INDIA: Government of Orissa trying to cover holes with darkness 

Concerning the case of Ms. Bhuje Naik who died of starvation and sickness on 31 December 2009, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received a letter dated 25 February from the Department of Revenue and Disaster Management of the government of Orissa. The letter is available here.

Mr. S. Bhuyan, the Joint Secretary to the government of Orissa tries to explain in his letter that Bhuje died from cancer and denies all allegations of food insecurity and malnutrition. The Secretary’s attempt is to establish that his government has provided various forms of help to Bhuje’s family including financial assistance, widow pension and food subsidy. The letter claims that it is the Nuapada District Collector, after inquiry, has provided the Secretary’s office with this information. In essence, the Secretary’s attempt is to defend his government and further to say that the information disseminated by the AHRC and its local partners is wrong.

The claim in the letter that the government provided Bhuje a monthly widow pension of INR 200 (USD 4.3) through a government scheme — the Madhu Babu Pension Yojana — from October 2009 is true. But the letter fails to mention the fact that this ‘help’ was an act of mercy when the administration was taken to task by the local media that reported Bhuje’s living condition and starvation, that worsened after the death of her husband in January 2009.

The Secretary conveniently forgets that no family can survive with INR 200 a month. Bhuje and her seven children had no regular work or any land to cultivate. Bhuje had been sick since her husband died. The Indian Red Cross support for her treatment was also given at the end of October, which was indeed spent for her treatment.

Even for Bhuyan, it must be a shame to argue that his government has discharged its legal mandate to a citizen and her family to guarantee their food security by providing the family a widow pension for two months just before another death in the same family from malnutrition and starvation.

Moreover, how could a family with eight members manage enough food a day with INR 6.6 (USD 0.14)?

Although Bhuje’s family had a BPL ration card to collect 25 kilograms of rice at the rate of INR 2 per kilo, the family could not manage a single rupee to buy it until Bhuje received widow pension in late October. According to the information provided to the AHRC through its respectable and trusted sources, it was Bhuje’s two elder children, girls aged 15 and 14, who managed to obtain occasional work as agricultural labourers that fed the family with whatever they could earn. The two children testified that all of them might have died earlier if they had not found occasional jobs.

The letter is proof to the fact that if no children worked in the family, all of them might have had nothing for about six months to eat and died earlier.

The Secretary states that INR 10,000 under the National Family Benefit Scheme is sanctioned to the family, adding that the children have not stopped studying. It is interesting however that the Secretary does not mention any date to show that when this support was provided. It is because this support was given in February 2010, a month after Bhuje’s death.

At the very minimum, the government has met one of the demands raised in the Hunger Alert (AHRC-HAC-002-2010) concerning Bhuje. However, the Secretary does not mention, how his government paid this amount to a minor. Neither has the District Collector reported how the money was spent and by whom?

In spite of all this, the attempt is to assert that the government succeed in protecting the food security and child rights of the family. The AHRC is surprised to know that food security and child rights have reduced to paltry pensions in Orissa. Probably this explains why Orissa remains one of the most underperforming states in the country and for the frequent reports of deaths from starvation and malnutrition in that state.

It is indeed uncertain whether Bhuje had cancer. However, as the AHRC reported in the Hunger Alert, that it is fact that she had been seriously sick for long time, which was aggravated by lack of food. It is a fact that that all the children and Bhuje suffered from starvation. In addition, long-lasting starvation and malnutrition of the children permanently damages their physical as well as intellectual growth, thus adversely affecting their future.

It is good that the government looks after all the seven children who are currently attending school. However, it is a concern that not all of them live together as they are sent to three different places; school and two different orphanages.

It is shameful that the government of Orissa has sent an official letter without apparent clarification about the case and arguing that its constitutional mandate to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to food is to provide little money after a person’s death. It is nothing but an attempt by the government to escape from its responsibility and duty. In Bhuje’s case the government not only failed to protect the right to food of the family but also failed to acknowledge its responsibility for Bhuje’s death and the family’s living condition.

This neglect and widespread corruption is the main cause for the alarming number of deaths caused by lack of food and associated sicknesses, a condition that has not been improved for decades in India. The Secretary’s letter provides insights into why this situation is continuing unabated. As for the government of Orissa, the letter is a reluctant reaction to cover up the embarrassment concerning conditions that led to Bhuje’s death. For the people of Orissa, Bhuje is one among them and they could see their own fate in Bhuje’s death. For the government such death would be more occasions in which its Secretary will be required to send out letters denying everything and washing hands.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-042-2010
Countries : India,
Issues : Right to food,