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INDIA: Hard-won ration cards for bereaved parents: a sign of change or pure political posturing?

May 29, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

INDIA: Hard-won ration cards for bereaved parents: a sign of change or pure political posturing?

On 3 April 2009, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), through its Hunger Alert Programme, reported the death of sixty-two children in Khalwa Block of Khandwa district in Madhya Pradesh state. The children died over the course of a year due to malnutrition and starvation-induced diseases (please find the details at AHRC-HAC-002-2009, AHRC-HAU-003-2009 and AHRC-HAU-004-2009). After the case was taken up by the AHRC national media outlets also started to cover the incident, and the negligence of the administration was exposed. 

As if in response to the unexpected limelight, the Khandwa district administration announced on May 8 that it would issue poor families in the district with AYY cards under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana scheme. The cards allow families to obtain rationed food grains through the public food distribution shops. The administration also announced that it would issue job cards to the families, which guarantee jobs for the poor in government-sponsored development programmes. The District Collector publicly announced that the cards would be issued within May 11.

This was after the administration had tried to deny that children died from starvation, despite medical records proving otherwise. 

As the administrative head of a district, the District Collector has several public servants under his command and, among other things, the duty to ensure that those living under his jurisdiction are not denied the fundamental right to food. For this the Collector is provided with a range of subordinate officers: a District Medical Officer, Tahasildars and Village Officers. The District Medical Officer and the medical staff under him are also required to ensure the health of the people. Yet in Khandwa none of these government officers seem to be aware of their mandate.

A single case of death by starvation in a district suggests negligence in the discharge of duties of these officers. But a case in which sixty-two children starve to death in a short span of time places the government officers at a much higher rate of culpability. Yet when the deaths were exposed, the response of the Collector was to merely announce the future issue of welfare cards. The officer has apparently not realised that the deaths cast a legal and moral responsibility on him to act against the subordinate officers who failed to prevent them. His is also very much responsible himself.

The right to food and the right to life are fundamental guarantees under the Constitution of India, yet both were denied. It is the duty of the state to protect, promote and fulfil the rights of the citizen, and domestic law allows the prosecution of anyone who doesn’t.

In this context, by simply promising to issue AYY and job cards, the district administration appears to be trying to deny the victims' families redress. The denial of the cause of death for the children did the same. Such a dramatic shirking of responsibility is a common practice adopted by Indian authorities, particularly when relating to human rights abuses.

The national media, the Supreme Court of India, the National Human Rights Commission and the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food have continuously tried to urge the Indian authorities to protect its people's fundamental right to food. The UN Committee on Child Rights in the year 2000 and the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee in the 2008 have urged the government to take adequate steps--criminal actions in particular--against government officers who by neglect, contribute to death from starvation in India. Yet so far not a single public servant has been prosecuted in the country, while hundreds of people in India succumb to starvation and malnutrition each year.

Starvation and malnutrition has been a relatively low-profile human rights abuse in India until recently, but owing to the wider involvement of civil society organisations and the Supreme Court in the past six years, the right to food has become a political issue. Yet prompt, effective and sensible actions against malnutrition and starvation are still not in force.

Criminally negligent officers like those at Khandwa district hold the government-sponsored welfare programmes for the poor at ransom. As long as these officers are not punished for the continued breaching of their responsibility, starvation deaths and malnutrition, particularly of children, will continue in India.

But not only has the government failed to make any prosecutions in this case, it has also failed the 62 families in the most basic of ways: those promised AYY and job cards more than a month ago are still waiting. The lack of political will here, will which could easily have saved two classrooms-full of children, should be a matter of deep shame.

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