NEW DELHI: Malnutrition, hunger and starvation deaths are uncharacteristic of a country which wishes to be recognised as ‘developed’. While many continue to succumb to hunger, those who survive on the bare minimum also see no immediate respite.

Rallying for these vulnerable, the Right to Food Campaign organised a protest at Krishi Bhawan on Monday December 17, against the lack of government attention and action on national hunger and starvation deaths.

The protest saw participation from people hailing Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. The protestors claimed that even at Krishi Bhawan, they were initially met with heavy resistance from the police.

Speaking to The Citizen, Kusum Lata, a protestor and activist said, “We only wanted to protest peacefully, but it was difficult to finally be able to. We have been trying to reach the Food Minister for a very long time now but he is never available to address the issue of hunger and starvation deaths. Even when we protested at Jharkhand Bhawan earlier, we could not meet him. It is a matter of shame.”

The indiscriminate deaths of children and elders alike reveal the systematised vulnerability of marginalised citizens. Especially since the death of 11 year old Santoshi Kumari in Simdega district, Jharkhand in 2017 due to starvation, continuous appeals for reform and recourse have been made to the concerned state and central authorities.

Other systemic issues - inadequate access to monthly ration, pension and other essential services - also were brought to light. Aysha, secretariat coordinator of the Right to Food Campaign told The Citizen that “the introduction and failure of Aadhar based biometric authentication is one of the primary reason for the problems. Sometimes even when biometric authentication succeeds, corrupt dealers do not supply ration to the card holder.”

Mandatory integration of bio-authentication with the Public Distribution System (PDS) has complicated matters for the rural and urban poor alike. With cases of exclusion in Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Delhi, many structural and societal barriers like a lack of connectivity and internet, awareness of Aadhar related procedures, and overbearing dealers on the ground have prevented those legally entitled to the grains and pulses from receiving them.

Activist and author of Women, Health and Public Services Professor Dipa Sinha of Ambedkar University, who has been active in the field for the social cause, told The Citizen that “biometric authentication is a barrier in the way of people’s access to the PDS. There are many families in which only one member’s fingerprints match. When the fingerprints don’t match, the new mechanism of One Time Passwords offers no respite, as many people still lack mobile phones and proper network coverage. People also change their numbers often. We need some other mechanism.”

A stated aim of using bio-authentication was to reduce the threat of ghost beneficiaries and corruption, and increase efficiency. However there have been no independent findings to confirm this, nor have reforms been made to address quantity fraud by PDS dealers, which continues to plague the system except in a few states such as Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh.

The lack of political attention and will here is rather striking. With victims of hunger spread across all states, including the national capital as was seen in the case of Mandawali in East Delhi where three minor girls Paro (2), Shikha (4) and Maansi (8) were confirmed to have died of starvation.

Despite being entitled to various rights under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013, which included the Right to Food at the Anganwadi centres for students’ younger siblings, mid-day meals for the eldest and at least 25 kgs of grains per month for the family, the family was not able to access them.

Other instances include the death of Kunduru Nag, a 68 year old woman from Odisha whose neighbour was denied PDS grains on her behalf, using her Antyodaya card, due to the new authentication requirements. Permission to overrule the authentication came too late.

There was also the case of T.K. Mohananda, a landless lower-caste 65 year old from Nuapada, whose name was removed off the NFSA list in the rollout.

As can be seen, the worst affected are women, children and elderly. The academic Amrita Johri speaking to The Citizen noted that “the number of the deaths is increasing due to the government’s failure to properly implement the NFSA, and also its insistence on Aadhar. A lot of families that earlier used to get ration are being denied ration simply because they do not have Aadhar cards or their details linked.”

Monday’s protest at Krishi Bhawan was called off after the office of Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan promised a sit down meet with the Right to Food Campaign.

But according to Aysha, “Our organisation has been trying to get in touch with the food minister for more than a year now, through letters and phone calls, but there has been no response. His PA told us the minister won’t be talking to or meeting anyone till the elections - and that is when we finally launched the protest to pressure the ministry to implement the NFSA.”

“Although we couldn’t meet the Minister,” she added, “his secretary informed us that within two weeks a meeting will be arranged with officials of the Department of Food and Public Distribution, where we can suggest measures to implement the Act on the ground level.”

On Monday the Right to Food Campaign submitted a list of names of the dead, along with a memorandum of demands to the DFPD asking for reforms and possibilities for recourse.

Ram Vilas Paswan, the Minister of Food and Public Distribution, and Minister of State for Consumer Affairs C.R.Chaudhary were unavailable for comment.

The Campaign’s demands include a Parliament session to discuss hunger, a governmental clarification that everyone should be able to avail of welfare services irrespective of Aadhar IDs or bio-authentication linking, and an active grievance redressal system for the NFSA.

The meeting between Ministry authorities and the Campaign will be held a fortnight from today.

Image credits: Right to Food Campaign