Eight-month-old Tulsa died of malnutrition-related diseases in December last year, barely eight months after her brother’s death.
Tulsa’s brother, Shyam, a two-year-old boy, had died in April of diarrhoea and respiratory diseases caused by malnutrition.
<b1>Tulsa and Shyam were two of the seven children who died last year in the tribal village of Mathnee, 120 km north-east of district headquarters Khandwa (the town and the district share the same name), about 275 km south-west of Bhopal.
Vishram and his wife, parents of the two children referred to above, are barely able to make ends meet. Their one-acre (43,560 sq. ft) farm gives them a quintal (100 kg) or two of food grain (wheat, soyabean and gram) a year. They don’t have any irrigation facility; thus, the family, like the rest of the village, has to depend on the rains for survival.
This gives them enough to barely eke out an existence for only 3-4 months a year. They somehow manage to survive the rest of the year.
Vishram and his wife, like other tribals in their 40-hut village, supplement their income by selling mahua (the juice of the mahua tree that is fermented to make a potent local liquor) they collect from the forests to local traders. This gives them Rs 1,000-2,000 per year, which sees them through another month and a half at most.
Lacunae in laws
They don’t have an antyodaya card. Hence, they cannot get the 35 kg of food grains a month – 33 kg wheat at Rs 2 per kg and 2 kg of rice at Rs 3 per kg – that the government provides for such cardholders.
Reason: they own agricultural land, making them ineligible for both below poverty line (BPL) and antyodaya cards. The above poverty line (APL) card the family has offers just 5 kg of wheat per month at Rs 7.50 per kg.
Even the district administration admits that the BPL criterion needs to be redefined for tribals. “The specific problem of BPL/APL/antyodaya cards, particularly in respect of tribals, needs to be looked into,” Khandwa District Collector DD Agarwal said.
In this neck of the woods, the government’s welfare schemes exist mostly on paper only.
Some tribals do have job cards under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA) but they were offered work for only 30 to 40 days a year last year compared to the statutory stipulation of 100 days.
This obviously does not supplement their incomes sufficiently to beat hunger.
Then, the local anganwadi centre (mother- and child-care centre) at the village is a sham. The anganwadi assistant there, who draws a government stipend, doesn’t even know the number of children with the centre.
The tribal block Khalwa, east of Khandwa town, is known for high levels of malnutrition. As many as 1,018 children were admitted to the five nutrition rehabilitation centres (NRC) in the district from April 2009 to March 2010 – ie, almost three children every day.
NGO Spandan Samaj Seva Samiti’s Seema Prakash and Prakash Michael alleged that there was huge underreporting of such cases.
"We call the rainy season the death season – most tribal villages are inaccessible; there is not much food grain left with them and there is no work offered under the MNREGA," they added.
"Anaemia is a major problem in this area. From my experience, I can say that about 70 per cent of tribal women and children in this area are anaemic. And malnutrition is the main cause of anaemia here,” said Dr Hitesh Bajpai, director, Shivam Hospital, which treats many such cases every year.
District Collector Agarwal, however, denied this. “The deaths have nothing to do with food grain shortage. Tribals are ignorant about health issues,” he said.
But before that, the authorities will have to ensure a more caring administration.
(Tracking Hunger is an HT initiative to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger.)