At least two children have reportedly died from malnutrition in Madhya Pradesh's Gwalior district, child rights activists say, emblematic of a deep-rooted problem afflicting over 80,000 underprivileged children in this state.
While one-year-old Purushottam of Ateri village died on Sunday, two-year-old Chhottu died on December 20 though the court had directed the state to take special care of him, the activists said.
"Both deaths occurred at a Gwalior hospital due to the alleged negligence of the staff and doctors," said Sandesh Bansal, an activist with Jan Adhikar Manch.
Bansal said: "The cause of Chhottu's death was even more shocking. The district authorities continued to shirk their responsibility of taking care of the child and his family though the high court had ordered them to do so. They said it was not their job since the family belonged to Raisen district."
Chhottu belonged to one of 18 families of bonded labourers rescued from Raisen district, 50 km from Gwalior, in 2005 at the behest of the Bandhua Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, a group working for the rights of workers.
Since the state failed to rehabilitate the rescued families, Jai Prasad of the Morcha knocked the doors of the high court, which directed the district administration and the state labour department to look after the families under the Madhya Pradesh rehabilitation programme.
But the authorities apparently refused to, saying the families were not their responsibility since they were not from Gwalior.
"The matter pertains to Raisen from where they were brought here," said CS Dixit, Gwalior's assistant labour commissioner.
The administration's attitude has made the workers think that they were better off as bonded labour.
"We are being treated like animals, worse than when we were hostage in stone quarries," laments Bharat Adivasi, Chhottu's father.
Added Prasad: "This is happening despite the government's claims of making efforts to curb malnutrition, for which it has spent millions of rupees in the past three years."
The state's budget for the overall development of women and children went up to Rs 5.9 billion this year.
Of this, Rs 3 billion was earmarked for providing nutritious diet to undernourished women and children - Rs 1.9 billion more than the previous year. But according to the government's Child Growth Monitoring Drive, 80,000 children in the state continued to suffer from severe malnutrition.
In April, the state unveiled a special scheme called the 'Bal Shakti Yojana', which seeks to treat severely malnourished children. It includes medical services necessary for such kids.
The number of malnourished children in the 0-5 years age group is 33,000, which is about 50 percent of the total child population in the state, according to National Health Survey data.