"What is your daily diet?" I asked Ramprasad, the seven-year-old son of Jhintu Bariha in Balangir district of Orissa. "I take mudhi (puffed rice) with black tea in the morning given by my grandparents; rice with either salt or with some wild spinach collected from the forest during noon." I waited a while for him to tell me about dinner, but he did not continue, so I asked him again, "OK, then what do you take for dinner?" Still no answer.

Upon my innocent repetition of the question, Ramprasad began crying. Immediately I realised my mistake - I should have not repeatedly asked him the question. This child doesn't get to eat anything for dinner.

Ramprasad is the only survivor among his siblings, in Buromal village of Bhanpur Panchayat. His father Jhintu had lost Siba Prasad, his 3-year-old son, Gundru, his 1-year-old daughter and Bimla, his 35-year-old wife Bimla one after another on 6, 7 and 9 September 2009 respectively. The local media initially reported these as starvation deaths, but eventually malaria was said and reported to be the cause of these deaths.

Jhintu (42) a tribal, was married to a hindu woman. After their wedding, due to oppostion from the community to his inter-community marriage, he preferred to move out of state with his family to work. Three years ago, when he was working in Madhya Pradesh as an agricultural labourer, he was eloctrocuted in an accident, and his left hand and left leg were partially paralysed. As a result, he was forced to return to Orissa. He is separated from his parental family and does not possess any agricultural land. He and his wife used to do minor agricultural work in the village and in surroundings to earn their livelihood, but this was hardly sufficient - there is very little work in and around.

This forced the family to again migrate, this time to work in the brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh last year. Jhintu, already too weak, fell drastically ill in Andhra and was brought back to the village in June this year. This time around, again back in village, it was very difficult for Jhintu to work as he was too ill, and Bimla also could not go out full time for work as she had their infant daughter to care for. As a result, the whole family was suffering from gross inadequacy of income and food.

Jhintu did not possess any PDS (Public Distribution System) card. The only help they received was a share of PDS rice (half of 25 kg of rice a month) from his elderly parents, some portion from his father's old age pension (his mother is not getting her pension, though she is eligible) and some occasional help from the community in terms of food items. For a family of two adults and three children, this added up to a lot less than subsistence. Little wonder then, that three of them lost their lives.

But to what? Starvation or malaria?

The cause of deaths

Champi Bariha (80) and Bimpi Bariha (70), Jhintu's parents say that since his family had been living on grossly inadequate food for a very prolonged period, their deaths are clearly the result of starvation. They admit that the children were ill and feverish just before their deaths, but insist that these were merely the final symptoms - they succumbed essentially to starvation. Jhintu Bariha, who was himself then admitted in the hospital and been treated for fever, also confirmed this. He said the family had been starving as they did not have adequate income nor had they been getting any government entitlements. Their gradually starvation led to the illnesses, culminating in death.

Jhintu Bariha's parents.
Photo by by Purossottam Thakur

But district officials do not believe Jhintu's children and wife died of starvation. The Collector-in-charge Sanjay Kumar Habada and the Block Development Officer Chandramani Seth say that Jhintu's financial transactions with villagers indicate he would have had money to meet his food expenses. Moreover, just the day before the death of his wife, his parents had got their quota of 25 kg rice from the ration shop, so they must have had some food too available, say the officials. Some villagers too say the three died of malaria, and not starvation.

The State Advisor's office attached to the Supreme Court Commission on Right to Food, in its report submitted to the Commission based on its fact-finding visit, writes "... food intake for the family of five may clearly give a picture of the severity of the vulnerable condition of the family. The inadequate food intake was taking a heavy toll on the health of the whole family which in turn was reducing their ability to work to earn. They were therefore caught in the vicious cycle of poverty and starvation."

Bimpi, Jhintu's aged mother has still a clear way of describing the starved situation of the family. "When the small two children would cry out of hunger, they would start sucking their mother's breast, ... but nothing would come out." She says. "How can there be secretion of milk from the mother's breast if the mother herself does not get enough food to eat?" she asks.

The doctors say the deaths were most likely the result of malaria. Firstly, it was found that there is a malaria epidemic in the village where out of a total of 370 people, almost a third (120) were found malaria positive after testing. Secondly, in case of Jhintu and his surviving elder son, who were taken to the district hospital by the administration as they were suffering from fever and loose motions, "they responded positively to anti-malaria doses, although they tested negative; this is clinical malaria" says Dr Balaram Panigrahi, a medical officer at the district hospital in Balangir.

A conspiracy?

Immediately after the media report of three starvation deaths, a mobile health unit was sent by the administration to camp in the village. This health unit tested and found 120 positive cases of malaria, and all of them were administered anti-malaria doses. However, doctors say that although this area is malaria-prone, there have not been any recent reports of malaria deaths. Moreover, the villagers don't appear to show any post-malarial weaknesses.

