Coronavirus lockdown | Death and hunger stalk village in Agra

Loss of livelihood due to the lockdown has devastated a group of artisans in Nagla Vidhichand, located barely 7 km from the Taj Mahal.

The death of five-year-old Sonia Kumari last month allegedly due to starvation has brought media attention and controversy to the village of Nagla Vidhichand in Agra district of Uttar Pradesh.

“There was not a single grain of food for many days before my sister died. In the days before Sonia’s death, we were eating Parle-G biscuits with water,” says her elder sister, Pooja.

Sonia’s father Pappu Singh suffers from respiratory illness and is unable to work, while her mother is a daily wage labourer at construction sites.

Denying that Sonia was ill before she died, Pooja says Sonia was very weak. “The only time we had food was when our neighbours would give us something to eat,” she says.

Till Sonia’s death last month, the family of five did not have a ration card nor did they get the rations promised by the government to the poor and vulnerable during the lockdown.

On August 21, 2020 five-year-old Sonia Kumari died of starvation at Nagla Vidhichand village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. “There was not a single grain of food for many days when my sister died. The days preceding Sonia’s demise, we were eating Parle-G biscuits with water,” says her elder sister.

On August 21, 2020 five-year-old Sonia Kumari died of starvation at Nagla Vidhichand village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. “There was not a single grain of food for many days when my sister died. The days preceding Sonia’s demise, we were eating Parle-G biscuits with water,” says her elder sister.  
| Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

While the district administration attributes Sonia’s death to vomiting and diarrhoea and denies any case of starvation in the village, the overall deprivation is hard to miss.

Barely 7 km from the iconic Taj Mahal, the village of Jatavs, a caste of leatherworkers and shoemakers, with around 500 families lacks basic amenities and health facilities, including toilets and drinking water.

Several other families that The Hindu spoke to talked of lack of access to work and food since the lockdown. With no takers for the shoes they make, many of the villagers have no source of income.

A few doors from Sonia’s home, 16-year-old Aarti, is lying on bed with a glucose drip attached to her arm. Health workers from a private clinic had administered the drip after she complained of dysentery and dehydration. Aarti says her sister had also been administered a glucose drip for 48 hours just two days earlier. Their father Bharat Singh, a daily wager, attributes their condition to a lack of food. “The last time I brought some money home was a month back, when I was able to earn ₹300 to ₹400 over a few weeks. We buy a little dal for ₹2 and sometimes for ₹5 and use it with rice from PDS ration to prepare khichdi,” Mr. Singh said. He added that the family has not had vegetables, fruits or milk in a long time.

Circumstances were only marginally better before the lockdown when he could work for upto three days in a week. “I sometimes drive a cycle rickshaw or work at construction sites. But increasingly, I have no energy to pull a rickshaw,” he says.

Mr. Singh’s family has seven members, but only six are mentioned in the ration card. While they are entitled to 2 kg of wheat and 3 kg of rice per person, or 12 kg of wheat and 18 kg of rice overall, they receive only a meagre 9 kg of wheat and 4 kg rice.

Bharat Singh’s family at Nagla Vidhichand village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district has not consumed vegetables or fruits or milk in a long time. Circumstances were only marginally better before the lockdown when he could work for upto three days in a week

Bharat Singh’s family at Nagla Vidhichand village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district has not consumed vegetables or fruits or milk in a long time. Circumstances were only marginally better before the lockdown when he could work for upto three days in a week
 
| Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

According to the Divisional Commissioner Anil Kumar, Nagla Vidhichand village is part of the gram panchayat of Nainana Jat, with a population of 12,900, or 3,698 families. There are 1,918 ration cards issued covering 8,400 beneficiaries. According to Mr Kumar, during the lockdown, 1,153 free ration kits were distributed by the district administration. 159 Ayushman Bharat cards have been distributed across the gram panchayat.

Journalist and Dalit activist Chandra Bhan Prasad says artisanal communities are among the most vulnerable and have been hard hit by the lockdown.

“Dalits are usually the last to be addressed. Those living near cities have lost touch with farming and go to cities for work. Artisans like shoemakers, weavers, and locksmiths, depend entirely on daily wages. Unlike migrant labourers who can return to their villages and rely on their agriculture land for subsistence, these artisans have no fall back. Moreover, due to their artisan status, they are not entitled to MNREGA work. No one in the government has thought of the impact that the lockdown will have on such category of people. Lockdown is a man-made disaster, and the government must urgently devise ways to rescue people from it like it does during floods and earthquakes.”

