Etwariya Devi, a 67-year-old widow, died of hunger and exhaustion on 25 December in Sonpurwa village of Majhiaon block of Garhwa district (Jharkhand). She lived with her son Ghura Vishwakarma, daughter-in-law Usha Devi and their three children in a dilapidated kutcha house. The family has a hand-to-mouth existence and is routinely unable to access adequate nutrition. Surviving the day on only a meal of rice and salt is not uncommon for it. The shortage of food worsened for Etwariya Devi when the family was denied ration from October to December 2017 and she did not get her pension for the months of November and December.
Denial of ration
Etwariya Devi’s family was denied their monthly entitlement of 25 kg of grain under the National Food Security Act for three months preceding her death. In October, Usha Devi’s fingerprint could not be authenticated in the Aadhaar-based biometric Point of Sale (PoS) machine at the local ration shop and she was told by the ration dealer to come back some other day. When she went back after a few days, she was told that the ration stock had finished. The dealer did not give her ration in November as he claimed that he was not allotted grains for that month. No grain was distributed at the ration shop in December till Etwariya Devi’s death as the PoS machine was allegedly dysfunctional
A general complaint of people of the village is that the dealer does not distribute ration as per the transactions made in the PoS machine. In October, for most ration card holders he transacted twice the monthly entitlement of grain and kerosene quantities but distributed for only a month.
Denial of ration to Etwariya’s family is yet another example of the disruptions in the Public Distribution System (PDS) caused due to its mandatory integration with Aadhaar. Dealers have started tampering with digital records in order to hide accumulated stocks. One way they do this is to separate authentication and distribution – get people’s fingerprints and/or tell them that they would get rations later, and then play hide-and-seek. As per the online records, ration was allotted to the dealer for October-December. But the dealer did not distribute ration to many cardholders claiming that he did not have adequate ration stock. These irregularities show that the introduction of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication has failed to curb leakages in the PDS. In fact, it has created new barriers to the access of rations.
Denial of pension
Etwariya Devi used to receive her monthly old age pension of Rs. 600 a month in her Aadhaar-linked bank account at the local Community Service Provider (CSP) centre (under Jharkhand Grameen Bank). She last collected her pension in October 2017. In November, no pension amount was credited in her account. When she went to withdraw her pension for December, after authenticating her fingerprint in the PoS machine, the CSP operator told her that the authentication had failed. But as per the bank statement of Etwariya’s account, a transaction of Rs. 600 was made on that day (8 December). In the CSP model of banking, the money is electronically transferred from customer’s account to that of the CSP operator once the customer authenticates the Aadhaar-based transaction. Once the money is credited to the CSP’s account, the payment is made to the customer. The CSP operator of Sonpurwa claims that the internet connectivity was disrupted just after Etwari Devi authenticated her fingerprint, because of which her pension amount was not credited to the CSP account.
Continual denial of Right to Life by the government
Etwari Devi’s death due to starvation follows on the heels of another death due to prolonged hunger and exhaustion in the district. It may be recalled that 64-year-old Premani Kunwar succumbed to starvation after she was denied her ration and pension due to linkage of these programmes with Aadhaar. Starvation death of another person in the same district exposes the lack of seriousness in the government towards addressing the issues in delivery of ration and pension.
Disruptions in the delivery of ration and pension in Jharkhand continue unabated. For those living on the margins, denial of such crucial entitlements leads to the violation of mere right to life.
The Jharkhand Right to Food Campaign reiterates its following demands: (1) Immediate dismissal of the ration dealer of Sonpurwa and registering FIR against him for embezzlement of PDS grain and tampering of PDS records; (2) Immediate shift to “offline” delivery of PDS entitlements; (3) Transfer of all ration shop licenses from private dealers to Gram Panchayats or self-help groups; and (4) Introduction of pulses and edible oil in the PDS.