The report sent by the advisor's (Advisor to SC Commission) office observes that there were some influential people in the village trying to track the movement of the fact finding team, and the villagers were generally tight-lipped on this matter. However, some investigations and in-depth questioning of a few young people gave them a clue - that only five to six people had fever, but the doctors had administered many people anti-malaria doses anyway.

Bideshi Meher had no fever, but his blood was tested and he was given anti-malaria doses. "The doctors told me that malaria has spread, and I should take these medicines. If I do not take these I will have malaria." says Bideshi. After taking anti-malarial pills, however, he fell ill. When he discontinued the medicine, he became normal. Santosh Meher, a young man in the village also did not have any fever but was given anti-malaria pills. The advisor's office report writes " ... In order to cover up, the doctors have administered malaria doses to many who did not have any fever. This may be why the media initially reported it as a case of starvation death, but later ... as malaria. The report suggests that further investigation is needed to establish the truth behind the "probable conspiracy".

Amidst the controversy, Jhinu Bariha also breathed his last on 7 October 2009. After he was discharged from the district hospital (where has treated for fever during September), he came back to his village. On the fateful day, he began vomiting and was taken to the nearest hospital by the villagers. On the way he died.

Covering up starvation

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. Following the order, the Chief Secretary of Orissa despatched a letter in November 2002 to all the Collectors stating "... The responsibility of the Chief Secretary is the collective responsibility of the entire State administration of which the Collectors are the key functionaries." By implication all the collectors along with the Chief Secretary will have to own responsibility for such cases.

The doctors have administered malaria doses to many who did not have any fever. This may be why the media initially reported the deaths as cases of starvation death, but later ... as malaria.

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With the government's image at stake, the administration has been hostile to poverty and starvation reports, as documented in a number of cases. In 2002, for instance, NDTV and Star News reported the starvation death of two tribal children in Keonjhar district. A fact-finding team sent by the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution reported otherwise.

It may be remembered that the government in the state at that time comprised of a coalition between the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the BJP, with the latter heading a larger coalition also including the BJD at the Centre. The politics in the country is not so mature where New Delhi ruled by one party will give a hostile report on a state ruled by the same party or is a coalition partner. Ironically, a national English weekly blasted the journalists for making sensational reports, and even went to the extent of making charges of bribery against the Star News reporter!

In another case, in 2005 it was reported by some electronic media that the people of Paharia, a vulnerable community in Nuapada district eat 'soft stone'. In its response, the government filed a criminal case against a journalist and the regional electronic channel reporter was sacked from the television. In protest to the criminal case, the Orissa Journalists' Union (OJU) staged a dharna to condemn the vindictive act of the government.

Starvation and the BPL list

Twenty two per cent of Orissa's population are tribals, and another 16 per cent are dalits, both highly vulnerable communities. Therefore, proper mapping of BPL (Below Poverty Line) families is important, as it serves as the lifeline for many. But the BPL politics at the central level is skewed, and quotas are fixed for every state, regardless of the actual number of people who need to be protected. The has bearing on the Supreme Court's orders to check starvation deaths.

In its 8th report submitted to the Supreme Court in 2008, the SC Commission on Right to Food headed by Dr N C Saxena and Harsh Mander observes "... we have found that interim order of 2nd May 2003 of the Supreme Court (that identified six vulnerable categories of people should be provided with AntoDaya Anna Yojana, AAY cards) is one of those least implemented by most state governments. We believe that there are three main reasons for this wide failure ... the quotas for AAY in most states were already exhausted before the said 2003 order". The report suggests that there should be exclusive court orders for covering these categories of people under AAY for two years irrespective of the quota limits. However, this recommendation has not cut much ice in government circles.

Interactions with many families in the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region suggest that the '25 kg of rice' scheme by the state government which was universal in this region (given to those who possess a ration card irrespective of whether BPL or APL) served as lifeline for them. But in Orissa, the BPL list has not been updated since 1997 (2002 BPL survey was not made operational). This puts many deserving families in the region out of the loop, as so many families that have formed in the last twelve years have not got a card. The economists sitting in the Planning Commission, who fix the limit of food subsidy so also the state quotas, hardly take into account on how many families like Jhintu's are made to starve due to its changed approach based on 'economic rationalism'.

The expert committee appointed by Ministry of Rural Development and headed by N C Saxena has recommended a more inclusive methodology for conducting BPL surveys. According to the committee, the poverty level in Orissa is projected to be 84.5 per cent - as against 47 per cent in the 1997 survey. It is for the Centre to recognise this reality, and stop the tragic deaths of many others like Jhintu and his family.