Starved for five days, Goutam Behera, 17, a disabled child from Odisha, an eastern state of India, finally succumbed on July 8, 2019. Was it a starvation death? Government is evasive; but the activists say, ‘yes’. If there are so many food related schemes in the state, then why the starvation deaths? That’s the moot question.
Goutam’s death is a story of state apathy and callousness, and breakdown of the social systems. His father and stepmother abandoned this disabled child as his disability became crippling in nature. Goutam was from Sargimunda village of Karlakot Panchayat under Boden block of Nuapada district in Odisha.
He has disabilities from childhood, but he studied till 5th class in the village school and then completed 7th class in a special school meant for disabled children in the Khariar block. But he had to discontinue his studies owing to increasing degree of disability. When he was about 13, he was limited to his tricycle as the part of the body below the waist became paralytic. The ordeal of Goutam started when his mother died and father married to another lady. Back in home from the school, he was beaten and tortured by the parents (Step-mother and father) for his inability do his daily-works. After driven out of his house, he took shelter under a tree for some year before he finally returned to his parental house after his parents shifted to another house. His elder sister Debanti, 22 was his caregiver.
Eventually, when Goutam and Debanti were completely separated from their parents, they were on their own. They were beneficiaries of some government schemes. They had a priority ration card, which fetched them 10 kg of subsidised rice per month from the public distribution system, which came irregularly. Goutam got the disability pension of rupees 500 ($7) per month. Insufficient these benefits were, Goutam would go out to beg on a daily basis to feed both of them. Debanti has also some disabilities and has dermatological problems.
Some activists had approached the administration to provide them an Antodaya card, which fetches 35 kg of subsidised rice per month, for which Goutam and his sister were eligible for being in the category of poorest of the poor and being disabled. But they were denied. And they were also denied a house under the Prime Minister housing scheme for the poor.
Conditions before the death
Owing to disability, Goutam developed a bedsore on his back and was admitted to a government hospital in April 2019. After being discharged from the hospital, he spent his pension money to buy his medicines. He could no more use the tricycle to go out for begging, Debanti tried to fetch some food from the neighbours for both of them. But it did not continue for more days. Last quota of rice they received was on May 25. Sameet Panda, member of Odisha Khadya Adhikar Abhiyan (Right to Food Campaign), who visited the village as part of a fact-finding team, narrates “Debanti felt ashamed to beg more as the neighbours also denied help after some days. The general condition of people in the village is also not well enough to support them for long.”
Attempts to cover up by the authorities
Both the brother and sister did not take any food for five days before Goutam died in evening on July 8. The next day the Manoj Mohanty, Additional Block Development Officer (ABDO) of Boden block reached the village and persuaded the villagers to cremate the body at the earliest despite request by the villagers to send the body for post-mortem. As per the legal norms (Odisha Relief Code), in case of alleged starvation death, the body should mandatorily be sent for post-mortem. The act of this officer was an attempt to cover up the case. Debanti has now been shifted to a government run rehabilitation center in nearby block headquarters.
Post the death; some damage-control measures have taken by the district administration. Debanti was issued with an Antodaya card hurriedly on 9th of July along with 70 kg of rice. The Irony is, explains Ajit Panda, the local activist “They withdrew the card issued on 9th July and then re-issued a card with a previous date mentioned on it i.e. 6th July!” This is another attempt of covering up.
Some money was deposited in June 2019 in Debanti’s bank account from Chief Minister Relief fund before Goutam’s death, but Debanti was not aware about it as no authority informed her. It came to knowledge only after the death. It remained unutilized. She does not have a mobile to fetch any Sms-alert service from the banks and the branch is far off to make too many visits.
Where does the buck stop?
Agenda 2030 has been adopted by the member states of United Nations in September 2015 promising achieving 17 ambitious goals. The sustainable development goals 2 (SDG 2) aims to end hunger by 2030. Both the central and state governments are expected to work in tandem to achieve these goals. Sameet Panda says that about 13 alleged cases of hunger-deaths have taken place in last four years in Odisha. Both the state and central government owe an answer to the state of affairs vis-à-vis the SDGs.
The Supreme Court, in an interim order in October 2002 in PUCL vs. Union of India and Others fixed the responsibility on the Chief Secretary for any starvation death occurring in a state. In Odisha, further order by the Chief Secretary makes the entire administration responsible mentioning the Collectors as the key functionaries. By implication, the district collectors and the Chief Secretary ought to be responsible, and of course then the entire administration.
But this arrangement has not worked. In none of the cases, any such functionary has been fixed, as government has never accepted them as starvation deaths. In this case also, sources suggest, official inquiry report refuses to accept it as a case of starvation death.
Repeated attempt by this reporter to reach out to the district Collector, Madhusmita Sahu to get her reaction on the matter, went in vain.
How to stave off the starvation deaths
Rajkishor Mishra of Rupayan, a NGO working in food issues says “Earlier we had an emergency feeding programme under which the destitute would get free cooked meal from the Anganwadis once in a day. This has been discontinued since April 2015. Similar programme with a better focus should be launched forthwith.”
In view of the fast crumbling social systems, foolproof mechanism should be developed to stop hunger deaths. The village Panchayats should prepare and regularly update a roster identifying the families in vulnerable condition and suffering from chronic hunger. These families should be given Antodaya cards. In every Panchayat, there must be hoardings explaining the parameters for identification of such individuals and families and schemes meant for them.
Post the death; the Chief Minister’s Office woke up to the cause and doing a survey in backward districts to identify the vulnerable families and individuals. In Balangir district of the province, such people have been included all possible government schemes. These are good moves, but reactionary in nature. Government ought to be proactive in addressing issues of starvation.
The government should adopt a “graduation approach” to deal with such families and individuals. When immediate relief should be provided to a starving family, long term support for their livelihood and linking to the health facilities will stave the people to slip into same situation again.
Pradeep Baisakh is a senior journalist based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India. He can be reached through email: firstname.lastname@example.org