05, Feb 2018 | Sushmita
Lukhi Murmu, a 30 year old resident of Dhawadangal village in Ghagharjani Gram Panchayat (Pakur, Jharkhand) died on January 23, 2018. Her cause of death may have been under-nutrition and exhaustion, as revealed by a Fact-finding Report by members of the Right to Food Campaign. The report has highlighted serious shortcomings in the Public Distribution System (PDS) which are exacerbated due to the government’s insistence on the biometric authentication of Aadhaar cards of beneficiaries in order that they can avail any benefits from the PDS. This, when the matter of Aadhaar itself, its necessity and efficacy, is pending before the Supreme Court.
Lukhi’s parents died almost a decade ago and she was the sole bread winner of her family of four sisters. She was working as a manual labourer on other people’s farms. Three of those sisters are married and stay with their husbands. Lukhi stayed with younger sister Phulin who is 14 years old. They owned an acre of land which they could only plough in the presence of the sisters’ husbands. As money was short, even Phulin had to drop out of school and join Lukhi to work as a daily wage labourer, earning a meagre sum of Rs. 100 a day. Their only possessions were clothes, utensils and a few bags of paddy for emergencies apart from a dilapidated two-room house. Four days of soaking are usually required to extract rice from paddy. The report noted that on the day of the incident, Phulin had soaked a bowl of paddy since there was no food in the house. The only food item they had had in the last few days was 5 kgs of rice given to them by their neighbour.
Right to Life is the most basic right of an Indian citizen enshrined in the Constitution through its Article 21. We, at CJP believe that by linking biometric authentication of Aadhaar to the allocation of Ration under the Public Distribution System (PDS) the government is making the system impossible to navigate for the poor. Aadhaar’s necessity and efficacy remains questionable and the matter is pending before the Supreme Court. Hence, we at CJP demand an easy and free access to the basic Right to Life and Food for all the marginalized sections of the society. Donate now to bring justice to victims of Aadhaar.
Unwilling Martyrs of the System
Lukhi Murmu’s household was issued an Antyodaya ration card under the National Food Security Act. Sometime in June 2017, this ration card was converted into the “Priority” category without the family’s knowledge. This was confirmed by the fact-finding team, from the BDO, Roshan Shah as well. This reduced her household’s monthly grain entitlement by 15 kg (the ration card also includes names of two of their other sisters). The household have not received any PDS food grains since October 2017. Before her death, according to the fact finding team, Lukhi Murmu’s sister was denied ration based on an ‘authentication failure’. Lukhi herself was unable to visit the ration shop as she was weak and the journey to the ration shop is an uphill climb of more than a kilometre. Her sister, Phulin was denied ration on the same grounds: authentication failure. The ration dealer, Chaitan Marandi reportedly said that Lukhi Murmu has not visited the ration shop to collect her share for the past few months. He first denied that Phulin had come in her place, but after consistent questioning by the team, he admitted that she had indeed come, but was denied ration.
However, surprisingly, as per PDS transactions available on Aahar.jharkhand.gov.in, Lukhi Murmu transacted 2.5 litres of kerosene oil on November 9, 2017.
Beyond Shocking Callousness
The official response to this has been claims of Lukhi Murmu’s illness. In a report submitted to the Jharkhand Food Secretary, on January 25, 2018, the District Collector of Pakur, Dilip Kumar Jha said, “Lukhi Murmu died of illness. Some political parties have alleged hunger as the cause of Lukhi’s death for political gains”. The report said that according to the women of Dhawadangal, the Mukhiya of Ghagharjani Gram Panchayat and the local gram Pradhan, the version is that Lukhi was ill for the past few months and that she was undergoing treatment in the hospital. However the team’s investigations reveal an entirely different story: Lukhi’s neighbour and the local Sahiya quoted in the report, have said that Lukhi had lost considerable weight over the past few months. On January 6, 2018, the Sahiya took Lukhi to the local community health centre. Lukhi was then tested for Tuberculosis and Kala azar in January 2018, but the results to both tests were negative. As per the Sahiya, Lukhi took the medicines prescribed by the doctor, but there was no improvement in her health. The Sahiya seemed to believe that lack of adequate food and nutrition contributed to her death
When the fact finding team spoke with the Medical Officer he said that all dealers are supposed to be instructed to also distribute rations to households whose members are unavailable to authenticate their identity through their biometrics.
When the team met the Block Development Officer and asked why ration was not provided to Lukhi Murmu’s household, he reportedly said that he will have to check with the dealer about this. He added that Lukhi Murmu’s Antyodaya ration card was converted into a Priority ration card as Antyodaya ration cards are only for Pahariyas. But most importantly, what emerged from this interaction was that the BDO was not clear about the criteria for issuing Antyodaya ration cards. This is a strange defence for a BDO since, under government rules, he is responsible for the welfare schemes within the states such as NREGA, pensions for widows, elderly, differently abled, PDS, housing related and others. The BDO is the supposed to coordinate between various departments for the access of these schemes to the beneficiaries.
Though the BDO said that the administration is making arrangements to enrol Phulin in the local Kasturba Vidyalaya, this can barely be enough to compensate for her death. He added that Lukhi’s household will be compensated under the National Family Benefit Scheme. The BDO informed that no post mortem was conducted on Lukhi after her unexpected demise.
Biometric Authentication now a pre-requisite to access food?
In March 2017, an order was issued by Jharkhand Secreatry Raj BalaVerma stating that ration cards not linked to Aadhaar would become null and void after April 5, 2017. The Right to Food activists claim that over the next few months, some 11 lakh ration cards were cancelled in Jharkhand, affecting 25 lakh people who are otherwise eligible for subsidised food-grains
Notably, following the hunger death of Santoshi Kumari in Simdega in September 2017, the Food Ministry issued a notification which states that even in case of failure of biometric authentication or lack of Aadhaar, ration dealers are obliged to give PDS rations to eligible households. On multiple occasions, the Food Ministry and UIDAI keep referring to this notification to claim that no one is now denied of their entitlements due to Aadhaar. However, most local dealers have not followed these instructions and the harassment and exclusion of people continues on the ground.
Last month a woman from Garhwa also died due to hunger and exhaustion as her household could not access its PDS ration due to biometric authentication failures. The repeated denial of food entitlements in Jharkhand’s PDS also exposes the lack of seriousness in the state government towards addressing the issues in delivery of ration.
Lukhi’s death due to unavailability and inaccessibility of ration is not just due to the failure of Aadhaar identification. Aadhaar has certainly exacerbated the problems that already persisted in the Public Distribution System in India. The PDS shops are located far away from the villages, making it almost impossible for the beneficiaries who are sick or differently abled to access their rations. On frequent occasions, there are ghost entries even though the beneficiaries fail to collect their share of the ration. With the introduction of the Aadhaar system and its ridiculous criteria of biometric evaluation, this system has become even more challenging for the people belonging to these sections.
Aadhaar then is a quick, cynical ploy by the bureaucracy and governments to deny people their basic rights.