EDITOR’S NOTE: The article you are reading is an updated and clarified version of an article first published on The Nation’s website on November 9, 2015. It has been changed to reflect information from documents provided by a representative for Anil Kumar, who did not respond to efforts to reach him before the original article was published.
In the process of adding this new information, we decided to cut a section outlining the various legal remedies that might have been open to Manju Das. This was done for a purely practical reason: The version you see here mirrors the print version of the article, and we simply could not fit a 6,000-word piece into the space allotted in the magazine.
Manju Das stood over a pot in her nephew’s food stall, which spilled onto the pavement of a busy, dust-choked thoroughfare in interior West Bengal. She poured in some oil followed by a handful of dried chilies and mustard seeds. Two small onions went in next. “You know the cost of onion?” she asked, averting her face from the pungent fumes. “Eighty rupees a kilogram. When onion costs what meat should cost, how can we survive?”
It was the winter of 2013, and the rate of inflation for food prices in India had reached a record 14.72 percent, pushing poor families another rung down the ladder of insecurity. Only a year earlier, Das and her son had owned their own food stall, which they’d built using the money she saved during the 10 years she’d spent working as a housekeeper for a wealthy family in the United States. But “we had to shut down our shop,” Das said. “We couldn’t make ends meet.” Their stall sat shuttered farther down the road.
Das’s life had been like this for the last few years: an accelerating plunge into greater and greater destitution. When I first met her in 2011, she was still fresh from her decade in the United States. She was eking out a living with her son and daughter-in-law serving lunch and dinner to visitors who passed by their food stall on the way to a nearby hospital. But things had gone horribly wrong. The birth of a grandchild had unexpectedly depleted the family’s resources. Das’s daughter-in-law couldn’t produce her own milk, and the newborn had to be bottle-fed. The cost of Nestle’s formula had eaten into the money set aside to run the food shack, and the single helper they had was let go. Then the baby got dysentery, likely from the water used to mix the formula, and almost died. She was kept on an IV drip in the hospital for a week, Das said, the family’s savings draining away with each drop of medicine.