Skip to main content

A malnourished democracy: Starvation deaths grip headlines, but mundane politics of neglect remain largely invisible

By Stalin K*
Amartya Sen has famously argued that “there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy.” Citizens in a competitive electoral environment, the theory goes, will discipline politicians who fail to prevent high levels of hunger. The free press is a key element in Sen’s analysis: the media makes hunger visible, triggering outrage and political action. And yet India is gripped by a hidden killer: malnourishment.
India performs worst when it comes to its children, with some of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world (reaching almost 50%). There are more malnourished children in India than in all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. These statistics are well known in policy circles but are seldom the focus of sustained public attention.
The world’s largest democracy is famine free, but home to distressing levels of hunger-related deprivation. Both of these truths are on display in Jaldega block, Simdega District, Jharkhand, where reports of child starvation recently surfaced. Santoshi Kumari, an 11-year-old girl from a Dalit family in the village of Karimati Basti, died on September 28, 2017. Media outlets say she died of hunger, labelling it a starvation death.
Video Volunteers, a community media organization, made a fact-finding visit to the village on October 18, 2017. The visit revealed a much more complex story – one that highlights the perverse politics of hunger in India where only sensational reports of starvation capture public attention.
Santoshi’s mother, Koyli Devi, told us that the whole family had not eaten for eight days prior to her daughter’s death. The problem, she explained, was that they did not have ration cards. They do possess Aadhar cards, but since they are not linked to the Public Distribution System, they cannot access grains.
Santoshi died, she said, asking for rice. Neighbors and members of a local self-help group of which Koyli Devi is a member told a different story: Santoshi, they said, had been very ill and had seen a doctor who had given her various medicines. We met the doctor in question, Narayan Singh (BMS, RMP), who told us that Santoshi had tested positive for cerebral malaria. We also found packages of her medicines laid out next to Santoshi’s grave.
Whether or not Santoshi’s death was, in fact, a starvation death is disputed or covered up. But certain facts are clear: a young girl is dead, and her family did not have ration cards. She was almost certainly malnourished – as were her surviving family members and neighbouring children observed in and around her home.
But these underlying conditions of neglect do not receive the same attention as that sparked by the word ‘starvation’. Indeed, when the first report of a starvation death came, the press (confirming Sen’s prediction) rallied to report on – and rail against – starvation. The outside world came crashing in: reporters, politicians, administration, NGOs, flowed to the village.
On the day of our visit: a political party, a national newspaper, a government medical camp, and even 15 army men preparing the way for a visit from an ex-chief minister all descended upon the village. It was a political mela of the first degree.
Starvation deaths grip headlines, while the mundane politics of neglect remain largely invisible – even to residents of Karimati Basti. Before leaving, we met the Mukhiya (president of the Gram Panchayat) who was recording the action on her smartphone.
We asked her what the village’s biggest problems are. She paused, struggling. “Roads,” she said. We asked her and she knew nothing about India’s malnourishment rates, or about the state of malnutrition in her own panchayat. Even with Santoshi’s death and with the ensuing national attention, the Mukhiya did not see the structural issues at play.
According to the Institute for Food Policy Research, 57% of children under five in Jharkhand are underweight. In an index measuring the prevalence of caloric and nourishment, childhood stunting, and under-five mortality rates, the state of Jharkhand ranks lower than countries such as Zimbabwe and Haiti. This, though, is not news: these are well-known facts that garner little media coverage and scant public outrage.
Video Volunteers (VV), through its program “IndiaUnheard”, has worked to shed light and put a human face on these otherwise invisible issues. VV’s Correspondent Warles Surin lives five kilometres away from Karimati Basti and has made four videos on issues of entitlements and service delivery in the village; three of which have been resolved. The fourth issue – which remains unresolved – concerns ration cards. He first documented the issue one and a half years ago, making a video that reported that more than 70 families that had applied but had not received their ration cards. He has repeatedly screened this video to officials, most recently to the Block Development Officer in September 2017 – the same month that Santoshi died.
But there is a ray of hope, visible as the residents of Karimati Basti attempt to build on the opportunity – albeit one based on a tragedy – of a moment in the spotlight, to try to focus attention on the need for better services. At the end of our visit, a panchayat ward member came to us with a piece of paper in hand, on which she had written a list of demands. With Video Volunteers’ cameras rolling, she presented this list in front of a scrum of visiting reporters and politicians.
A child should not have to die, whatever the causes, to bring public attention to the crisis of malnutrition and a Public Distribution System in distress. But perhaps the attention brought by Santoshi’s death will be a much-needed call to action.
---
*Director, Video Volunteers, the nonprofit media organization running IndiaUnheard, a grassroots newswire that reports from more than 200 districts of India, enabling communities to make their voices heard in the media and to take action locally

Comments

TRENDING

What's Bill Gates up to? Have 'irregularities' found in funding HPV vaccine trials faded?