52-year-old Radhey Lal and his wife, survive on 6 kilos of wheat and 3 kilos of rice a month from PDS ration. A typical meal consists of chapattis with chilli paste. Mr. Lal suffers from paralysis in his right shoulder, and is unable to work. The wife is a ragpicker.

The family of Radhey Lal at Nagla Vidhichand village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. Mr. Lal suffers from paralysis in his right shoulder, and is unable to earn a living.

The family of Radhey Lal at Nagla Vidhichand village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. Mr. Lal suffers from paralysis in his right shoulder, and is unable to earn a living.  
| Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

None of the families The Hindu spoke to had an Ayushman Bharat card, which covers medical expenses upto ₹5 lakh for poor families.

“The situation depicts the abject failure of the State government to ensure the right to food, health and more broadly, the right to life with dignity,” says development economist and social scientist Reetika Khera.

“When hunger-related deaths occur, governments often evade responsibility by saying that the death was due to an illness, as if ensuring the right to health is not their responsibility. Watchdogs such as the NHRC or the National Commission for SC/STs should seek an explanation and hold district and State functionaries accountable,” she says.

“These people look to be sub-optimally fed over a sustained period of time. Their poor dietary intake, coupled with illnesses and lack of sanitation has slowly but steadily pushed them across the boundary of hunger and semi-starvation,” said a leading public health expert who wanted to remain anonymous because he advises top government bodies on nutrition and healthcare.

‘Matters worsened after note ban’

Forty-seven-year-old Khillo Pannalal and his wife Geeta Devi live with their three children. The father and his children stitch leather pieces together to prepare the upper covering of shoes, but demand for their work at workshops has dried up. “I went to Chippitola, Mantola, Dhulighat to ask for work seven days back, and I was told there will be no work till Diwali.” Mr. Pannalal returned disappointed after walking 5-6 km to the “mazdoor chowk” (labour junction),  where contractors or small businessmen visit to hire labourers. Work comes once in two or three days when he is able to earn a measly ₹100. The day’s meal includes only chapattis. “We have gone empty stomach for up to five days,” says his wife, Geeta Devi.

The family of Khillo Pannalal at Nagla Vidhichand village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. Mr. Pannalal and his three children stitch leather pieces together to prepare the upper covering of shoes, but demand for their work at workshops has dried up.

The family of Khillo Pannalal at Nagla Vidhichand village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. Mr. Pannalal and his three children stitch leather pieces together to prepare the upper covering of shoes, but demand for their work at workshops has dried up.
 
| Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The family has no ration card, as it involves paying bribes of upto ₹150, for which there is no money. They have accumulated a debt of ₹25,000 towards their house rent over several years. They say matters took a turn for the worse since the note ban of November 8, 2018. 

In an adjacent village in the same gram panchayat, it is the same story of total neglect. 

Thirty-year-old Rakesh Kumar is a rickshaw puller in Hari Nagar who has not been able to earn any income for several days. His weak, fatigued and weary looking wife tends to a 10-month-old sick child with measles-like rashes on his body. The family has no money to buy food or seek medical treatment for the young infant. The mother, too, doesn’t produce breast milk. This family, yet again, neither has a ration card, nor have they received food grains promised by the Centre to non-ration card holders. They haven’t heard of community health care or primary health care centres and no anganwadi worker or ASHA worker have reached their house to monitor the new mother or the infant. 

The wife and infant child of Rakesh Kumar, a rickshaw puller at Hari Nagar village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. The family has no money to buy food or seek medical treatment for the young infant.

The wife and infant child of Rakesh Kumar, a rickshaw puller at Hari Nagar village in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra district. The family has no money to buy food or seek medical treatment for the young infant.  
| Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

In the same village, another family of six grapples with hunger. The eldest among the four children, a 15-16 year-old-girl, appears to be weak and fatigued. All siblings appear emaciated, and the youngest among them suffers from knock knees, often attributed to Vitamin D deficiency. The family survives on wheat and rice from PDS ration, and is able to afford vegetables on rare days their father is able to fetch some income. Their mother, Baby, says that while her eldest daughter has been advised to consumer milk, paneer and halwa she is unable to provide these. “There is insufficient food at home. Occasionally, I buy milk for ₹5 for the entire family because children insist they want tea.”  

“The situation depicts the abject failure of the State government to ensure the right to food, health and more broadly, the right to life with dignity. When hunger-related deaths occur, governments often evade responsibility by saying that the death was due to an illness, as if ensuring the right to health is not their responsibility. Watchdogs such as the NHRC or the National Commission for SC/STs should seek an explanation and hold district and state functionaries accountable,” says  Reetika Khera, leading development economist.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *