Just a three-hour drive from glitzy Mumbai is Mokhada, where Roshali Sakharam Gavit lies on a hospital bed with hollow eyes and swollen belly, all skin and bones. With her father Sakharam by her side, the 14-month-old is being treated for life-threatening malnutrition.
Sakharam gets her some bhaji and rotis and begins feeding her. As she eagerly gobbles down the food, a transformation comes over Roshali. Strange, guttural, almost animal-like sounds began emanating from her as she snatches the food from her father’s hands. It is the sound of desperate, dehumanising hunger — a sound seared in your mind forever.
As various officials vociferously explain that children these days don’t die of malnutrition, that it is very different from starvation and that the real problem is actually tribal ignorance, a visit to areas like Mokhada reveals the actual truth.
Doctors at primary health centres (PHCs) and hospitals don’t want to talk about it, some of them are downright hostile when asked about it. But a few exceptions — like Dr Sandeep Kadian and Dr Yogesh Kapuskar, medical officers at Jawhar rural hospital — are willing to show you the real picture. Pointing to records and speaking openly, Dr Kadian says that during camps, over 60 children with grade 3 and 4 (on a scale of 1 to 4) malnutrition pour in everyday. Such is the rush during the rains that the hospital almost invariably runs out of beds.
Of course, the government version is different. The problem (if there is one) is under control, children get nutritious food in anganwadis, tribals are employed in government projects, doctors conduct regular health check-ups, it says.
If all that is true, then how did Ritik Walvi of Zamba village in Thane land in Jawhar hospital in such a pitiable condition? Writhing in hunger, the one-and-a-half-year-old contorts his shrunken body as he rolls around in bed. His other three siblings are also malnourished. No health worker has visited his mother till now.
At Ashok Gavit’s brick-and-mud hut in Akhar village, Dr Kiran Patil of Sakur PHC says: “There’s nothing wrong. Look at him, he’s fine.” A look at the three-year-old — who is suffering from grade 3 malnutrition — with his ribs painfully sticking out of his body shows this is anything but the truth.
When the photographer tries to take a picture, Dr Patil loses his temper. “Don’t take pictures. You will expose us,” he says. Some villagers later let on that Ashok is in such a state because the anganwadi workers didn’t give him regular meals and medical check-ups were non-existent.
It’s the same depressing scene village after village in Jawhar and Mokhada — bare huts, no signs of cooking anywhere, no stored grains. Tribals and NGOs give numerous details of food and job scams and officials making money from government schemes via false entries.
Does anyone care about these children?