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India: Starving to Death in Uttar Pradesh

Monument erected in February 2007 in commemoration of 18 children who died of starvation in Varanasi. Courtesy: Voice of People, People’s Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) & People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR), Varanasi, India

The state and central governments in India cannot justify the occurrence of deaths due to starvation and malnourishment among its people because it is well known that the country is rich in food grains and has a surplus food stock in its granaries.

To distribute its ample food stocks, the central government of India has a distribution system where  food grains are sent to the state governments in accordance with their requirements. It is the responsibility of state governments to communicate their food needs to the central government. The state governments in turn, have a a licensing scheme to distribute food grains, particularly to the poor sections of society. But as illustrated below, this system is totally inefficient and riddled with corruption so much so that many Indian people continue to die of starvation.

PDS system

'Fair price' (Ration) shop where little is fair

The Public Distribution System or PDS is the mechanism through which state governments distribute rationed articles for subsidised prices to the poor. Towards this end the governments issue licences to run PDS shops and allots quotas of food grains and other rationed articles to these shops. The articles are delivered at the shops at government expense with the explicit objective that these items are distributed—free, at subsidised prices or through some other scheme such as the food for work programme—to those in need.

To assess the scheme through which grains are to be distributed and also to decide those eligible to receive food items free or at subsidised rates, the state governments authorise various local administrations—including  the district and block level administration—to conduct periodical surveys and provide the government list of persons or families requiring assistance.  Those families thus identified as eligible to receive assistance, are given ration cards or different colours depending on each family's financial status. These marginalized families can then obtain their food allocation at the licensed 'ration shops' which are located in almost every village in the country.

The ration shops are the distribution points for the food grains. The shops are licensed to individuals or co-operatives under the Rationing Order, which is a law under the Essential Commodities Act of 1955. The government by periodical declarations designates select items as ‘essential commodities'. A wide variety of food grains are included as essential commodities under this Act and any illegal dealing with items that are to be distributed through the ration shops as essential commodities is an offence in law punishable with imprisonment for a period of seven years and also fine. Notwithstanding however, there is a  wide network of deep-rooted corruption going on within this distribution cycle ensuring that the poor and vulnerable continue in their pitiful plight.

Consequently, many people who are assessed as eligible to receive food grains at subsidised rates or free of charge never get their ration cards from the local administration. Reliable information has been received that  local administration officials connive with corrupt licensees of ration shops, gather information regarding these families and obtain the cards meant for them and get their quota of food grains and items such as cooking oil, sugar and kerosene.  They then sell these articles in the black market or private hotels for huge profits. And this chain of corruption is said to be so widespread and deep-rooted that it includes some senior government officers to ration shop licensees in the villages.

Illegal dealing in rationed items is a crime. Therefore, any complaint regarding corruption in the PDS system can be made to the local police who are duty bound to record and investigate same. But due to the massive corruption that has eaten into the whole Indian system, the police fail/neglect their duty and consequently, the rationed items never reach the needy. The culprits never get booked or charged with a crime and are thus emboldened to continue their nefarious activities in total impunity. Additionally, illiteracy and social ostracism of select communities on the basis of caste and religion also deprive the marginalised from benefiting from the government schemes. As a result, these schemes exist only on paper while the poor starve to death. 

The following are two stories depicting the agony of marginalised communities in India:

Story One: Misery of the Musahars

Lush paddy fields, but not for the Musahars

The Musahar community, in Varanasi district, is socially and economically one of the most marginalized communities in India. The Musahar community comes under the category of Scheduled Castes. Although the practice of untouchability is a crime under Indian law, the Musahar community is treated as such and not allowed to enjoy social life with the mainstream society and to share common amenities in the village.

People from the Musahar community are deprived of owning property, maintain means of  livelihood, and accessing the education system. For their survival they work as labourers in agricultural fields or engage in other kinds of hard manual labour. The remuneration for such work is usually in kind—mostly discarded food or grains. They do not have any savings to use in times of need. These families are thus forced into starvation at times when they have no regular work.

Taking into account the plight of the Musahar community, in 1998 the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Pindra allotted some land in favour of the Musahar community of Dallipur-Fattepur village, (Pindra Tehsil, Badagaon block) in the Varanasi district so that people belonging to this community could construct their huts and live with their families without fear of displacement. But to date, they have not got possession of the allotted lands. It is alleged that upper caste people belonging to the Patel community of Dallipur-Fattepur village, have illegally taken possession of the said lands and are depriving the Musahar community of their lawful rights.

On February 19, 2007, the members of the Musahar community of Dallipur-Fattepur village gathered at the district headquarters and complained to the district magistrate of Varanasi, regarding the following:(1) for possession of their lands (2) for  an Anganwadi centre [children's school in the community] in their community and (3) to ensure proper distribution of food grains through the PDS shops.  But many of them allege that the district administration of Varanasi has done little or nothing to fulfil the requests made by the Musahar community of Dallipur-Fattepur village. On the contrary—probably in revenge for complaining and to deter future agitations—the Musahars were in fact given less rations that month (March), than what they were entitled according to their ration cards.

According to information, the PDS ration shop of Dallipur-Fattepur village is in the name of Surmati Devi but the shop is actually managed by Sunder Ram, the brother of Surmati Devi's husband. Those deprived of their food grains include: Kariya Musahar,Doctor Musahar, Hirawati Musahar, Bideshi Musahar, Moti Musahar, Nanhey Musahar, Santhosh Musahar, Kebali Musahar, and Khelawan Musahar.

