India to investigate death of schoolgirl by starvation after alleged government error

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India ordered an investigation on Tuesday (Oct 17) into whether the death of a young girl was caused by a government error that saw her family denied food rations.

The girl's mother and social welfare activists said the 11-year-old from Jharkhand state died of starvation last month after officials refused to give the family food because their personal documentation was not in order.

More than 360 million Indians - nearly one-third of its 1.25 billion people - live below the poverty line and are entitled to access food rations under government schemes.

Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das said he was deeply pained by the girl's death and ordered an immediate enquiry into the incident.

"Strict action will be taken if anyone is found guilty," he posted on social media, as public outrage grew over the tragedy.

The family held a ration card for low-income families and a unique ID connected to a government biometric programme, according to the girl's mother Koyli Devi.

But she said officials insisted the two IDs needed to be linked before she could receive the handouts, citing a government order to that effect.

Activists have accused the government officials of breaching a Supreme Court ruling that all low-income Indians were entitled to rations with or without the government biometric "Aadhaar" card.

"The government is trying to shift blame, but the fact is the family was forced to eat leaves as they had no food at all for days," said Balram, a local activist who goes by one name.

"The autopsy (done on the girl) also shows she died of starvation. The mother is severely malnourished herself and is hospitalised," he told AFP.

Devi, the girl's illiterate mother, said nobody in her family had eaten for days and the young girl simply could not go on.

"She used to get a free midday meal in school, but since it was also closed for (the Durga Puja) festival, she missed out on that too," Devi told local broadcaster NDTV.

Launched in 2009, the Aadhaar programme aimed to provide identity cards to millions of poor people and enable them to access benefits directly without intermediaries taking an unlawful cut.

But opponents said the government's push to make the card compulsory threatens to violate citizens' right to privacy and the scheme has been challenged in India's highest court.

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