent to death, Gudiya recalls. Koyli had not been going to work. “There was no rice for 15 days and, in the last eight days, the family went without a meal. Let alone rice, there was no salt, sugar, kerosene, not even a match-stick.”