Meanwhile, on March 8, 2007, Musahars of Dallipur-Fattepur village submitted an application to the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the Varanasi district regarding the breakout of Measles in their community. They requested urgent medical assistance as most of the victims were children who were suffering serious health problem as a result. Also in a recently conducted survey,  PVCHR found that most of the families belonging to the Musahar community had no work, were living in  utter squalor  and faced acute starvation. The  PVCHR demanded that the Varanasi district be included under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) immediately.

It is worth noting here that the NREGA programme is a central government programme that provides employment for the poor. The programme is intended to support rural sectors of the population who otherwise find it near- impossible to find paid employment and unable to feed their families end up in starvation.  The scheme guarantees employment for specific periods of time throughout the year so that a minimum number of working days are ensured for the poor. However, this programme is implemented only in areas that are declared fit for implementation of the programme.

But this requires a considered approach by the administration of the particular region, first to identify the number of people suffering from poverty and then to recommend to the government to include the region under the scope of the programme. However, Musahar being an 'untouchable' community the administration is not really concerned about its welfare.


It is further shocking to note that 18 Musahar families had not been given ration cards until 2006. After a long and strenuous struggle 15 families were finally afforded yellow cards which are issued to those families whose living conditions are identified as being below the poverty line (BPL). But BPL  families are those who are identified in the rural area with an annual income of Rs. 12000 [272 USD] or less and urban families living in declared and undeclared slums with an annual income of Rs. 17000 [386 USD] or less.

As far as the Musahar families are concerned they are qualified for Antyodaya Anna Yojana cards (red cards) which are issued to the poorest of the poor amongst the BPL families. However three Musahar families of Indrajit Musahar, Gulab Musahar and Dinesh Musahar, continue to be  deprived of even BPL (yellow) cards—despite of their dire economic plight.

It is also alleged that these families have been living in Sarai village for generations. However, it is alleged that the  village head of Sarai village was reluctant to accept these  Musahar families as residents of the village. He has thus maliciously denied their rights to a livelihood and to food and force them, including women and children, to die of hunger and starvation. Mithai Musahar, who is one of the BPL card holders (card no. 497457) is unable to buy food grains on BPL card and his grandson Sanju, who is also suffering from measles, has reached the verge of dying from starvation due to the lack of food.

More shockingly, upper caste people, who are well-above the BPL, are alleged to be  enjoying the use of red cards—as earlier mentioned, issued only to the poorest of the poor. It is also alleged that Jagdeesh Patel the husband of Sarai village head Mrs. Urmila and Chandrashekhar Singh, who is the Village Secretary of Sarai village have given red cards to those people who belong to upper caste families and who are disqualified for holding red cards.   
Story Two: Little Juli

According to information received, several families in Alhadapur village were engaged in the weaving industry. However owing to the influx of cheap alternatives from outside the country and various other factors like poor management of the industry by private entrepreneurs and lack of government support, the weaving industry in Uttar Pradesh deteriorated. This deprived thousands of families of even a basic income—several of these families are from the villages and Alhadapur is one such village.

Many people who found it extremely difficult to put even one meal a day on the table for their families, resorted to various odd jobs. One such person was Laxmi Chandra Jaiswal, the husband of Mina Devi and father of 5-year-old Juli. Mr. Jaiswal opened a small shop in his village where he sold cigarettes and betel leafs. However in 2006, he fell ill and had to sell his shop and borrow money for his treatment. This left him without an income and in debt and his family in dire straits. As a result, 5-year-old Juli is severely malnourished.

When  PVCHR was informed of this family's plight, activists attached to PVCHR took July to a paediatrician at the local Primary Health Centre. The doctor there immediately diagnosed that the little girl was suffering from Grave IV malnourishment. Furthermore, he was shocked to find that Juli weighted only 7 kg when other children of the same age and height ideally weighed around 18 kg.

Many children like little Juli suffer from malnourishment due to the inefficiency, neglect and rotten corruption of the system.

Mina Devi said that her daughter has been suffering from malnourishment for almost one year as the family could not afford to feed her. And though, Mina Devi works as a maid servant in a nearby house, she is only given left over food as her wages—and this too is often limited to one or two roti a day. Inquiries also revealed that the family is also not receiving the benefits of any government scheme enacted for the benefit of the poor. Contrarily, the village head seemed far from  interested in issuing free food grains to the poor families in the village and more interested in selling the food grains, obtained on their behalf, to the black market.

The local community children's school remains closed and pitiful little has been done so far to  conduct a study on the health condition of the village children.  The Jaiswal family does not have any land; they only have a small hut. Several families including Mr. Jaiswal's, have filed petitions with the district administration for assistance as well as to be  included among those requiring food assistance. However owing to widespread corruption, at the district administration office these petitions were rejected or ignored.

In addition to the Jaiswal family, Shri Ram Lakhan Kanauja and his family are also living in similar conditions. He is 65 years old, does not have a job and is dying from starvation. Then  Abdul Haq and his wife Sazida are both blind. Mr. Haq is also 65 years old and unemployed. His wife is suffering from severe  malnourishment but has received no help from the district administration thus far.  It is reported that there are several such families suffering from similar or worse conditions, and in the absence of immediate help from the district administration many people will surely die from starvation or malnourishment induced by starvation unless something is done really fast.

And, according to recent  information,  Mina Devi—the mother of Juli—was also admitted to the  local government hospital for illness brought about by malnourishment

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