Unlike children her age, two-and-a-half-year-old Shalin Shaikh can barely speak or walk. The little girl is severely underweight (SUW), a physical indicator used by the World Health Organisation to describe malnutrition.
Health workers at the aanganwadi where Shalin is registered said her nutritional deficiencies are more to do with bad eating habits than unavailability of food. At 7 kg, Shalin is six kilos underweight.
Shalin lives with 19 others, including eight children, in a two-room house in Bharat Nagar slums, Bandra (east). “There is so much work at home that sometimes the children eat wafers and toffee in the morning,” Shalin’s aunt Rubina said.
Doctors said that malnourishment, combined with other factors, can affect the cognitive development of a child, as it has Shalin, who suffers from Vitamin A and C deficiencies, a result of malnutrition.
With 3.42% of the children living in the area’s slums diagnosed as SUW, Bandra (east and west) has the second highest number of malnourished children in the city, after Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, where 8.56% children are severely underweight.
The proportion of SUW children has increased marginally to 3.57% in September. Overall, 25% of the children in Bandra slums are malnourished.
Though in most families, both parents work, the high rent eats into the money that could buy better nutrition, said health workers.
“The rent of small rooms is as high as Rs. 5,000 a month. Often, mothers give Rs20 to Rs30 to their children to buy packaged chips and biscuits. These fill their stomach, but are low in nutrition,” said Manoj Patankar, child development project officer of Bandra’s Integrated Child Development Scheme.
Nirmal Nagar colony resident Deepali Sampat’s two children Nikhil, 3, and Vinayak, 5, are both severely underweight. “I feed them the food the aanganwadis give; we don’t have money to buy fruits and vegetables every day,” said Deepali, adding that Nikhil has had a bad cough for months now.
Health workers said parents of malnourished children prefer to take them to private doctors, and not civic hospitals. A local homeopathic doctor is treating both Vinayak and Nikhil. “If I go to a public hospital, I will spend an entire day there and auto fare,” said Deepali who also she gives her sons wafers as meal.
“We have to make mothers responsible for their own children. Most children buy adulterated food from vendors in slums, which affects their health,” said Dr R Potdar, trustee of Centre for Study of Social Change, a non-profit group that works in Bandra slums. “Parents look at the supplements supplied by aanganwadis as a substitute to food,” said Dr Potdar.
Doctors said the over-crowded slums aid the transmission of diseases, especially tuberculosis and respiratory infections. “We have children who are malnourished and suffering from tuberculosis. Also, parents themselves are underweight and ailing, and that affects the child’s health,” said an aanganwadi teacher, requesting anonymity.
Experts are concerned about the high percentage of severe malnourishment in Bandra’s slums despite the area having a substantial network of municipal health posts and hospitals.
The civic body is supposed to supply vitamin A formulae for SUW kids to prevent blindness, which can be caused by the vitamin deficiency.
However, when this reporter visited the health post in Bharat Nagar, the staff said they have not received the stock for the past four to six months.
Dr Arun Bamne, executive health officer, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, said he was not aware of a shortage. “Vitamin A is supplied to us by the state,” he said.