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The hunger belt of South Rajasthan

Some 60km from the razzle-dazzle of Udaipur —a city that boasts of India ’s second-costliest residential building after Mukesh Ambani’s apartment in Mumbai— an unlettered 14-year-old in Jalampura village squats on his haunches weighing his existence.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2012 21:45 IST
Srinand Jha

Some 60km from the razzle-dazzle of Udaipur -a city that boasts of India's second-costliest residential building after Mukesh Ambani's apartment in Mumbai- an unlettered 14-year-old in Jalampura village squats on his haunches weighing his existence.

"If I get work this year as well (as a farm labour in Gujarat), I will get to eat and will also be able to save up a few hundred rupees for the family to tide over the post-monsoon period," says Nandu, who has been working in Gujarat's farms ever since he started to walk.

The lake city of Udaipur, a favourite haunt of heads of state, American movie stars and honeymooners, has an ugly reality tucked away in its innards.

Last year, 26 tribals from Udaipur district's Kotra block died allegedly of hunger; the state is inquiring into this. In adjoining Pratapgarh district's Choti Sadri block, 29% of the tribal children there were found to be severely acutely malnourished, voluntary organization Prayas found after a small survey. The national average is 7%.

Child migrations from this hunger belt to the more prosperous Gujarat are becoming a regular feature. The state government estimates about 130,000 children from Udaipur and its adjoining districts-Banswara, Dungarpur, Pratapgarh, Chittor and Rajsamand-migrate every year in search of work.

"The actual figures are much higher as child migrants often go unreported," says Sudhir Katiyar of the Dakshini Rajasthan Mazdoor Union, a voluntary organisation working to prevent seasonal migrations of tribal children from south Rajasthan.

"Many of them die of snakebites or the adverse impact of working in BT fields (that produce genetically modified crops)," he added. "Half the child migrants are girls and they have also been subjected to sexual exploitation. Most of such cases have gone unreported as the country did not have an effective child labour act until last year."

The Union government's nutrition support programme, Integrated Child Development Services, and other central and state schemes are scarcely visible in South Rajasthan's undulating landscape. In three villages surveyed by Hindustan Times, poor tribals were not issued below poverty line cards that entitle them to subsidized food. Primary health centers rarely function.

According to a 2006 report of the National Sample Survey Organization, out-of-pocket medical expenses in India are the highest in the world. "In South Rajasthan, such expenses are even higher," says Dr. Narendra Gupta, Consultant at Prayas.

Many children in the 0-6 age group in south Rajasthan's tribal belt (comprising the six districts of Udaipur, Banswara, Pratapgarh, Chittor and Rajsamand and Dungarpur) are Vitamin-A deficient; 60-70% of them suffer from malnutrition, estimates Child Fund (India), one of the world's largest voluntary organisations working on child development.

Forbidden country
The block headquarters of Kotra, about 140 km off Udaipur, has the dubious distinction of being the crime capital of south

Rajasthan because of a thriving system of what the tribals call 'mohtana', or extortion money demanded by one tribe of another. Failure to pay can lead to a 'charothra', or conflict, and indeed, clashes between tribal groups are common. Several villages that were occupied by small tribes lie deserted as residents couldn't pay up. Unofficial estimates about Rs50 lakh worth of 'mohtana' has been paid in Kotra over the past decade.

At Kotra, nearly all government officials were away on the morning of June 06. The block development officer was off on a holiday to DehraDun, while the panchayat head and the tehsildar or revenue officer were 'resting" at the district headquarters of Udaipur - leaving behind deputy superintendent of police Ram Dhan Bairwa as the sole government representative in the block that day. "I have only 12 constables. What can I do (about the tribal conflicts)?" asks Bairwa.

The post of sub divisional magistrate at Kotra has been vacant for about two months. The block and panchayat offices have 40% vacancies.

"The scenario is much the same in most tribal villages. Officials are unwilling to get posted to these areas and are mainly operating out of the district centers," says Ganesh Purohit of the Jan Jagran Vikas Samiti, an Udaipur-based voluntary organisation working on tribal welfare. "The aanganwadi worker (AWC) worker is the only one who remains physically present in the villages."

Implementation of various welfare programmes, naturally, suffers.

At Kotra, payments to workers from poor rural households under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA, the Union government's flagship employment programme, have been pending since March, A Rajasthan government official said, while adding: "State government employees have also not been paid salaries for a month," he adds. "MNREGA payments are sometimes pending because of failure of implementing agencies to produce utilization certificates. but it is just not possible to delay salaries of state government employees", a senior Rajasthan government official said on conditions of anonymity, as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Perception and reality
About 32 km from Dungarpur, amid a sea of stark poverty, stands a partially built modern structure for the Bharat Nirman Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendra, An e-governance centre, AT Reita village. Two homes have been built at Reita's poor villagers under the Indira Awas Yojana, a housing scheme for the poor, since the scheme's inception 26 years ago. Against the stated requirement of one anganwadi centre for a village of 300-800 people, the Reita Gram Sabha (four villages with about 2,000 people) has just one-run out of a grocery shop. And the government appointed auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) for the village turns up about once in two months, "considering that she has to undertake long treks," said Jai Chand, the village sarpanch or head.

