Baby Ghatal weighed 4.5lb when she was born in the first week of July.
“We didn’t know there was anything wrong with that,” says her father Santosh (21). “Most of the children born here are the same size and weight.”
‘Here’ is Kharband village in Jawhar taluka, Thane district — 155 km from Mumbai’s myriad restaurants and gleaming malls — where one in three children is born malnourished.
Baby lived only four weeks.
Classified as severely malnourished at birth, her mother was given tonics and iron and iodine tablets to help Baby gain some strength, but they didn’t help.
As the infant grew weaker, Santosh says, her loud cries dropped to a constant whimpering sob.
The worried parents took Baby to the local health centre, where she was diagnosed with full-blown pneumonia.
“The doctor said she was very serious and we should take her to the sub-district hospital,” says her mother Neelam (20), with staring, liquid eyes. “We had no idea she was sick. She had no fever.”
At the hospital, Baby’s lungs began to shut down.
“She stopped breastfeeding and her body went cold. She died at 4 am on August 6,” says Santosh. As he talks, Neelam leads her two other children — a six-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy — into their hut in the tribal hamlet of Kharband.
He talks about his baby with a sense of shock and heartbreak, but they both know they’re far from the only ones.
In August alone, 32 children under the age of six died in Jawhar taluka, most of pneumonia. All were ‘moderately to severely’ malnourished.
“There are about 20 malnutrition deaths in Jawhar here every month — children and adults combined,” says a doctor from the local primary health centre. “But in the monsoon, malnourished children have an even lower resistance to disease. They sleep on earthen floors and develop chills and later pneumonia.”
Why is Jawhar so badly off?
More than 90 per cent of the 1.27 lakh people living here are poverty-stricken tribals who grow rice on tiny plots of land whenever there is enough rain.
In non-crop seasons, or when their crops fail, the tribals — men and women — move to nearby towns like Vasai and Virar to work in brick kilns and quarries. Here, they live in makeshift tents for months at a time, raising further the instance of malnutrition and disease in the community.
“They live in tarpaulin tents near their work sites, with no access to potable water or sanitation,” says N.B. Khutre, assistant child development project officer. “The children suffer the most, because they are left unattended all day.”
Adding to the cycle of poverty, unemployment, malnourishment and disease are early pregnancies, multiple deliveries and pregnant women’s refusal to take modern medicines, says Dr Ramdas Marad, superintendent at a 100-bed sub-district hospital in Jawhar.
“As a result, we have babies with birth weights as low as 750 to 800 grammes,” he adds. “Even if they survive, they are chronically malnourished and prone to disease.”
And this is Jawhar on an upward trend.
Instances of malnutrition in the taluka have shown a gradual decrease over the years, a development attributed to new roads leading to remote tribal hamlets, renewed efforts by a set of new young doctors at the public health centres and more efficiently run aanganwadis or government crèches run by local tribals. “When I joined the sub-district hospital in 2002-03, the malnutrition figure was over 50 per cent — every second child born here was malnourished,” Marad said. “Now, that figure is below 36 per cent. But a lot more has to be done… we are still far above the national average of 20 per cent.”
(The Hunger Project is a Hindustan Times effort to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger. You can read previous stories in this series at www.hindustantimes.com/hungerproject)