Death by digital exclusion?

Many in Jharkhand have been denied food under the public distribution system as their ration cards have been cancelled in the mad rush for putting in place a digital system. While activists claim that some have died from starvation, the government denies this. Shiv Sahay Singh reports on the problems created by Aadhaar
A few weeks before Kaleshwar Soren, 45, died, he sold the last of his belongings, a Palash tree, for one and a half kg of rice. His ration card was cancelled in 2016 for reasons that are still not clear. As a result, the tribal had not received any foodgrain under the public distribution system (PDS) since then. Human rights activists claim that Soren, from Mahuadanr village in Dumka district of Jharkhand, died of starvation on November 11, 2018. The government denies this.
Jian Kisku and his wife Rasodi Hembram live in similar conditions next door. The couple has no ration card and has not received any foodgrain under the PDS. A few days ago, they sold a chicken that was bred in their backyard to buy 5 kg of rice, which they ate with the paste of a wild fruit. There is no telling where the next meal will come from.
Soren, Kisku and Hembram had ‘priority household’ cards that were later cancelled. Under the National Food Security Act, 2013, the PDS ensures 5 kg of foodgrain per person per month to those who hold these cards. Antyodaya families, or the poorest of the poor, are entitled to 35 kg of foodgrain per family per month under the Act.
These people are not exceptions. There are dozens in the village who claim that they are not receiving foodgrain under the PDS. Others who do receive foodgrain don’t have a ration card; they have a ration card number scribbled on a piece of paper. It is on the basis of this that they get their foodgrain. Two days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit here to participate in International Yoga Day celebrations, hundreds of people gather in front of the screen to listen to how the Centre’s Ayush and Yoga programmes can cure ailments. While people enjoy the spectacle, they don’t appear to be interested in the message. Men drink hadia, the local liquor made of rice sold by over a dozen women who have brought the drink in plastic containers. While there are video clips on several schemes of the State government, including one to set up a tribal museum dedicated to tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda, there is no video on the PDS, a lifeline for the tribals who comprise 26% of the population in the State. It seems like a cruel joke to them. Right to Food activists in Jharkhand have listed in detail 20 deaths between September 2017 and June 2019 due to hunger and malnutrition because of alleged irregularities in the PDS and a few due to denial of social security pensions. The irregularities are manifold. From the deletion of ration cards to the problems in linking ration cards to Aadhaar, the system seems to create more problems than it solves, excluding many families rather than including them. Many activists also point out that the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011, which helps identify PDS beneficiaries, is faulty and outdated.
The last in the series of deaths compiled by the activists was from Latehar district, where Ramcharan Munda, 65, died on June 6, 2019.
The District Collector, Rajeev Kumar, says there are several areas in the district, including blocks like Mahuadanr, Barwadih and Latehar, where connectivity is a major issue. Of the 592 ration dealers in the district, about 328 are distributing foodgrain offline. “But I cannot say that leakages will stop if the online system is fully functional,” he says. “Even if someone uses his thumb and gets 2 kg of rice instead of 5 kg, what can you do?” At his residence in Ranchi, the Minister blames the overenthusiasm of bureaucrats for the “slippages” and “glitches” in PDS distribution. Roy refers to an order passed by a Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of Chattrapur earlier in the day. The SDO had said that families not using the toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme would not get foodgrain under the PDS. Things took a turn for the worse, he says, when former Chief Secretary of Jharkhand, Rajbala Verma, in a video conference on March 27, 2017, directed that ration cards that were not linked to Aadhaar be cancelled. A report sent by the Jharkhand government to the Director of MGNREGA at the Centre looks at 18 cases of alleged hunger deaths between 2017 and 2018. While there is no mention of whether the families got jobs under the rural job guarantee scheme, the document dated December 26, 2018, has one concluding sentence at the end of each of the 18 cases: “In this case the death does not appear to be linked with MGNREGA”. The same report rejects hunger deaths in all 18 cases. While in the case of Santoshi the report points out that her death was due to an illness, in case of Soren it refers to a knee injury that occurred due to a fall he had almost two years before his death. Balram, a Right to Food activist, says, “Even if the digitisation is perfect and all the ration cards are linked with Aadhaar and all the EPOS machines are connected to the Internet, there will be many exclusions as the baseline data on which the ration cards have been issued are not correct.” Given the debate around whether or not these deaths were linked to starvation, he points to the fact that a large number of people live in chronic hunger. Kunti hurriedly points at a plastic gunny bag kept hidden under the rags. The bag contains rice. As in the case of Budhni’s family, the ration dealer has been kind to spare a few kg of rice to Kunti’s family as well. The neighbours have also been kind and given her four raw mangoes and half a kg of rice.
“Who will give us anything after this ends? We will eat it slowly,” Kunti says. Kunti and Rinku cannot recall the last time they had eaten dal. They turn silent when asked about vegetables. For as long as they can remember, their meal has consisted of rice and salt. “If they die tomorrow, will you say that they died of TB or hunger,” Afsana asks.

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