Almost nothing in Udaipur and surrounding districts is what has been mandated. The government's various schemes for the welfare of the tribals and the villagers are implemented in partial measures, if at all, according to many of the people here.

"We sometimes get work under the MNREGA but payments are pending. The AWCs (anganwadi centres) are several times closed but they show 100% attendance. Our children go to Gujarat to earn an extra buck," said Soma BHIL, a Reita villager. Tribals have just enough food to sustain their lives, but there are no savings. Sending children to Gujarat means there is one stomach less to feed. also,when these children return, they have some hard cash saved up.

A day after Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party that leads the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, launched the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in the adjoining Banswara district in June, the chief concern of another Reita villager, Deva, was about the lack of teachers in the village. "Sixty percent of the teaching posts in the schools in the village are vacant. School buildings are abandoned".

The HT team found neither teachers nor students at two schools visited at reita village. "one of these schools has just a chowkidar, who doubles up as a teacher aswell!", said a villager.

The NRLM is a flagship program of UPA-II, aimed at providing livelihood options to below poverty line (BPL) households by setting up self- help groups (SHGs).

"Intentions are noble, but the reality is that the teachers, doctors and other professionals do not want to live or work in these areas. Grand schemes like the NRLM have remained mostly un-implemented", said Premchand Gharasia, the village pradhan or head.

Skewed budgeting
"The terrain poses a tough challenge. But successive governments have also not tried enough to bring development to the region," says Bhawar Singh Chadana of the Udaipur-based Astha, a voluntary organisation.

Official statistics reflect Chadana's argument. Rajasthan's 7.1 million tribals are entitled to budgetary allocations of 12.56% of the state's budget. Actual allocations in the past few years have hovered between 3.15% and 7.5% since 2007-08. Rajasthan's tribal sub plan budget for 2011-12 is RS.1467.5 crore - a mere 7.61% of the state's total budget. This year, the state government has committed to spend half of the funds of the tribal sub-plan- A separate plan head for tribal welfare - for power generation. But according to the Jaipur-based Budget Analysis and Research Centre (BARC), a voluntary organisation, the state government has not specified plan heads under which the fund will be spent. Specifying plan heads is a mandatory first step for implementing schemes.

Over the past few years, the office of the commissioner, tribal area development (TAD), has been gradually rendered a toothless body, with posts either surrendered or unfilled. Posts of development officers are vacant in all the six tribal districts in Rajasthan. Half a dozen posts of deputy directors are vacant have been vacant the past three years.

Several TAD posts have been abolished in recent years, including that of officers in charge of agriculture, cooperatives, industries and lift irrigation.

"The TAD budget is cleared by the budget finance committee but there are constant tussles within the state government. The TAD is nobody's baby, as it is only the nodal agency with no powers", said an official of TAD on condition of anonymity. "The state government insists on clearance of every single project by the concerned ministry of the state government. This leads to delays and failures to produce utilization certificates in time. In past years, almost half the TAD funds (Rs317 crore for 2011-12) have remained unused."

Time warp
Men, women and children squat under trees at Kotra block's Nichli Sugri village as a priest chants his mantras. More than 500 people have gathered for a ceremony at a barren land the size of a football field. Young boys dart about, distributing freshly prepared 'prasad', a religious offering.

"It is 'mrityu bhoj' (feast to honour the dead) being observed by the community," says Nirmal Singh Garasia, head of the NICHLI SUGRI Village panchayat.

Despite a ban on 'mrityu bhoj' because of excessive spending on this regressive custom by the tribals, the Rajasthan government is unable to prohibit its observance.

In addition to the government's neglect, the hunger belt earns its nickname also because of the time-warped beliefs of the tribals here.

Child marriages, elopements and desertions are common among tribal couples, leading to a vicious cycle of frequent pregnancies and malnutrition. Tribals here also believe newborns should be fed goat milk the first six months and breast-feeding should begin thereafter, and resist sending women to hospitals for deliveries.

"The government and the voluntary organizations have not been able to do much about the situation," says Chetan Abhinendra Kumar, Child Fund's project director at Jharol block in Udaipur district.

Convergence model
The Dungarpur district administration has given its best shot at implementing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's convergence model of development-a coming together of several government programmes by merging the activities of the health and the information, education and communications (IEC) departments.

"Panchayat officials and gametis (tribal chiefs) have been involved and village-level task forces have been set up for a social audit of government schemes," says Dungarpur district magistrate Prem Chand Kishan.

Mansingh Sisodia, a volunteer of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a voluntary organisation, doesn't think much of the initiative. "The concept may work fine in villages close to urban centers but not in the far-flung remote areas." Reita is 30 kilometers through harsh, undulating terrain from Dungarpur, its closest city.

District IEC coordinator for MNREGA, Mahesh Joshi, raises another issue: "I have no facilities and no staff and am paid half the salary that my counterpart gets in Madhya Pradesh. How do you expect me to remain motivated?" he asked.