Draped in a beige nylon sari, weighing a constant 35 kg for most of her adult life, 22-year-old Meena Bhusari could be a poster girl for size zero.
But in Pipalwadi village in Thane’s Mokhada tehsil — 130 km from Mumbai and Bollywood’s obsession with being waif-thin — size is not a concern.
That Bhusari, a mother of two malnourished children (a boy aged four and a girl aged two) is undernourished herself, is.
Forty-three children died of malnutrition in Jawhar in 1993.
Seventeen years, five Lok Sabha polls and three Assembly elections later, malnutrition in Thane’s tribal belt is still an issue. But the root cause lies in the practice of getting girls married when they are still minors.
Seventeen-year-old girls in neighbouring Gujarat and even Thane town, 112 km away, are evaluating career choices. But at 17, most tribal girls in Jawhar and Mokhada have already had their first babies.
As a result, villages in Jawhar and Mokhada — notorious for life-threatening cases of malnourishment among children — are full of malnourished women just into their 20s, struggling to cope with motherhood.
“The number of severe malnutrition cases in the district has come down,” says R.G. Vishe, training coordinator at the Maharashtra Institute of Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (MITTRA), an organisation that began work in Jawhar in 1993 in association with the Bharat Agro Industries Foundation. “But we still have many borderline cases, mainly because the young mothers are too weak and can’t lactate, leaving the children malnourished too.”
Bhusari, for example, has a low body mass index. “She is at least 10 kg underweight,” says Vishe, as Bhusari sits on the cold, mud floor of the aanganwadi (government-run crèche), her vacant eyes staring into space.
Tribals in this belt live on a staple of rice, pulses and nachni (finger millets). Vegetables are a luxury they can afford only in the monsoon, if their fields provide some.
“Summers are the worst, when there are no vegetables at all,” says Dwarka Mole, a 30-year-old resident of Beriste village.
The Class 8 dropout and 10 other women from her village have formed a self-help group that prepares a healthy mix of nachni, wheat and sugar. This mix — the recipe was given to the women by MITTRA — is fed to children and mothers, usually thrice a day, either mixed with milk like porridge or in the form of ladoos, with ghee.
“We have to travel 12 km to buy vegetables,” says Mole. “Otherwise, we eat just what we grow.”
Having to walk 4 km uphill to fill two pots of water at a time doesn’t help the weak women.
And when teenagers who have grown up in such hardship give birth, the children turn out like Parvati, now two-and-a-half years old and weighing little over 2 kg.
She weighed 1.5 kg when she was born. Still unable to walk, Parvati can barely hold her small plastic doll.
Her parents, labouring away in the fields, have left her in the care of the neighbourhood children.
The women’s self help groups in the region have now launched a campaign against early marriages of girls. “We don’t lend money to people who want to get their daughters married early. But this is not enough,” says Vimal Bhuye, secretary of the Adivasi Mahila Sangh [a federation of 280 women’s self-help groups].
At 27, a frail Bhuye is already a mother of three. Her first-born is 10 years old.
“The government has to crack down on this,” says Vimal.
Tribals here hope the new government will launch more healthcare schemes for young women.
As the women speak about their expectations from the government, Laxmi Bhuye (24), an anaemic mother of three malnourished children, stands silently to one side.