A five-year-old girl has starved to death in a village seven kilometres from the iconic Taj Mahal, as her parents were unable to work due to the Covid-19 pandemic and didn’t receive government aid.
Sonia Kumari, who lived in the settlement of Nagla Vidhichand, near the city of Agra, with her parents and two siblings, died on August 25 after her parents could no longer afford to purchase food or medicines.
Her mother, Sheela, was the sole breadwinner for the impoverished family, labouring on construction sites before the pandemic.
Sonia’s father, Pappu, was unable to work because he suffers from a respiratory condition.
The International Labour Organisation has warned 400 million Indians will be pushed further into poverty by the Covid-19 pandemic, with unemployment soaring as the country surpasses 4.7 million cases.
The building sites that Sheela worked on immediately shut down after India was placed under a sudden lockdown on March 25 and have only gradually reopened since June 1.
Like 90 per cent of Indians, Sheela worked informally - depending on her daily wages and without a contract - with no financial savings.
Ms Kumari told India Today TV during the first month of lockdown she was unable to work at all and the family had nothing to eat.
Their neighbours provided them with meagre food for 15 days but couldn’t provide long-term support for the family. Her daughter, Sonia, fell ill after they ate nothing for a whole week.
For months, Sonia's condition worsened as she only ate occasionally when her mother was able to find work on construction sites.
“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,” her elder sister Pooja told The Hindu.
Poor Indians are eligible for free medical care, worth (£5,279), under the Ayushman Bharat scheme but it has not reached all of those eligible due to bureaucratic delays.
An investigation by The Hindu was unable to find anyone in Sonia’s village of Nagla Vidhichand with an Ayushman Bharat card.
In theory, the Indian Government should also provide free food rations to the poor and has committed to do so until the end of November.
Sonia’s village did not receive these rations and the family claims they were asked to pay unaffordable bribes to acquire a ration card.
The local district administration attributed Sonia’s death to vomiting and diarrhoea and denied any starvation in the village but The Hindu found residents attached to glucose drips, who hadn't eaten for days.
“These people look to be sub-optimally fed over a sustained period of time,” a public health expert told The Hindu on condition of anonymity. “Their poor dietary intake, couple with illnesses and lack of sanitation has slowly but steadily pushed them across the boundary of hunger and semi-starvation.”
The authorities have provided Sonia’s grieving family with 50 kilograms of flour and 40 kilograms of rice, as well as a ration card, after an investigation into her death.
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