Report of fact finding into the death of Etwariya Devi
(The annexures mentioned in the report can be downloaded from https://drive.google.com/open?id=1_1ZwByy-QV9A-gI9KpALkoCt98sty5Hy)
Place of visit – Sonpurwa village, Sonpurwa Gram Panchayat, Majhiaon block, Garhwa, Jharkhand
Date of visit – 28 December 2017
Members of investigating team – Mithilesh Kumar, Jahur Ansari, Siraj Dutta (on behalf of the Right to Food Campaign, Jharkhand)
Summary of finding
Etwariya Devi, a 67 years old widow, passed away on 25 December. She did not get sufficient food and nutrition over a long period of time. She used to live with her son Ghura Vishwakarma, daughter-in-law Usha Devi and their children. The family does not own any land, except a small piece of land on which their dilapidated kutcha house stands. Ghura Vishwakarma works as unskilled labourer under contractors in other states. Usha Devi works as unskilled labourer in local agricultural works. The family routinely faced shortage of food and nutrition. None of the members of the family ate on the night of 24 December as there was no grain in the house.
The family was heavily dependent on 25 kg grains, entitled under the Priority Household card under National Food Security Act. It did not get ration in October, November and December (till the death of Etwariya). In October, Usha Devi’s (who collected the ration every month on behalf of the family) fingerprint did not work in the POS machine. In November, the dealer said that he had not been allotted grain for that month and in December, the dealer said that the POS machine was not working and had to be repaired. In the last three months, the shortage of food was severe for the family.
Etwariya was a pensioner under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme. She last received her pension from the local Pragya Kendra in October. Pension amount of Rs. 600 was credited in her account on 7 December. She went to the Kendra on 4 December and a transaction of Rs. 503 was made in her account. According to the CSP Anil Chowdhary, the internet connectivity broke right after she authenticated her fingerprint and the money was not credited to the CSP’s account. As a result, he did not give her the money. Similarly, on 8 December, transaction of Rs. 600 was made, but she was not given the money as the internet connection again broke. The CSP claims to have received the money in his account on 19 December. When asked why did not give the money to Etwari before 25 December, he said that she did not visit the Kendra again. The CSP deposited Rs. 1200 back in her account on 26 December.
Details of family
Etwariya Devi, aged 67 years, lived with her son Ghura Vishwakarma (41 years), his wife Usha Devi (32 years) and their three children – Kiran Kumari (12 years), Sandhya Kumari (8 years) and Akash Vishwakarma (4 years). Etwariya Devi’s husband passed away in 2007. Etwari Devi’s family lives in a kutcha house situated on a plot of around 7.5 decimals. They do not own any land, except the plot on which they live.
There are two rooms that are almost bare. Etwariya used to sleep on a bed of straw and some pieces of cloth (Annexure 1). The other room also has only a few clothes and tattered blankets. There are some containers that are used to store grains. According to the family, the containers have been lying empty since ages. In July, the family repaired the roof the house. One of the neighbours Devan Chhatrpati, gave some khapras for free, as the family did not have enough khapras. Wages of some people who had worked in repairing the roof are still pending.
According to Etwari’s family and others in the village, Ghura Vishwakarma is mentally not very sharp. He works as unskilled labourer. In absence of adequate work in the village, he migrates to other states. He was in Rajasthan for the last three months where he earned Rs. 220 a day. Normally, the contractors deposit his wages in his account every 30-45 days. But he has not received his remuneration for the work done in Rajasthan as he had to rush back after his mother’s death. Usha Devi works as unskilled labourer in local agricultural works.
Usha Devi has not repaid a loan of Rs. 3000 taken a few years ago. She paid Rs. 2000 as interest of the loan this year, but has not been able to repay the principal yet. The family had also borrowed Rs. 600 from a neighbor long back that has not been repaid yet. Usha Devi bought some groceries from the local grocery stores (for Rs. 70) this week, but is yet to pay them.