By Colin Gonsalves*  After having read the 72nd report of the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on alleged irregularities in the conduct of studies using HPV vaccines by PATH in India, it was startling to see Bill Gates bobbing his head up and down and smiling ingratiatingly on prime time television while the Prime Minister lectured him in Hindi on his plans for the country. 

Muted profit margins, moderate increase in costs and sales: IIM-A survey of 1000 cos

By Our Representative  The Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad’s (IIM-A's) latest Business Inflation Expectations Survey (BIES) has said that the cost perceptions data obtained from India’s business executives suggests that there is “mild increase in cost pressures”.

Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor*  Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.

Govt putting India's professionals, skilled, unskilled labour 'at mercy of' big business

By Thomas Franco, Dinesh Abrol*  As it is impossible to refute the report of the International Labour Organisation, Chief Economic Advisor Anantha Nageswaran recently said that the government cannot solve all social, economic problems like unemployment and social security. He blamed the youth for not acquiring enough skills to get employment. Then can’t the people ask, ‘Why do we have a government? Is it not the government’s responsibility to provide adequate employment to its citizens?’

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

IMA vs Ramdev: Why what's good or bad for goose should be good or bad for gander

By Dr Amitav Banerjee, MD* Baba Ramdev and his associate Balkrishna faced the wrath of the Supreme Court for their propaganda about their Ayurvedic products and belittling mainstream medicine. Baba Ramdev had to apologize in court. His apology was not accepted and he may face the contempt of court with harsher punishment. The Supreme Court acted on a public interest litigation (PIL) moved by the Indian Medical Association (IMA).

'Flawed' argument: Gandhi had minimal role, naval mutinies alone led to Independence

Counterview Desk Reacting to a Counterview  story , "Rewiring history? Bose, not Gandhi, was real Father of Nation: British PM Attlee 'cited'" (January 26, 2016), an avid reader has forwarded  reaction  in the form of a  link , which carries the article "Did Atlee say Gandhi had minimal role in Independence? #FactCheck", published in the site satyagrahis.in. The satyagraha.in article seeks to debunk the view, reported in the Counterview story, taken by retired army officer GD Bakshi in his book, “Bose: An Indian Samurai”, which claims that Gandhiji had a minimal role to play in India's freedom struggle, and that it was Netaji who played the crucial role. We reproduce the satyagraha.in article here. Text: Nowadays it is said by many MK Gandhi critics that Clement Atlee made a statement in which he said Gandhi has ‘minimal’ role in India's independence and gave credit to naval mutinies and with this statement, they concluded the whole freedom struggle.

Youth as game changers in Lok Sabha polls? Young voter registration 'is so very low'

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava*  Young voters will be the game changers in 2024. Do they realise this? Does it matter to them? If it does, what they should/must vote for? India’s population of nearly 1.3 billion has about one-fifth 19.1% as youth. With 66% of its population (808 million) below the age of 35, India has the world's largest youth population. Among them, less than 40% of those who turned 18 or 19 have registered themselves for 2024 election. According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), just above 1.8 crore new voters (18-and 19-year-olds) are on the electoral rolls/registration out of the total projected 4.9 crore new voters in this age group.

Indians witnessing 'regression to Hindutva politics' under Modi ahead of elections

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*  The forthcoming general election in India, scheduled from April 19, 2024, to June 1, 2024, to elect the 543 members of the 18th Lok Sabha and the new Government of India, carries immense significance for the preservation of India's identity as a liberal, secular, and constitutional democracy.

An equine landmark, Cheltenham Gold Cup centenary 'epitomized' heights unparalleled

By Harsh Thakor*  The Cheltenham Gold Cup  is the most prestigious jumping race in the British Isles Steeplechasing calendar and the Cheltenham festival, a cynosure of every English and Irish racegoer. Few sporting events match or surpass the sheer intensity, competitiveness and joy that radiates its legacy. Few moments are more pulsating than witnessing a Gold Cup or a Cheltenham festival. In addition to that the race is run amidst the background of an evergreen English countryside, encircled by hills and pastures, giving a sensation of a paradise or heavenly location.