It's been three days since Chandrawati Devi, 32, had anything to eat. Her family of eight in Jharkhand's Garwa district has been starving ever since the lockdown. She is now afraid that if left unattended, they might die out of hunger.
"I can't even go out to beg because of the lockdown. We've used up everything we had to feed the children," she says.
Resident of Korkoma village, Chandrawati used to work as a daily-wage labourer in a nearby brick kiln. Since a week before the national quarantine was imposed to curb the growth of novel coronavirus, she and other adults in her family haven't found work.
There is no food left in the house. Neither State nor Central assistance for grains has reached her despite three members in the household having ration cards. Her family, like several others, has been left to the mercy of neighbours.
Jharkhand has had three reported deaths ever since the lockdown where family members have alleged starvation as the reason. State and district administration have officially dismissed the claim every time. News18 reached out to each family and many more to find them in extreme poverty, dried-up ration and without any source of income.
Roughly 45 kilometres from where Chandrawati's children are at the brink of emaciation, there is a family still mourning the death of 65-year-old Somaria Devi. The reason, they say, was starvation.
Late Somaria Devi used to live with her 72-year-old husband in Garwa district's Bhandariya village. The couple had no children, no source of income and were not registered under any government scheme. Their nephew, living in the nearby village, used to check on them once a week to buy essentials.
Ever since the lockdown, they were left alone. Nine days later, Somaria Devi breathed her last. "She died because of starvation," says her husband, Lachhu Lohra, who survived only because the villagers were alerted of his wife's death.
Nephew, Vinod Mistri, who had rushed to the spot the very night, says local administrative officers had visited the house the next day, on April 3. "They came again on April 6, gave us 10 kilograms of food grains and Rs 6,000 cash," he adds.
James Herenj, convenor of NGO Jharkhand NREGA Watch, alleges that officials tried to cover up the matter.
"Officials came twice and tried to convince everybody that starvation was not the reason for death. The government has perennially dismissed hunger as the reason for so many deaths that happen in the state," says Herenj.
After the death of his wife, 72-year-old Lachhu Lohra has moved in with his nephew's family of six. However, not much has changed. The state-sponsored ration will soon be over and they are yet to find the next source.
A survey, of which economist Jean Dreze is also a part, by Right to Food Campaign conducted in the first week of April across 50 blocks in 19 districts of the state found some grim details.
15 of the 50 blocks reported specific cases of hunger or of shortage of food in hamlets of marginalised people such as particularly vulnerable tribal groups. Twenty one of the 50 blocks witnessed many cardholders in the area still waiting for their April rations. In at least four blocks, even March rations were yet to be distributed.
Only 18 blocks reported that dry rations were distributed in Anganwadis during the last few weeks. In most cases, take-home rations had not been distributed since January 2020.
The survey also noted that the practice of dealers taking cuts from people’s rations, i.e. giving less than the entitled quantity but recording the full amount, continued unabated.
Meanwhile, earlier in the week in Gomia block of Bokaro, parents of 17-year-old disabled girl had to apologise for apparently spreading misinformation about their daughter's death. The couple had stated starvation as the reason.
Residents of Tikahara village, father Jeetan Marandi works as a daily-wage labourer while Shanti Devi had to always be at home to take care of her daughter who could not move any of her limbs since birth. Both do not know how to read and write.
On Wednesday, gram panchayat mukhiya asked them to put their thumb impressions on a letter addressed to the block development officer which read, “My daughter was disabled and she was ill. In a hurry, I told a social worker that she died of hunger, for which I apologise.”
Circle officer Om Prakash Pandey tells News18, "We have filed an FIR against the neighbour who spread this misinformation."
Several activists and neighbours who visited the couple's thatched hut immediately after the incident described the extreme poverty they live in.
"There may have been food when their daughter died but that cannot rule out the fact they must be facing starvation every single day. The family has no ration card and Jeetan (father) who earns roughly Rs 500 in a month has found no work ever since the lockdown," Adivasi Moolvasi Manch member Anil Hansda of Tikahara village tells News18.
The National Commission for Women has taken cognizance of the death and asked Jharkhand Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh for an inquiry.
Similarly, 50 kilometres away in Sangrampur village of Ramgarh district, 72-year-old Upasi Devi breathed her last on April 1. While her family members alleged starvation, block development officer (BDO) and Ramgarh MLA Mamta Devi thought otherwise.
"There was ration in the house when we visited. It will be too early to call this hunger death," said Congress's Mamta Devi. BDO Kuldeep Kumar towed the same line.
However, Upasi Devi's son, Jogan Nayak, 48, still maintains that the death was due to starvation. Nayak, too, works as a daily wage labourer and has not been earning anything since late last month.
The state government's denial to hunger deaths is not new. In March this year, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress government, headed by Hemant Soren, repudiated any starvation death in the state in the last five years.
Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) MLA Vinod Singh recently asked in the Assembly whether or not there were more than 12 deaths due to hunger and malnutrition in the past five years. The response by Food and Public Distribution Minister Rameshwar Oraon on March 5 was “negative” or “not true”.
However, in its election manifesto, the JMM had referred to hunger deaths. “Even today, Jharkhand is in the news across the world for its starvation deaths,” it had said.
According to the latest government data, nutritional deficiency among rural children aged 6 months to 5 years in Jharkhand is 13 per cent more than the national average. Even among adult men and women, the level of nutritional deficiency is more than 10 per cent of the national average.
The National Family Health Survey data shows that the number of underweight children in rural Jharkhand is close to almost 14 per cent higher than the national average.
The already sorry state of affairs was triggered further due to the sudden imposition of the lockdown.
Back in Garwa district's Korkma village, Saukat Ansari, living a few hundred metres away from Chaundrauti Devi, has also run out of supplies. With three children in his house, he is now clueless on his plan ahead.
The brick kiln he used to work for, has been shut since the past three weeks. Not just food, his hand-to-mouth situation has left no major financial savings. On better months, he makes Rs 2,000, an amount spent for on a single lunch in cities.
"I have no ration card as well. I cannot expect the rare assistance too. I cannot go out to borrow because of the lockdown," he tells News18. Just like his hopes, his voice feebler with every sentence.