No food was cooked in Savitri Devi’s house for three days preceding her starvation death

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Report of inquiry into the death of Savitri Devi in Giridih, Jharkhand, by the Right to Food Campaign (Jharkhand): 

Sixty-year-old Savitri Devi of Margadhi village in Chainpur Gram Panchayat of Dumri block of Giridih district died on 2 June 2018. As per media reports, she died of starvation. Members of Right to Food Campaign Jharkhand investigated the circumstances of the death on 4 and 17 June. They spoke with members of Savitri Devi’s family, her neighbours, Gram Panchayat members and the ration dealer.

Details of the family

Savitri Devi was a widow, whose husband Dwarka Mahto passed away about ten years ago. Dwarka Mahto worked as a manual worker. She had two sons – 28-year old Hiralal Mahto and 25-years old Ullas Kumar. The elder son studied till class 5 and the younger son till class 10. Hiralal and his 27-year old wife Purnima Devi have three children – an eleven-year-old son, a seven-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. Ullas and his wife Soni have a three-year-old girl and a new born son. Purnima Devi is illiterate while Soni Kumari has studied till class 10. Savitri Devi also has a married daughter.

The family lives in a two-room kuccha house on barely a decimal of land. There are only some basic utensils in the kitchen. The family shares around 25-30 decimal of land (mostly upland) with its relatives. It cultivates paddy and uses paddy seeds saved from last year’s produce and cannot afford to use fertilisers. Annually it gets about 20-25 kg of rice from its land. The family does not own any livestock.

Family’s access to employment and money

Savitri Devi’s sons and daughters-in-law did some manual labour in and around the village. The women would get work about once or twice a week and earn Rs 80-100/day. In December 2017, Ullas went to Rampur (Uttar Pradesh) for work. He got Rs 2,000 per month, of which he was unable to save anything for his family. Soon after Ullas left the village, his elder brother also left for work. He worked as manual labourer in setting up transmission lines and earned Rs. 200 per day. Hiralal is yet to receive most of his wages. Both the brothers were unable to send any money to the family.

Both the brothers were away at the time of their mother’s death. Hiralal was given money only for the train ticket by the contractor. After paying for the train ticket to return home, Hiralal was not left with even Rs 15-20 for the auto fare from Parasnath railway station. He thus walked this distance (around 5-6 kms).

The household has a Job Card (JH-19-005-010-005/12) which only includes Savitri Devi and her husband’s names. According to the electronic Job Card, Savitri Devi last worked in a scheme of dobha for eleven days in 2016.

Neither Savitri Devi nor her daughters-in-law were members of the self-help groups in the village. However, the family took a loan from a self-help group which remains unpaid. It was hesitant to reveal the loan amount.

Family’s access to food

No food was cooked in Savitri Devi’s house for three days preceding her death. Neighbours and local ward member did not find any grain in the house on the day of the death. Savitri Devi drank some milk on 1 June. The family received cooked rice (enough for only one person) from a neighbour on one of the three days.

The family regularly faced shortage of food. According to Purnima, 2 kg of rice per day was required for feeding all the members. But they often had to make do with much less than that.  The family usually ate rice or maadh-bhaat. It also slept hungry at times. Sometimes it cooked potatoes and locally available saag. It does not remember the last time it cooked dal.

Sometimes it would receive food from neighbours. At times, the neighbours would provide food to the children and the pregnant daughter-in-law on their own. The family received 2.5-3 kg rice from a self-help group in the village a week before the death. The older daughter-in-law Purnima said that she felt ashamed to ask neighbours for food. The family also received some rice from the families of their in-laws sometimes. It could not afford to buy sugar.

The family was not issued a ration card to get subsidised grains from the Public Distribution System (PDS). According to the son Ullas, the family applied for a ration card whenever there was an announcement that new cards would be made. According to the Mukhiya of Chainpur Gram Panchayat, one of the daughters-in-law approached him to authorise a ration card for the family a few months back.

The Mukhiya did so and told the daughter-in-law to fulfil the online procedures for ration card applications (to be done at the block office which is around five kms away from the village). One of the daughters-in-law says that Savitri Devi went to the block a couple of times for this whereas the Mukhiya claims that she did not. The ration card application was found at her home at the time of death and it was taken by the Mukhiya.

