The death of 11-year-old Santoshi is a collective social and political shame
An 11-year-old child Santoshi dies in a remote village in Jharkhand. Her mother testifies to reporters that no one in her household had eaten a meal for a full eight days before her daughter died. There was not a grain in their mud house.
This story has briefly stirred the hearts of people across the country. But Santoshi will soon be forgotten.
And with her we will once again obliterate from our conscience the intense everyday suffering of people forced to sleep hungry every night in India, estimated at a mind-numbing 200 million people. Official data confirms that every third child in India is malnourished. The galloping pace of economic growth, the glitter and unprecedented wealth of our cities, and overflowing warehouses of grain, none of these have penetrated the dark shadows of the lives of millions like Santoshi.
The fragments of their story of dirt and poverty that we are able to gather are far from unusual. No land; the father’s health broken by years of hard and hopeless toil; the mother always in search for petty low paid work which she gets intermittently; her struggles to bring food to her home mainly by collecting and selling firewood from the forests; being barely able to afford coarse rice, without vegetables, lentils or meat, and that too only some days every month. As I served a dozen years as special commissioner to the Supreme Court in the right to food case, I met several hundreds of such families trapped in homeless, endemic hunger in many parts of the country.
The important thing to stress is that this hunger is today entirely preventable, therefore its stubborn persistence must be recognised for what it truly is: a collective social and political crime of spectacular dimensions. It has many causes. These include the persisting agrarian crisis, the failure of the economy to generate decent work and protect the rights of informal workers, very low public investments in social spending and public infrastructure, massive displacements by private extractive industries and urbanisation, caste and gender inequalities, and gaping holes in social protection.
Each of these need to be acknowledged and addressed, but there is little sign that any of this is happening, because successive governments remain bound to the shibboleths of market fundamentalism. But what the National Food Security Act tried to do was different. It created legal guarantees that the state would provision food to all food-vulnerable populations, to prevent hunger even if we do not solve it.
But Santoshi’s tragic passing reminds us that even this law – flawed and incomplete in many ways but still arguably the largest social protection programme in the world in terms of simply the scale of persons covered by it – has failed to drive away the dark shadows of hunger from millions of the most impoverished households in the land.
The law guarantees that around half a person’s calorie requirements would be provisioned nearly free through the PDS. But because of the demand that every ration card must be linked to Aadhaar, Santoshi’s family which was admittedly the poorest household in the village, became one among those that fell through the cracks. The law guarantees school meals to children in school, but poverty had led to the family pulling Santoshi out of school. Besides the village school was closed for the long festival holidays, depriving many children of their only relatively balanced meal of the day, because for the rest they only ate rice at home, if anything. And government allocations per meal are not inflation indexed, therefore the same amount brings in less and less food to the child’s plate. The same shrinkage of real allocations stymied also the young child feeding in ICDS centres, beside which rations were reported to have not been received for months. The law provided for a grievance redress mechanism, but the state administration has located the district grievance redress officer within the same administration that is responsible for delivering the services, so you go to the same officials for redress who deprived you of your legal rights to start with.
We must mourn Santoshi’s tragic death for many reasons. Because a child had to die crying ‘bhaat, bhaat’ to her helpless distraught parents who were unable in bring a few grains of rice to her mouth. Because Santoshi’s story is the story of millions of children hidden behind the hard glitter of new India. Because we have done nothing to ensure that state administrations fulfil their duties to the poor even after Parliament writes these duties into law. And because hunger today is eminently preventable, yet we don’t prevent it.
Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India
The views expressed are personal