In Jharkhand, family claims hunger death, govt dismisses allegation

Abhishek Angad

Bhukkhal Ghasi’s family in Karma Shankardih village.

Naamo Bhukkhal, marlo bhi bhookhal (His name was hungry and he died hungry),” says Rekha Devi of husband Bhukkhal Ghasi, 42. She is stretched out on the floor of her one-room hut in Karma Shankardih village of Bokaro, which is bare except for a few utensils and clothes hung from a wooden rod. Since Ghasi died on March 6, six family members share that space, with Rekha, officially just 36, already a grandmother.

The Hemant Soren government denies Ghasi, a Dalit, died of lack of food. Having made hunger deaths one of its main planks in the recent Assembly elections, the ruling JMM now says there have been no such casualties in the state in the past five years.

As per a report by a committee set up post 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari’s death from alleged starvation in September 2017 — the report is yet to be notified by the government — the government must ensure that a post-mortem is conducted within 24 hours in the case of such a death, and hold an investigation into whether or not the deceased was receiving government benefits such as ration, pension, MNREGA jobs.

Ghasi’s family does not have a ration card. Rekha says the family did not get any of the other benefits either and, in the past six months, had been eating whatever she could gather, begging fellow villagers. Their usual meal is rice and starch, with leaves plucked from fields of neighbours cooked like a vegetable. In the four days leading to Ghasi’s death, they did not cook anything, she says. On March 6, Ghasi simply “stopped moving”.

Belonging to poorest of the poor category, the landless family is entitled to 35 kg of foodgrains per month under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana of the National Food Security Act. Data from the block office shows Rekha applied for a ration card on July 12, 2019. The approval came on March 11, five days after Ghasi died.

A labourer, Ghasi had not been working for a year since developing swelling in legs. A relative says they made arrangements to take him to hospital, but eventually gave up the plan as no one could have stayed with him.

Money slowly dried up once Ghasi was home-bound. Rekha’s sons, Gurja, 19, and Nitesh, 14, do odd jobs, earning less than Rs 2,000 a month. One of the daughters was married off three years ago at the age of 13, and now has a child. Both the mother and child are visiting these days. Two other daughters are younger, 10 and 8. None of the children is currently in school.

Says a neighbour, “Bhedbhaav bhi hota hai, isliye bachche school nahin jaate hain (There is discrimination too, which is why the children don’t go to school).”

Karma Shankardih is one of three villages under Singhpur panchayat. According to mukhiya Mritunjay Kapardar, of the panchayat’s 4,000 residents, around 25% are Dalits. Singhpur has six government schools, he adds, denying allegations of bias. “I am a Dalit too, but I have never faced any discrimination.”

The Ghasi family does not have an MNREGS job card either. A neighbour, Vishnu, says there is no work in the village and hence most men migrate to state capital Ranchi, and take up manual labour. “Or they go to Chennai, Bangalore,” says Mritunjay, a villager.

While the family has a one-room pucca house under Indira Awas, Rekha says a relative uses it.

Bokaro District Commissioner Mukesh Kumar says there “is no correlation” between the absence of ration cards and Bhukkhal’s death. “The family had applied for a ration card, but block-level officers say there is a huge pendency of ration cards in the district. The card should have been made, but overall there is pendency. None of the villagers knew that the family did not have ration. The mukhiya too did not know.”

Contradicting the family’s claims, Kumar adds, “They are saying they had not eaten for Bhukkhal’s last four days, though the daughter and sons say they had eaten in that time. The sons earn enough money to buy food. There are several inconsistencies...This does not seem to be a case of hunger death.”

About why no post-mortem had been done, which is required as per protocol, Kumar says the villagers cremated the body quickly.

On the MGNREGS, a source in the administration says the state government doesn’t have funds for it.

Jharkhand is among the poorest states in the country, with per capita income ranking it at 25th out of 28 states. Activists, who claim more than a dozen hunger deaths in the last five years in the state, say the one thing common to all is the lack of a ration card, followed by glitches due to which their Aadhaar data is not linked to the PDS.

Sometimes, the Point of Sale machines linked to Aadhaar and requiring biometric identification for handing out rations don’t work due to erratic Internet connectivity.

Soon after Ghasi’s death, CM Hemant Soren took to social media vowing action against “culprits” and ordered the Bokaro DC to provide the family a ration card. With news of Ghasi’s death giving the Opposition ammunition, officials have meanwhile rushed a few kilograms of pulses and rice, as well as set up a health camp in the village for those who don’t have a ration card. Officials say they are still waiting for the exact numbers as no survey has been done. Rekha says they also got some medicines, showing iron and folic acid tablets and B-Complex syrup.

However, on a Wednesday afternoon, less than a week after Ghasi’s death, the family is back to rice and starch. The new supplies of pulses, grains are locked in an aluminum trunk, that once held clothes. They have seen this much food for the “first time”, explains Nitesh. “It should not get wasted. We will use it wisely... maybe not eat dal daily but once every two-three days.”