Details of death
Etwariya Devi passed away at around 11:00 am on 25 December 2017. According to Usha Devi, Etwariya Devi collapsed at around 10:00 am and passed away after an hour. The block Pramukh visited the family and gave Rs. 1000 for performing the last rites. The block Nazir also visited. He told the family that the Block Development Officer said that the family should perform the last rites and that they would get the money for it later.
Availability of food in the family
- According to the family, they did not have dinner on 24 December. Dinner was not cooked as there was no grain in the house. Usha Devi borrowed 1 kg rice from a neighbour Bihari Sharma in the morning of 25 December, but Etwariya Devi passed away before she could eat the food.
- The family has a Priority Household card (ration card number 202000051498), under the National Food Security Act, which includes names of all the members, except Akash’s. The family is entitled to 25 kg of ration on their PH card, but did not get any ration in October and November (corroborated by the online transaction list for these two months). Usha Devi went to collect the ration in October, but her fingerprint did not work in the POS machine. The dealer told her “load nahi le raha hai” and asked her to come back later. However, the dealer made an entry of 25 kg for October in her ration card (Annexure 2). When she went back after a few days, the dealer told her that the ration stock was over. In November, the dealer told her that he had not received the ration stock.
- In the morning of 25 December, Etwariya Devi saw the dealer cross in front of their house and she went after him shouting “ruka na dealer babu”, but the dealer did not stop. Another person of the dealer’s household was also crossing and he stopped after hearing Etwariya’s shouts. She asked him to give her the ration (“rationiya da na babu”), but he said that she would get grains the next day. The dealer visited their house on 25 December after Etwariya passed away and gave 30kg of rice to the family. On 27 December, Usha Devi got 30 kg rice after she authenticated her thumbprint in the POS machine, but the transaction was made for 50 kg (Annexure 3). The dealer also transacted 5 litre kerosene oil on her card, but she did not get oil. She said the family did not have any kerosene oil when Etwariya died and they had to keep the body in the dark for the whole night of 24 December.
- Usha Devi said that she would normally cook food if she had grains at home, otherwise the family went hungry. In December, she borrowed 10 kg rice from a neighbour Fudan Sharma. She also bought rice for Rs. 400 (around 28 kgs at Rs. 14/kg) from another ration dealer of the village, Antu Prajapati.
- The family cannot afford to eat dal and vegetables regularly. Usha Devi said that dal had not been cooked since the last few months. Sugar was not used by the family. Usha Devi had borrowed 1 kg sugar from the local kirana store on 27 December for the ritual ceremony of Etwariya. Cooking oil was also bought on a daily basis and at times, the family would eat only rice and salt.
- According to Usha Devi, the family (with six members) needs around 2-2.5 kgs rice per day. In the last three months, she cooked less than that every day.
- The neighbours present in the meeting with the fact-finding team also shared that the family was completely dependent on ration under NFSA. They also said that the family used to regularly borrow rice from others. According to some women present in the meeting, Etwariya Devi had grown weak in the last one month.
Access to old age pension
- Etwariya Devi was a pensioner under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. She withdrew her pension from the Pragya Kendra (also functioning as the CSP of Grameen Bank) of her village, managed by Anil Chowdhary. She last received her pension in October 2017. She was not issued a passbook of that account; she had a printed copy mentioning the account details.
- When she went to withdraw her pension for October, Anil Chowdhary said that she would be able to withdraw money only after getting a new account-receipt. Etwari’s earlier receipt was destroyed by mice. Anil took Rs. 360 to print the new receipt.
- According to Usha Devi, Etwariya and Usha went to withdraw Etwari’s pension in November, but Anil said that the pension amount was not yet credited in Etwari’s account. They went again in December, but they were told “load nahi le raha hai” after authentication of the fingerprint. They did not go again to withdraw the pension. According to the Aadhaar-based status in Public Fund Management System (PFMS), pension amount of Rs. 600 was credited on 7 December (Annexure 4).
