Severe malnutrition has claimed the lives of around 125 children across Madhya Pradesh in the past five months.
Reports of such deaths, first heard in Satna in the east in April-May, have lately been coming with increasing frequency from Khandwa in the south and Shivpuri and Sheopur in the north as well.
According to a petition filed in the Supreme Court by an NGO, the MP Right to Food Campaign, 64 Bhil children have died of malnutrition in Satna since late April.
Similarly, Spandan Seva Samiti, which works among the Korku tribe in Khalwa block of Khandwa, has reported the deaths of 39 children in the past 45 days.
The Saharia Mukti Morcha, involved with the impoverished Saharia tribe in Shivpuri and Sheopur, said 16 children had succumbed to malaria in Shivpuri and five in Sheopur within the last few days because their immunity was destroyed by severe malnutrition.
The local authorities have stubbornly refused to accept that the deaths were due to malnutrition, attributing them to disease instead.
Even on Friday, Satna collector Vijay Anand Kuril insisted in his reply to the commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate seven infant deaths that occurred in Satna’s Uchrecha block, that these were due to heat stroke, encephalitis and food poisoning.
Similarly, though Khandwa district collector S.B. Singh has finally ordered an inquiry after reports of 21 child deaths in Khalwa block were carried in the Bhopal edition of Hindustan Times, he too refused to concede that they were caused by malnutrition.
He was blissfully unaware that the figure had risen to 39 since the report appeared.
However, the report of a survey by a committee appointed last month by the Divisional Commissioner, Indore, did concede that some of the deaths in Khandwa could have been due to undernourishment.
“I can categorically state that Jamwati, the four-year-old child who died on Thursday in our hospital, was suffering from acute malnutrition, along with pneumonia and septicemia,” added Dr Laxmi Baghel, chief medical and health officer at the Khandwa district hospital.
Another doctor said that 68 malnutritioned children had been admitted to their hospital on a single day, September 4. "It is a kind of malnutrition epidemic," said Seema, of Spandan Sewa Samiti.
So too in Satna, a report submitted by a Unicef consultant to Women and Child Development ministry officials had reiterated that malnutrition could well be one of the reasons for the recent abnormally high mortality rate of children in a couple of villages he surveyed.
While the wide publicity given to the Satna deaths did prompt the state government to take corrective measures, seeking support from Unicef and the World Food Programme, and launching a number of special schemes specifically aimed at improving child health, it has done little in the other three districts.
“The district administration did nothing,” said Uma, of Saharia Mukti Morcha. “It was only after the local media raised a stink that a few steps were taken.”
Malnutrition is widespread in MP, with the recent National Family Health Survey estimating that it affects in varying degrees around 33,000 children. The reasons are no mystery - most of these children belong to abysmally poor labourer families, whose daily earnings - when they are able to find work - rarely cross Rs 50-70.
“Their villages are so remote and most of the bureaucracy so indifferent that many of them don’t even have BPL cards,” said a Spandan activist.