INDIA: Delhi hunger deaths sad indicator of increasing starvation across the country

The deaths of three girls aged eight, four and two from prolonged starvation hascaused much shock and uproar throughout India. This is largely because the deaths took place in New Delhi, the national capital, as well as because the autopsy report found that the children had not eaten anything for eight days straight. The girls had not eaten because there was no one to feed them anything after their father’s rickshaw was stolen and he went out looking for odd jobs and never returned. Their mentally unstable mother was unable to feed them as well.

More shocking however, is the admission of this being a hunger death. Indian authorities are known to routinely and stubbornly deny starvation deaths despite definitive medical evidence; they prefer to attribute them to disease. One case that readily comes to mind is when authorities in Uttar Pradesh used the presence of 50 grams of food in the viscera of an adult to deny the death being a starvation death.

It is unfortunate that India has no dearth of diseases for authorities to attribute starvation deaths toDiarrhoea is the preferred disease authorities attribute to child starvation deaths, which changes to tuberculosis for the middle-aged and elderly individuals. Moreover, authorities always claim that the family of the victim/s had received their rations as per their ration card. This was noted in the case of a starving teen who committed suicide in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Khiri. The teenager was hungry for days and committed suicide, because the family rations were over before the month ended. After that, the mother did not get any odd jobs in the lean season for agriculture, leading to hunger. And yet, this was not listed as a hunger death.

The truth, however, is that hunger deaths are the norm in India, rather than an exception. Though exact figures are hard to find, it is estimated that 3000-7000 hunger deaths occur in the country daily. A study, ‘Lifting the Curse: Overcoming Persistent Undernutrition in India’, found that at least 3000 Indian children below the age of 5 years were dying due to malnutrition till 2009. The study was done by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in partnership with the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID).

In 2017, the Global Hunger Index rated India at 31.4, placing it in the serious category. Further, 21 percent of Indian children suffered wasting- with only three other countries to share the dubious distinction of having one fifth of its children wasted- Djibouti, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan. India’s under five mortality rate remains at an unacceptably high of 4.8. In numbers, that stands at 9,00,000 deaths of children before the age of five years, the highest in the world.

The numbers are even worse for girls, who are 11 percent more likely to die before their fifth birthday than boys. The current under-five mortality for female children is 41 per 1000 births, compared to 37 per 1000 for male children. Though there are several reasons behind this, malnutrition/hunger is the most pervasive, especially in poor families with limited resources.

What is even more tragic, is that these deaths occur despite a plethora of government schemes meant to arrest them. And this is linked to India’s core crisis: dysfunctional public institutions, from social welfare institutions to justice institutions. Corruption, abuse of power and local politics all serve to hinder access to these schemes by those most in need. The Indian government’s push to force the Aadhar card, a biometrics based unique identity document on the people, despite many problems, including privacy, is only adding to the woes. Biometric data often fails, for instance for elderly destitute living on their own, and thus denies them their legitimate rights. Similarly, there have been reported cases of the ration card holder being too sick to go to the shop for physical verification, and the resultant denial of rations causing hunger and deaths.

The starvation death of the three girls in Delhi are a mere reminder of the situation common in other areas of the country. It is high time for the Indian government and civil society to take note and ensure the end of all hunger deaths.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-046-2018
Countries : India,
Issues : Child rights, Impunity, Right to food, Right to health, Right to life,