Access of the family to other social welfare programmes
- When asked whether the family had a MGNREGA job card, Usha Devi produced one that was issued in 2006. As per the MGNREGA MIS, the card was deleted in 2013 and another card was issued to her family in 2015 (that was also verified in 2017 as part of the job card verification drive). But Usha Devi was not aware of this. Even though both she and her husband work as unskilled labourers, they have never worked in MGNREGA. Usha Devi said that MGNREGA works did not open in their village.
- Usha Devi’s elder two children go to the local government school. They get mid-day meals regularly, but eggs are served only once a week. In place of eggs, they get an apple on Monday and a banana on Friday. The youngest son sometimes goes to the local anganwadi where he gets suji halwa.
- Recently, some blankets were distributed in every Gram Panchayat, but this family did not receive . The Panchayat Sewak told them that all the blankets were taken by other families.
Access to health services
The family members get medicines from the local “desi” doctor. When Etwariya Devi fell sick a month ago (fever, cough and upset stomach), the doctor charged Rs. 600 for giving her medicines. The money is still due. The family also owes Rs. 400 to him for giving medicines to the children a few months ago.
Public Distribution System
The people present in the meeting said that the dealer did not distribute ration in August 2017. As per the dealer, he was not allotted any grain for that month. They also said that the dealer did not distribute ration as per the transaction made in the POS machine. In October, he had transacted twice the monthly entitlement of grains and kerosene on most of the cards, but had distributed ration and oil only for a month. Many people complained that they did not get ration in November. Similarly, in December too, the dealer transacted twice the monthly entitlement of grains and kerosene on most of the cards, but distributed only half of it (corroborated by the online transaction list for October and December). The people also said that the dealer did not give the printed receipt to cardholders and cut 400-500 grams from each person’s monthly entitlement.
People said that no MGNREGA work had happened in the village in the last two years. There are many people who work as unskilled labourers in the village and need work, but MGNREGA schemes are not implemented in the village.
The dealer Chandradev Sharma said that he could not distribute ration in November as he was not allotted any ration for that month. He also said that he gave ration to Etwariya’s family in October 2017. When he was told that the online transaction list for October did not corroborate with his statement, he said that it was not possible. Ration could not be distributed in December, as the POS machine stopped working on 22 December. He got the machine fixed by 25 December. When he was asked why he did not use the “exception register” to distribute ration in December, he said that the register was only for exceptional cases and not for everyone. Even though he was aware of the order to maintain an exception register, he did not receive any letter regarding this from the department.
According to the online allotment list, Chandradev Sharma was allotted grain for October, November and December.
Statement of Pragya Kendra operator Anil Chowdhary (over phone on 29-30 December)
Etwaria Devi last withdrew a sum of Rs. 1200 from her account in October. She went to the CSP in November, but her pension for that month was not credited in her account. She went again on 4 December. A transaction of Rs. 503 was processed, but the internet connection broke right after she authenticated her thumbprint. As a result, the money was not credited in the CSP’s bank account and he could not give her the money. It happened again on 8 December when Etwariya Devi failed to withdraw Rs. 600. Both the times, Anil Chowdhary asked Etwariya to come again. Usha Devi visited the Pragya Kendra a couple of times to inquire about the money. The money (Rs. 503+600) was credited to the CSP’s account on 19 December, but Etwariya did not visit Anil Chowdhary to collect the money. Anil transferred the money (Rs. 1200) back to Etwariya’s account on 26 December. He also said that internet connectivity often broke in the middle of transactions. Statement of bank account of Etwariya from 1 November-26 December attached (Annexure 5).
 There is significant mismatch in the ages of the family members in various documents. Etwariya’s age is 67 years as per her Aadhaar, 68 years as per pension software (nsap.nic.in) and 88 years as per her ration card. Similarly, Usha Devi’s age is 32 years as per her Aadhaar and 44 as per the ration card.
For further information, please contact Siraj Dutta (9939819763) or Mithilesh Kumar (7979872149) or write at [email protected].