Around 20 km from the district headquarters of Bargarh, Khuntpali seems to be quite developed compared to most villages in Odisha.
Coming under the irrigated areas of the district – often referred to as the ‘rice bowl’ of the state – Khuntpali is also a fairly big village with seven wards and over 1,000 families, 450 of them skilled in weaving.
There are five anganwadi centres, three government schools, a public school, a government high school and a college up to Plus 2. It also boasts of scores of highly educated people including an IAS officer, 20 doctors, and some scientist and researchers settled abroad.
A metalled road links the village with the highway while the concrete village road has several double-storey houses on either side. There is greenery all around.
It is an unlikely place for a starvation death to occur. That’s precisely the reason why the alleged starvation death of Kunduru Nag, a 68-year-old woman of the village, on June 12 came as a shock.
Following her death, the Bargarh district administration ordered an inquiry. According to the inquiry, Sadar block development officer (BDO) Sarat Bag said, Kunduru and her 78-year-old husband Jadumani Nag used to receive their pension and the family’s quota of rice under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana regularly. “The inquiry report has revealed that it is not a case of starvation death,” he said. Belonging to the Other Backward Classes, Jadumani is landless. The old couple lived all alone as they had married off their only daughter long back.
They used to work as farm labourers. But as old age crept in, they stopped going to work five years ago. The poor family’s only monthly income since then had been the 35 kg rice it got under AAY, meant for the poorest of the poor, and Rs.600 both received as old age pension. Besides, for all practical purposes, Kunduru had become the sole breadwinner of the family as Jadumani had become mentally unstable a couple of years back. She did some odd jobs in some households in exchange of food or money.
When this writer visited Khuntpali few days after Kunduru’s death, Jadumani lay on a torn bed sheet inside a half constructed and windowless Prime Minister Awas Yojana house that the couple got in 2016-17. The small house, smaller even by PMAY specifications, had uneven and rough floor. It was bereft of any household assets barring a few aluminium utensils. Jadumani’s bony face, frail and wrinkled limbs and shrunken stomach spoke volumes about the family’s utter poverty.
“Kunduru had got fever a month and a half back and found it difficult to cook food for both,” said Hrusikesh Bag, Jadumani’s nephew and immediate neighbour. “Whenever she felt better, she went out seeking food from families in the village where she used to work earlier as a domestic help.”
Hrushikesh’s wife Kumudini said they too offered food to Kunduru and Jadumani once in a while, but it was not possible to do that on a regular basis. The family of Hrusikesh comprising his wife and two daughters is also landless and so is the family of his elder brother Ekadasia Nag, also a neighbour of the old couple. “We solely survive on daily wages and have our own constraints,” Kumudini reasoned.
Jadumani and Kunduru got their last pension on May 15 whereas they had got food grain from the fair price shop on April 7. The rice under Targeted Public Distribution System is distributed in the gram panchayat once in two months. The distribution of rice for May-June began on June 9. Unable to go to the fair price shop due to ill-health, Kunduru asked Kumudini to bring her quota of rice. On June 11, the latter went to the shop carrying Kunduru’s ration card but the official in charge of distribution showed her inability to oblige because it needed the old women’s Aadhaar based finger print authentication. She died on the next morning.
Rupabanta Kumbhar, husband of Khuntpali sarpanch Anupama Kumbhar, said they did not have prior information about Kunduru’s illness. Rupabanta, who seemed to speak on behalf of Anupama, is also the contractor of the PMAY house built for the old couple. “I would have surely helped her had I known about her illness earlier. When I was a ward member in 2014, I had got Jadumani and Kunduru in the list of old age pension beneficiaries,” he said.
Like Rupabanta, most people in the village were unaware of Kunduru’s failing health. Those who were aware of it probably did not notice that she and her husband had been going through chronic hunger for a long time. Ostensibly, the traditional village back up to vulnerable people like Kunduru is weakening, even in a socially and economically developed village.
“It is essential to form a caring citizen collective including youth, self-help group members and other concerned individuals who are sensitised on the plight of the elderly and people living with hunger. The collective can act as a social safety net to ensure that no one suffers from chronic hunger and starvation,” said Right to Food Campaign activist Sameet Panda.
Jadumani and Kunduru are among hundreds of vulnerable households in the state. Like the old couple of Khuntpali, they too have access to basic social security cover provided by the government – ration card and pension. Still, there is always a danger of them succumbing to an ailment as basic as fever.
The administration seems to lack a proper mechanism that can figure out old people vulnerable to situations akin to Kunduru’s. The nodal meetings at the gram panchayat levels never discuss about the condition of vulnerable households slipping into hunger. There is no outdoor publicity like wall writings to make people aware of possible symptoms of individuals on the verge of chronic hunger, the need for their identification and support, and of available government mechanism to provide support to such people.
Making Aadhaar based authentication mandatory has made the position of the elderly people worse. Their inability to go to the fair price shops – which are often several kilometres from their villages – due to illness or lack of mobility may cost them their quota of rice because no one else can avail it on their behalf. And skipping a single monthly quota of rice can jeopardise the economics of an old couple living all alone because a part of rice is sold in exchange of vegetables, oil, salt, soap and even medicine.
A good beginning has been made by the Department for Social Security and Empowerment of Person with Disabilities. In a letter on April 7, the department asked the district Collectors to ensure health check up of pensioners during the pension distribution day so as to identify minor ailments among senior citizens and take remedial measures. Only, it has to be followed in letter and spirit so that vulnerable persons like Kunduru do not go undetected.
Government officials may deny existence of “starvation” because it has become a technical word. But chronic hunger is a reality and, if unchecked, it makes a person vulnerable to diseases and death. It needs an all out effort to combat it.