On August 9, 68-year-old Bimla Pandey, a beggar, died in her sparse one-room mud house in Tola-Lagam colony of Panrua village in Purulia district. She and her son Abir (43) had been unable to leave their house for several days due to incessant rain. While the local administration has maintained that Bimla, a widow, died of dysentery, a fact-finding mission of the Right to Food and Work Campaign recently concluded in its report, that her death was caused by starvation.
Anuradha Talwar of the Right to Food and Work Campaign said the case will now be attached to an ongoing case in the Supreme Court which is looking at 56 hunger deaths across the country. “What is under question is the universality of the Food Security Act. If there was actual food security, then it would cover everyone. But this is not the case. The most vulnerable sections of society, such as widows, are being left out of the FSA lists. Bimla was a Brahmin, so being upper caste, she did not have access to many government schemes such as West Bengal’s widow pension scheme, which is meant for tribal women, or old age pension scheme in which SC/ST candidates get preference,” she added.
While Talwar claimed that lack of access to social welfare schemes and job cards — which help one get work under the NREGA — contributed to Bimla’s death, Panchayat Secretary Madhusudhan Dutta said, “She died of dysentery.” He also claimed Pandey had a ration card and would receive rice regularly.
However, Datta’s claim was disputed by the fact-finding committee that visited Bimla’s village, met her family and locals.
The report submitted by the committee states: “Abir, along with his mother, starved at night almost every day. Abir does not have any fixed job or income, sometimes he begs, sometimes he works in a local tea shop as casual labour, which was not enough to earn food for them every day. The family had to starve for a few days before Bimla died because they were unable to go out to beg due to heavy rains. The family has no ration card. Abir does not have a job card and his mother did not receive any widow or old age pension…the family was totally deprived of any government entitlements.”
The committee found that the Pandey family was not the one in this situation. Others living in this village in Halda-II block live in abject poverty. “No new ration card has been issued after 2011, said villagers. Those who have ration cards receive 200 gm less ration per unit…later, the dealer sells that ration in black. In case of NREGA, they also don’t get jobs regularly. Most of them also don’t know what a job card is or how to apply for and get work. Villagers supported Abir’s allegation about discrimination in case of receiving old age and widow pension. They said earning members from most families migrate to other states in search of jobs…” says the report.
“The situation was so bad for the Pandeys, that one of the walls of their one room hut was falling…When we visited the family, there were no utensils, not even a mat on the floor to sleep on…He told us he would often go to panchayat to ask for jobs but be turned away…Even the panchayat members are unclear about job cards and how to provide work under NREGA. Most villagers did not receive ration, or any other state benefits. And most able-bodied villagers had left for Kerala to work as masons. Only the old and women were left in the village,’’ said Soumi Jana, a member of the committee.
The executive assistant at the panchayat also insisted that Abir had a job card (card no. 10/193) as listed in their machine, although there was a dispute about Abir’s name. It was not clear who had the job card, as Abir did not know about it. The executive assistant felt people need to come to apply for a ration card. It was not their responsibility…He admitted however that they conduct surveys regularly, but could not explain how Bimla and her son got missed out,’’ the report said.
Panchayat executive assistant Lakhanchandra Barui said, “I can’t tell you how Bimla Pandey died. I can’t tell you anything about this case as I left that area 15 days ago.’’
After Bimla’s death, a team from the Block Development Office (BDO) visited her son Abir. He was given a kadai (a deep pan), a handi (a cooking pot), two plates and a tarpaulin sheet — procured from the BDO’s disaster management store. He was also given 7 kg of rice, 2 kg of potatoes, lentils and Rs 2,000 for his mother’s last rites.
“We consider this death to be a starvation death, where the victim has fallen through the cracks of food security and other social security schemes,’’ concludes the report. The Centre has declared September as ‘Nutrition month’ in the country.
The Right to Food and Work Campaign
The campaign began with a writ petition submitted to the Supreme Court in April 2001 by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Rajasthan. In the ongoing case, the Supreme Court has given significant interim orders. Over the years, the campaign, started by a platform of organisations that deal in malnutrition and hunger, has taken up issues including the National Employment Guarantee Act, mid-day meals, universalisation of the Integrated Child Development Services, revival and universalisation of the public distribution system, social security for those who unable to work etc.
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