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

Noam Chomsky, top scholars ask NRIs to take stand on human rights violations in India

Counterview Desk
Renowned world scholars, including Noam Chomsky, James Petras, Angela Davis, Fredric Jameson, Bruno Latour, Ilan Pappe, Judith Butler, among others, have issued a statement castigating the Narendra Modi government for allegedly creating an environment of fear through arrests, intimidation and violence.

Actionable programme for 2019 polls amidst lynch mobs, caste violence, hate mongering

Counterview Desk
Reclaiming the Republic, a civil rights network, has released a document prepared under the chairmanship of Justice AP Shah (retired) -- and backed, among others, by Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan, bureaucrat-turned-human rights activist Harsh Mander, economist Prabhat Patnaik, Right to transparency activist Anjali Bhardwaj and social scientist Yogendra Yadav  (click HERE for full list) -- with the "aim" of putting forth policy and legislative reforms needed to “protect” and “strengthen” the Constitutional safeguards for India’s democratic polity.

India under Modi "promoted" crony business, protected financial fraudsters, fueled bigotry

By Sandeep* and Rahul Pandey**
Narendra Modi's ascension to power was accompanied with jubilation and expectation. His supporters were expecting an end to era of corruption and initiation of good governance which was described as Achche Din. His party's adherence to idea of nationalism was believed to make India a vibrant country and guide India to be a world leader. He gave the slogan of 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas' conveying that his government was for all.
Corruption The government system is infested with corruption. A minimum of 10% is siphoned off from government schemes and projects, some of which goes back to political party in power and remaining is pocketed by various administrative, executive and political functionaries. This corruption continues and has increased. Now an additional Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) person working as Official on Special Duty or some equivalent position in every government department also has a share in this booty.
The Narendra M…

Inviting Rajapaksa to India "insult" to 1,40,000 Tamils killed by Sri Lankan army

Counterview Desk
In the context of Sri Lankan opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa being invited in India, about 75 human rights activists*, claiming to be concerned about rights violations during the civil war in Sri Lanka, especially in 2009, have joined together to express their dissent through a statement.

Modi wants Pak govt be held responsible for JeM terror strike: World doesn't agree

By Sandeep Pandey*
I went to participate in a candle light homage paying event at Dr BR Ambedkar's statue organised by about 200 Dalit students on Hazratganj main crossing in Lucknow on February 16, 2019 evening, two days after the dastardly terrorist act in Pulwana, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), in which 44 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel was killed.

Post-advisory, Govt of India appears reluctant to ban e-cigarettes, "harmful" to kids

By Rajiv Shah
Is the Government of India dilly-dallying over the issue of banning e-cigarettes, which have been declared by anti-tobacco activists across the world as providing “an entryway to nicotine addiction”, especially among the kids? It would seem so, if the latest developments are any guide.

A Godse legacy? BJP rulers have "refrained" from calling Gandhi Father of the Nation

By Dr Hari Desai*
What an agony! On one hand, the entire India is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but on the other side, so-called Hindu Mahasabha members have been found mock-enacting the killing of the Mahatma and celebrating the murder by distributing sweets!

No aadhaar, no ration? Hard blow by Gujarat govt on poor and marginalized

By Pankti Jog*
Only those who have aadhaar registration and linked it with ration card will get ration from a Public Distribution System (PDS) shop. This decision of the Gujarat government has hit very badly thousands of poor and marginalized communities of Gujarat, especially during the drought year.

Not just Indian women engineers, men too face sexual harassment at workplace: US study

By Rajiv Shah
A recent research, carried out jointly by two US-based non-profit organizations, Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Center for WorkLife Law (WLL), based at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, has found that 45% of women engineers as against 28% of men engineers complained that it was perceived as “inappropriate when women argued at work, even when it was work-related.”

Anti-liquor march: Women padyatris "resolve" to occupy Karnataka state assembly

By Abhay, Swarna Bhat*
At a huge public convention held at Siddaganga Mutt on the Republic Day, January 26, 2019, in the presence of Sanehalli Sri Panditaradhya Swamiji, padyatris of the Madya Nishedha Andolana decided to intensify the ongoing liquor ban movement. A resolution passed at the convention, in which thousands of rural women joined in, the marching women declared that on reaching Bengaluru will “occupy Vidhan Soudha” on Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom day, January 30.