In a grimy, isolated village around 140 km south of India’s financial capital and near Alibaug, where many wealthy Mumbaiites anchor yachts and have posh weekend homes, a malnourished boy from the Katkari tribe succumbed to fever on February 25.
Locals said 18-month-old Balram, or Balu, was “all skin and bones”. They blamed his death on malnutrition.
“He did not have any apparent illness but he was very weak,” said Dr Nitin Modi, a private practitioner who examined Balu. One in three children born into this forest tribe die in infancy or early childhood, a survey has found, an indication of the challenges ahead as the Prime Minister’s Office considers if India’s new poverty figure of around 400 million people — accepted by the Planning Commision last week — adequately reflects the multiple challenges of mass deprivation.
A third of the world’s poor are believed to be in India, living on less than $2 per day (Rs 90), worse than in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
While the deaths outside Mumbai may be due to an infection or illness, they are often linked to under-nourishment. Approximately 45,000 child deaths every year in Maharashtra can be attributed to underlying malnutrition, according to an estimate by the non-profit group SATHI.
Officials from the Raigad district women and child welfare department admitted Balu was officially not counted as a “malnutrition death” because it was not severe enough to require immediate hospitalisation.
“He died of some fever,” said S.R. Patil, deputy CEO from the department in charge of the district’s anganwadis, government centers where children are fed and monitored.
Records at these anganwads indicate how millions are slipping between the cracks of ambitious cradle-to-grave social-security programmes.
Good law, bad use
The national Public Distribution System (PDS) fails to take into account the unique problems faced by countless nomadic communities — like the Katkaris — who migrate for long periods to earn a living and cannot access it from a fixed, single location.
Balu steadily grew weaker, slipping from the Grade 1 malnutrition category in July 2009, Grade 2 category in October and into Grade 3 category by February, said Kamlakar Howal, a social worker quoting the anganwadi register. The severest category is Grade 4, but Balu was gone before it could be checked again.
His health deteriorated because his family had migrated to Pune district to work as bonded labourers at a brick kiln in October. Over the next four months, they had no access to an anganwadi and fair price shop, where food grains are sold at subsidised rates.
Balu died a few days after they returned to their home in Vela village.
His illiterate parents, Motiram Waghmare (23) and Shabbi (15) still struggle with the loss. “I think his stomach used to ache,” said Shabbi, already pregnant with her second child.
A majority of the 139 married Katkari women recently interviewed for the survey had lost one or more children.
Often naked and reed-thin, the children of migrants loiter around the brick kilns in the forests of Alibaug. Their eyes look large in their bony faces and their ribs protrude from their sun-burnt torsos.
Rampant under-nourishment, in a country where nearly half of all children under five are underweight, is linked to various factors, including the poor health of Katkari mothers because of early marriages, multiple pregnancies as well as a lack of nutritious food and healthcare.
But the main cause of their plight is migration and a system that will not do what it is supposed to do.
Problem? What problem?
Most of the 2.35 lakh members of the Katkari tribe settled in Thane and Raigad districts of Maharashtra migrate to brick kilns across the state for four to eight months every year to earn a living.
While a big chunk of the earnings are used for food and other essentials, the families end up saving around Rs 8,000 to 10,000 by the end of six months at the kiln. This money gets them through the rest of the year when they don’t have work.
In the process, they lose access to the ration shop, where they are entitled to 35 kg grain per month, as well as the anganwadi and school, where children are given nutritious meals daily.
The corruption-plagued national PDS aims to distribute subsidized food through “fair-price” shops. The national budget for 2010-11: Rs 55,000 crore, likely to cross Rs 70,000 crore with India’s new poverty figure.
The Planning Commission estimates that 58 per cent of foodgrain so distributed never reaches the poor.
After years of campaigning by activists, the Maharashtra government passed a resolution on November 9, 2000, allowing migrants to access the PDS near their place of work.
It didn’t work.
Here’s why: PDS card-holders need the permission of officials they can seldom reach.
Only when migrants get their ration cards suspended by the tehsildar can buy subsidised grain at their workplace. When they return, the tehsildar is supposed to renew the card.
“This is not practical,” said Ulka Mahajan, a food rights activist. “The tehsildar is a powerful authority. The poor tribals can’t approach him easily.”
Anil Deshmukh, state food and civic supplies minister does not see the problem.
“Not many migrants are aware of the scheme,” he said. “Those who are, avail of it.”
Mahajan and others have been doing the rounds of Mantralaya to demand a simpler procedure: Let the ration shop officer sanction the use of PDS elsewhere.
For now, many tribal families manage with whatever they can afford to buy at the local market. Shakun Waghmare buys a packet of dry fish worth Rs 10 and 8 kg of rice every Saturday. The family of five eats this for meals through the week. Dal is too expensive and they get vegetables rarely. As a result, there is no protein in their diet.
Others travel to their villages once a month to get their 35 kg ration. “That takes an entire day and Rs.100 to make the journey to my village in Roha and back by bus but at least I get grains cheap,” said Suresh Waghmare (31), who for the past six months has been living with his wife and two children at a brick kiln near Alibaug.
(Tracking Hunger is an HT initiative to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger. You can read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/trackinghunger )