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India’s Stepchildren: Why We Outrage Over Delhi Starvation Deaths But Turn Blind Eye to Truth of Jharkhand

The news of three sisters dying sue to starvation sent shock-waves in the media, on the other hand Jharkhand, which has faced widespread starvation remains unnoticed.

Devanik Saha |

Updated:July 31, 2018, 6:03 PM IST
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India’s Stepchildren: Why We Outrage Over Delhi Starvation Deaths But Turn Blind Eye to Truth of Jharkhand
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On 26 July, 2018, India woke up to the news of three sisters who died due to starvation. As it ideally should be, the news sent shock-waves in the national (Read: Delhi) media and evoked outrage on social media. How can someone die due to hunger in the 21st century? How can three sisters starve to death in the national capital of the world’s sixth largest economy? The questions filled our social media timelines.

On the same day, 1200 kilometers away towards India’s east, Rajendra Birhor, a 40 year old tribal man from Ramgarh district, Jharkhand, starved to death. His death didn’t create even a fraction of the flutter that the deaths of those three sisters created. Birhor’s death was the 14th ‘starvation’ death reported in Jharkhand in the past 10 months, according to data compiled by the Right To Food campaign.

Though it may sound cliché and repetitive, but it needs to be reiterated again and again that how intersectionality is critical in influencing media coverage. For the uninitiated, intersectionality is an academic theory which explores about a person experiences discrimination or privilege based on their gender, caste, class, location, etc. or a combination of two or more of these factors. It is unfortunate that while Birhor’s death and the triple deaths happened almost at the same time, there was a huge difference in the reactions of the media and governments too. Applying the (in)famous concept of ‘tyranny of distance’, a term made famous by eminent journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, we can concur that as Delhi incidents gains more media attention, Birhor’s death got more attention. However, does that justify the lack of outrage over the previous deaths in Jharkhand?

Swati Narayan, an activist with the Right To Food campaign in Ranchi, who has worked on this issue closely said, “The triple deaths are horrific and so it is a relief that the media has done its duty to effectively highlight them. However, there have been a spate of 14 equally poignant deaths in Jharkhand in the last nine months alone, which is amongst the poorest states, but barely a murmur in the national media. There are double standards at play not only in the media, but also a collective societal amnesia in aspirational India for the lives of the downtrodden.”

Within a few hours of the Delhi deaths, the central government ordered a probe, a pace previous unheard of in Jharkhand, despite much activism and protests by activists and civil society groups. The order for probe was followed by tweets from BJP leaders who condemned the AAP government for these deaths. This was despite the AAP government’s swiftness in ordering an autopsy and speaking to the media, though this does not absolve of their failure to provide ration to family of the deceased. On the contrary, Jharkhand, which has faced widespread hunger and starvation due to Aadhaar-related issues and the government’s failure to provide ration cards to all, has remained in denial.

Therefore, it is clear that the social location of three sisters was the most vital factor in the news getting reported in the media and among public at large. Howsoever we may balk at the prospect of a starvation death in the ‘national capital’, applying an intersectional framework tells us that though a person’s location may influence media coverage, the fact remains that only the poorest and vulnerable populations who live at the margins, are most prone to such deaths.

“Even though Delhi is the national capital, who are the people who are vulnerable to starvation? The migrants from poorest states of India,” said Anjali Bhardwaj, an activist with the Right To Food campaign in Delhi. “These migrants come from different states to find work in Delhi and thus, they hardly have any form of identification to make their ration cards.”

Narayan, the activist from Ranchi agreed. She said, “It is no coincidence that almost all the starvation deaths nationwide have occurred in the homes of Dalits, tribals, Muslims and other marginalised communities.” Her assertion is backed by data: Children belonging to the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes are more stunted, wasted and underweight than those belonging to other populations, according to data from the National Family Health Survey 2015-16.

Since the past few weeks, News18 has been covering the spate of starvation and hunger in Jharkhand due to lack of ration cards and Aadhaar issues. You can read the series here.

(Devanik Saha is a consultant with Policy & Development Advisory Group, Delhi and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Development Studies, UK.)
| Edited by: Parth Sharma
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