A three-year-old boy cries continuously sitting next to his grandmother as his six siblings loiter around their one-room mud and brick-walled house. No amount of cajoling can quieten the boy, Manoj Pawar. Weighing just about five kilos, a kilo lesser than his one-and-half-year-old younger sibling, Manoj is one of the thousands of malnourished children in the Palghar district, around 110km from Mumbai.
“He does not stand, cannot walk,” says his mother Ranjhana Pawar, 26.
The Pawar family resides in Bambipada, a tribal settlement in the Jawhar taluka of Palghar, where 28 children suffer from acute malnourishment. Just 30km from Bambipada is Kalamwadi village, where two-and-a half-year old Sagar Wagh died on August 30. Wagh also weighed just about five kilos. His death caused a major stir after his mother Sita Wagh refused to meet tribal minister Vishnu Savra.
Until July 2016, 126 children have died in the district owing to various ailments, including low-birth weight, pneumonia, diarrhea, dysentery and heart ailments. While a lack of nourishment continues to be a major problem, locals say the tribal settlements are also plagued with social and economic evils such as lack of employment, child marriage, gender inequality, multiple pregnancies in a short span, apathy from local authorities and a lack of maternal and pre-natal care.
“Girls as young as 14 get married and have four to five kids by the time they are 25,” said Sarita Chaudhari, a local.
Manoj belongs to the Katkari samaj, which locals say is one of the most deprived communities among the tribes. The Katkaris do not own land. Manoj’s father is currently unemployed. He gets work as a labourer in the adjoining districts of Thane and Mumbai whenever possible.
Life is no better for the other tribes, including Mahadev Kolis, Konkana, Thakurs and Warlis as well. Shraddha Shringarpure from Aroehan, an NGO working for the upliftment of the tribes said, “For the past eight years, there has been a spurt in child deaths during monsoon. These are the four months, where both the parents have to work in the fields to meet their requirements for the entire year. In the bargain, they are not able to tend to their children. In fact, children work on the fields making them vulnerable to diseases.”
In Mokhada, one of the worst-affected tehsils in Palghar, 75% of the women give birth to children weighing less than 1.5kg. Local authorities say they have seen cases where a newborn weighs around 700g. A local official from the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS), which works for primary healthcare, said there is no conscious breast-feeding undertaken because the women have to work in the fields.
There is also stark government apathy in the villages HT visited. The Jawhar tehsil, which consists of 50 gram panchayats, has one 100-bedded hospital with one pediatrician. In Mokhada, a tehsil of 28 gram panchayats has a 30-bedded hospital with no pediatrician or gynecologist. Several posts, including those of officers are vacant in several ICDS centres.
Shringarpure also narrated a recent incident from the Pangri village where the parents lost a child as the nearest hospital was far away.
Local authorities are pinning their hopes on the Amrut Aahar Yojana, a scheme started by the state government to provide nutritional food to pregnant, lactating tribal mothers and children between the ages of 0-6 years to improve the conditions. However, locals say the scheme has not been implemented because the funds are yet to be transferred by the government for the tehsils.
Taking cognisance of the issues plaguing the district formed just two years ago, the government has called for a meeting of the health, tribal and women and child development (WCD) department on September 20. Vinita Singhal, commissioner, WCD, said, “Considering the situation in Jawhar, Mokhada and Vikramgad, we have convened a meeting of the three departments to take constructive measures. We will also be visiting the areas on September 21.”