A member of a fact-finding team writes about how the 17-year-old and his sister struggled to make ends meet before they couldn’t
“We had nothing to eat for five days and my brother couldn’t bear it anymore. He finally succumbed to starvation,” said Debanti while narrating her ordeal and explaining how her 17-year-old brother Goutam Behera died. She told this to members of a fact-finding team. Deceased Goutam had locomotor disability since childhood and was living with his sister in Sargimunda village, 100 kilometres away from Nuapada, the district headquarter.
The team formed by Odisha Khadya Adhikar Abhiyanwas was entrusted to check the veracity of the news on the suspected case of starvation death in Nuapada district that occurred on July 8, 2019. The team visited the Sargimunda village on July 13.
During the interaction with Debanti and villagers revealed a heart wrenching story of apathy, torture and hunger.
Goutam lost his mother when he was four years old. Six months later, his father Gajaraj Behera remarried. Even though the stepmother was not friendly, Goutam and his sister lived with them. But, Goutam was mostly left to the care of Debanti.
After completing primary school, he was sent to a school for the differently abled at Khariar, a nearby town. He had to return home after Class VII as his disability grew and condition deteriorated. He became immobile below waist and was confined to a tricycle.
“My step mother used to ill-treat us. She even beat my brother for defecating on the tricycle. She did nothing for his care. One day she drove him out of the house,” Debanti narrated with a bit of agony. The shade of trees became the new shelter for Goutam afterwards. To protect him from the scorching sun and rain, his father covered his tricycle with a plastic sheet.
Debanti visited her brother every day to help him with his daily affairs and feed him. She brought him to her home after their parents deserted the brother-sister duo and shifted to a new house constructed under the rural housing scheme nearly three years back.
With no support from parents and Debanti’s inability to do any hard work because of dermatological issues she suffered from, Goutam took to begging to ensure two square meals for the both of them. He had to move from village to village on his tricycle begging for alms and food grain. With help from some local politician they got a disability pension of Rs 500 per month.
Though it was quite a challenge for the siblings to obtain a ration card, they could get a Priority Household Card after intervention by fellow villagers, a few civil society members and journalists.
Despite being eligible for an Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) card for 35 kilogrammes of food grain per month, they were given a primary household card with 10 kg rice (5kg each) per month.
Things turned bad to worse for the family after Goutam developed a wound in his back, which didn’t heal with home remedies. He could not even ride his tricycle any more. Debanti took him to the Nuapada district hospital where they stayed for one and half months and came home after it healed.
According to the hospital discharge slip, Goutam was suffering from Paraplegic bedsore and was prescribed four medicines for regular consumption to recuperate. Since two of the four medicines were not available at the government pharmacy, Debanti had to purchase it from a private drug store. Most of the Goutam’s disability pension was spent on buying those medicines.
With all the pension money going in buying medicines and Goutam not being able to move out to beg anymore, the siblings had to survive with the PDS rice and some meagre support from the neighbours.
According to Debanti, the PDS rice was exhausted in a few days and she had to manage a few more days by requesting the neighbours for support.
“We didn’t have anything to eat for five days. How long could I have asked neighbours to support? But, my brother could not bear hunger anymore and he finally died,” Debanti shared her ordeal in tears.
Abdication of responsibility and negligence
The local media reached the village on the morning of July 9. The block administration came to know from media persons about the incident. The Additional Block Development Officer (ABDO) who reached the village a little later insisted on cremating the dead body at the earliest ignoring Debanti’s claim that they had “nothing to eat for five days” and “Goutam died of starvation”.
Laxmikant Behera, a fellow villager, informed the team that the ABDO didn’t pay any heed to his repeated requests to arrange transport to take the body to the nearest community health centre at Boden for post-mortem.
Instead, the officer dissuaded villagers from taking any such move as this would lead to a police case and unnecessary legal complications. So, the body was cremated without being sent for post-mortem.
It’s a clear violation of norms of Odisha Relief Code, which, in para 39, states that an officer not below the rank of tehsildar should conduct inquiry of a suspected starvation death case. Here, an officer junior than that did the inquiry.
“A case of unnatural death should be registered and the body be taken for post-mortem. Findings in the post-mortem should weigh in deciding the case of starvation,” read the code.
By now, Debanti must have been shifted to a shelter home for women with an AAY card and 70 kg rice, Rs 60,000 in her bank account and an assurance from the administration that she would be given medical attention.
At least 13 such starvation death cases have been reported in the state in the last four years. Goutam Behera’s case exemplifies how distressed and disabled become vulnerable to hunger even if covered under one or many social security schemes.
A small crisis-like sickness can lead to hunger and starvation-like situation. It is essential that government develops a mechanism to identify such cases and provide them with apt and adequate support. It would also be wise to restart the scheme like Emergency Feeding Programme, which was stopped in 2015, where people in distress could at least get one hot cooked nutritious meal a day.
These apart, the society also needs to play a proactive role by standing with people living with hunger and distress and extending support like food and care to people in need. Civil society organisations can play a role too in forming collectives of concerned citizens to ensure that no one goes through this.
The author works with Khadya Adhikar Campaign and was part of the three-member fact findings team.
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