One morning last December, Uttam Kunwar awoke from a terrible dream in which his mother had died. Any relief he felt lasted only until he turned over on the floor, beneath the blanket he shared with her, to find her dead. We spoke on the last day of February, in a tiny settlement at the eastern edge of Jharkhand, an Indian state near the Bay of Bengal. Uttam sat on a khatiya, a bed of bamboo and cord mesh, beside logs left from the pyre. “She died of hunger,” he said. I asked how he knew, and he stared at me. “She died of hunger,” he said.
The bulb above us sputtered. Uttam brought out a passport picture glued to his mother’s bank-account book. Villagers offering directions to her home had spoken of her madness, and I looked for signs in the photo. Premani Kunwar confronted the camera with a frown, the drape of a patterned sari falling on a lean, oblong face. Uttam folded his arms and pressed his curled toes into the ground.
Three days after Premani died, members of the Right to Food Campaign, a loose partnership of activists, economists, and researchers, drove down from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. They scattered over the open country for two days, interviewing neighbors, family, and the rations supplier who gave the village its monthly share of subsidized food. One of the researchers, Siraj Dutta, a former engineer who has studied people living beneath Mumbai’s bridges, said that he was jolted by the Kunwars’ poverty. “They had no utensils to store grains,” he told me. “In most homes, you find some kind of storage for food.” Uttam and Premani had subsisted on a diet of rice and salt. Occasionally, if lurking rats hadn’t pruned their supplies first, they sold a portion to splurge on dal, sugar, and oil.
Dutta’s investigation found that Premani hadn’t received food from the rations supplier, but that the final nudge had come from elsewhere. When the researchers visited her local bank branch—“a typical, small rural branch where everyone is confused,” Dutta recalled—the manager showed them his screen in surprise. At some point, Premani’s pension had been diverted to the account of a person who died in 1992. This happened, the manager declared, because someone had linked the dead person’s account to Premani’s twelve-digit national identification number, known as Aadhaar. Premani, who was almost sixty-five,