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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.
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*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

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