Soon after Savitri Devi’s death, both her sons’ families were issued a Priority (PH) ration card. Also, according to the Mukhiya, the family’s details were missing from the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011.

Savitri Devi’s access to social security pension

Savitri Devi was entitled to widow pension. When the right to food campaign members updated Savitri Devi’s bank passbook on 4 June, a balance of Rs 2375 was found in her account. Rs 1800 – three months’ pension – was credited in the account on 4 April 2018. However, as no one in the family was aware that Savitri Devi’s pension was credited, no attempt was made to check the account balance in the months preceding her death. According to Purnima, Savitri Devi would keep going to the local bank to check for her pension and would come back exasperated after not having received it.

Punita Devi, a neighbour, took Savitri to the block office multiple times to check for her pension. She last went to the bank in March 2018. According to the Mukhiya, Savitri Devi’s pension was sanctioned in 2014, but the pension amount was credited only after he got her Aadhaar linked with her pension scheme a few months back. Ullas said that Savitri Devi’s bank account was opened in Chainpur branch of Allahabad bank in 2014 for the purpose of getting widow pension.

Official account of Savitri Devi’s death

On 4 June, Giridih’s Additional Collector submitted his report on Savitri Devi’s death to the Deputy Collector of the district (there is also another government report on the death). The report mentions the following facts:

  • Savitri Devi’s sons earned monthly salaries of Rs 7,000 and Rs 3,000.
  • According to Savitri Devi’s husband’s younger brother Bhola Ram Mahto, he looked after Savitri Devi for ten days before her death and also gave her food.
  • Savitri Devi was on her death bed for 8-10 days.
  • A woman named Shanti Devi gave food for 8-10 days.
  • Savitri Devi was ill and was also treated at RIMS. She was diagnosed with Parenchymal haematoma.
  • According to Dr Barnwal at the Dumri referral hospital, Parenchymal haematoma is also called head injury and it can lead to the clotting of blood. Haematoma can affect the respiratory system, which can even lead to death.
  • Savitri Devi has a bank account in the Chainpur branch of Allahabad Bank. Rs 1,800 were credited in the account on 4 April. If the family was indeed facing hunger, it would have withdrawn this amount from the bank.
  • Savitri Devi did not die of hunger. There was a steady stream of people around Savitri Devi when she was on her death bed.

On 12 June, the Food Minister held a press conference to make public the findings of a second investigation in Savitri Devi’s death. This investigation – allegedly done as the first investigation was unsatisfactory – was conducted by the Additional Director with the Directorate and the Joint Secretary with the Department. The following information was given in the press conference:

  • Illness is the probable cause of Savitri Devi’s death. She was twice treated at RIMS for paralysis and another brain related ailment.
  • Other members of Savitri Devi’s family were in good health.
  • The family did not have a ration card, but it never applied for one.
  • Despite the insistence of officials and local representatives, the family did not allow for a post mortem.
  • The family gave a written testimony that Savitri Devi’s death was normal.

According to Ullas, the official account of Savitri Devi’s death differs from the statement given by the family members. He said that he was made to sign on a statement which included Rs 3,000 and Rs 7,000 as the monthly incomes of the brothers. According to the family members and neighbours, Savitri Devi did not suffer from any illness and was walking till at least 3-4 days before her death. She was never admitted to RIMS. The family had no clue that Rs 1,800 were transferred in her account. The BDO promised Rs. 20,000 to the family that they are yet to receive.

Implementation of welfare programmes in the village

There are some poor families in the village without a ration card. Ration cardholders receive 2 kg less than their entitled quantity of rice, but are forced to pay for the full entitlement. They also complained that they do not receive a receipt from the ration dealer. Children get food at the Anganwadi and school midday meals (including eggs twice a week). No one in the village has received maternity entitlement, or filled the forms for claiming it.

Some elderly persons do not get old age pension. According to the Mukhiya, like Savitri Devi, there are 4-5 other persons also in the Gram Panchayat whose pension was sanctioned but the amount was not getting credited as their Aadhaar numbers were not linked with their pension schemes. No work under NREGA has happened in 2018-19 and only a well was implemented in 2017-18. People said that they needed work but NREGA schemes were not implemented in the village.

starvation deaths

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