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The dying heart of India

With more hungry kids than anywhere else in India, Madhya Pradesh shows how the social-security system and good laws can collapse, writes Sravani Sarkar. See graphics | Special
Hindustan Times | By Sravani Sarkar, Satna
UPDATED ON MAY 04, 2010 02:50 AM IST

Nineteen-month-old Nanchu died barely 15 months after his elder brother Chhangu’s death in December 2008.

Records of the Madhya Pradesh (MP) women and child development department say both the deaths were due to malnutrition.

Shaken by Chhangu’s passing away when he was 18 months old, parents Kamlesh and Savitri had Nanchu, severely malnourished,
Phoolkali with her children — four-year-old Deolal and one-year-old Ruby — at Kirahipokhari village of Majhgawan block of Satna district. More than half a million children below five died in MP between 2005 and today. Mujeeb Faruqui/HT photo
registered with an anganwadi, a government-supported child- and mother-care centre, located at a distance of 6 km from their village, Kirahipok-hari. However, Nanchu too did not survive beyond March 19, 2010. The village is in Satna district, 500 km northeast of Bhopal.

The family belongs to the Mawasi tribe, which subsists on agriculture and hunting.

With India’s food-subsidy bill poised to double to Rs 1,00,000 crore per year if every family below the poverty line gets 35 kg of wheat or rice, up from the current 25 kg, Satna shows how it could be wasted if the corrupt bureaucracy isn’t reformed.

Kamlesh and Savitri, both landless labourers, have a ration card for those below the poverty line, fetching them only 20 kg of wheat and/or rice a month at Rs 5 per kg. When that is exhausted, they eat mahua dhubari (boiled mahua fruit) or some leafy forest vegetables with chapattis. Though eligible, they do not have an antyodayacard, for the poorest, most vulnerable people, who can get 35 kg of grain, rice at Rs 3 per kg or wheat at Rs 2 per kg.

The National Commission for the Protection of Children’s Rights recommended opening at least one anganwadi in the village, which reported five deaths a little more than a year ago. The commission held a public hearing in February last year after five malnutrition deaths in the village. Deepa Dixit, a member of the commission, told Hindustan Times that the district administration did not respond to its recommendations.

MP has a bleak child-care record, India’s worst, comparable to Ethiopia and Chad. Within the country, it’s ranked below Jharkhand and Bihar.

More than half a million children below five died in MP between 2005 and today.

At 60 per cent, the state has India’s highest proportion of malnourished children (India has the highest number of malnourished children in the world). It also has the highest infant mortality rate in the country (70 per 1,000 births), and for tribals, the figure is 95.6 per 1,000, according the National Family Health Survey III.

India is 66th among 88 countries on a United Nations hunger index, worse than many African countries. In South Asia, India is only better than Bangladesh.

In rural MP, anyone who earning less than Rs 327.78 per month is below the poverty line; in urban areas Rs 570.15. According to a central government estimate, 37.43 per cent of MP’s population is below the poverty line.

The Integrated Child Development Scheme, the world’s biggest programme for the health of children under six, is stuttering in MP, which has 69,738 anganwadiswhen it should have 136,000. About 20,000 are in various stages of establishment.

Satna Collector Sukhveer Singh admitted the delay and said Kirahipokhari would have an anganwadi in a month.

Singh said the village representatives were not doing enough to tackle malnutrition. “The administration alone can’t curb the menace,” he said.

Other programmes are failing as well.

Although Kamlesh and Savitri have a job card under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, they have not got work for one year. Though the law guarantees 100 days of work each year, violations are rampant.

In the remote areas, sarpanchs (headmen) and panchayat secretaries often hold back payments to tribals citing data and other delays. Sometimes, sarpanchs say they did not receive job applications.

In some way, this is true. A flawed system discourages job applicants.

Kamlesh and Savitri were not fully paid for their job two years ago.

About 10 km east of Kirahipokhari, nine children below three died of malnutrition between June last year and March in Madulihai village, where the staple diet is chapatti and salt. Sometimes, when available, they add chana (gram) leaves and other leafy vegetables.

Malnourishment is a feature of Majhgawan block (in which Kirahipokhari and Madulihai are located), where 25 per cent of the population are tribal. Dependent on forests for livelihood, the tribals struggle to feed themselves and their children.

Only 150 of the 3,400-odd tribals who claimed rights to forest land have received papers. No one from Kirahipokhari or Madulihai, both forest villages, is among them.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers Act gives tribals forest land and resource rights. In MP, more than 60 per cent of tribals’ claims have been rejected, mainly on the grounds that they could not prove residence for 75 years on the lands they claim, or could not establish that they held the land before the cut-off date of December 13, 2005, under the Act.

This is how well-meaning laws, enacted in distant Delhi, change nothing here in the heart of India.

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