Living the Lesser Life

Guest post by SHRIYA MOHAN

A Mawasi tribal mother with 2 out of four of her children severely malnourished

Long ago Bhagavan called all the tribes of mankind for a feast. On one side he put rice, dal, vegetable and meat curry for the Hindu. On the other side he put chapattis ghee and sugar for the Baiga and Gond. As they were about to eat, a rat ran across the floor. Since Bhagavan had provided no meat for the Baiga and the Gond, they all chased the rat so they could add it to their feast. But they couldn’t catch it. When they came back they found that the Hindus had taken away all their chapattis, ghee and sugar and there was nothing left for them. Then Bhagavan dropped water into the pot in which the rice had been boiled and gave it to them. “This is paige”, he said. “And you will eat it forever.”

– Verrier Elwin, The Baigas, 1939

Earlier in March this year, at the state assembly meeting at Bhopal, the Madhya Pradesh government made two shocking statements. First, it admitted to having the highest infant mortality rate in the country, with 1,30,233 children, under five years of age, dying between 2005 and 2009, stating that 60 percent of these were due to malnutrition. Second, it admitted that out of the Rs 65.06 crore budgetary provision under the Reproductive and Child Health programme (a part of the National Rural Health Mission to check infant and maternal mortality rates), only Rs 37.96 crore, or 58 percent, was actually spent. Both these shocking statements need to be closely examined as the UPA government’s National Food Security Act is being drafted, promising to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in this country. But without a more comprehensive support structure, this goal may not see the light of day.

Anganwadis in Satna are as dilapidated as this - crumbling walls and barely a roof over their heads.

Protein-energy malnutrition, as it is clinically known, is characterized by inadequate intake of protein, energy, and micro-nutrients such as vitamins, and the frequent infections and disorders that result. Severe forms of malnutrition include Marasmus – chronic wasting of fat, muscle and tissues where loose skin folds hang from a child’s buttocks and thighs (A child suffering from Marasmus can reach a point of no return when the body’s machinery for protein synthesis, itself made of protein, breaks down. At this point, attempts to correct the disorder by giving food is futile); cretinism – irreversible brain damage due to iodine deficiency; blindness, increased risk of infection and death from a vitamin A deficiency. A child that has reached these stages is called Severely Accutely Malnourished or SAM. Victor Agauago, Nutrition chief of UNICEF India says, “If Severe Acute Malnutrition is not controlled within the first two years of a child being born then the damages it does to a child’s physical and mental growth is irreversible.” The recent NFHS data states that Madhya Pradesh at the moment has 10 million children out of which 12,60,000 are SAM. Over 90 percent of these are tribal children.

45 days old Akaash weighs just 2 kg and was made to wait under the hot sun outside the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre of Khandwa as the staff at the NRC categorised him as "not malnourished enough". Cases like Akaash are sent back home promptly as 39 out of 40 beds in the centre lie vacant.

To 1,22,33,474 people, a fifth of Madhya Pradesh, comprising 46 scheduled tribes, the state is more of an intruder than an ally. Of these, four specific tribes forming nearly 20 percent of the total ST population are the most impoverished, faring the lowest in all the human development indicators. These are the Korku, Baiga, Mawasi and Saharia tribes. Each of them have the most interesting cultural identities and rich history that is slowly fading away because of their extreme poverty. While the Korku are from Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and believe themselves to be the descendents of the Demon God Ravan from the Ramayan (Earlier on the festival of Dussera they would burn an effigy of Ram instead of Ravan), the Baiga were once known as the lords of the jungle are a tribe of hunters and gatherers, the Mawasi belonged to the caste of guards and orderlies of native rulers in the Central provinces and the Saharia were tribal hunters and cultivators in the jungles of north western Madhya Pradesh and eastern Rajasthan.

Today these are the population for whom the right to food doesn’t exist. Most live in inaccessible terrains where government schemes are fractured and “development” is still an unknown word. While some are battling hunger as a direct consequence of being displaced from core forestland, others are exchanging food for money by cultivating cash crops in place of food. Yet, what unites them all is that constant empty vacuum throbbing inside the stomachs of their young ones, impairing their growth, stunting their minds and snatching away their lives. Even today, the Baiga and Korku children fill their stomachs only with paige, the simplest and coarsest possible soup. The excerpt quoted at the start, from Verrier Elwin’s book in 1939, ‘The Baigas’, still holds relevance today as a symbolic legend that explains how deep rooted their acceptance of hunger is in their tribal way of life.

Since early 2004 the state government’s response to tackling its problem of malnutrition has been mainly two fold:

1. The setting up of the system of anganwadis or village level day care centers meant to distribute nutritional supplements and vaccinations to pregnant mothers and children upto six years of age, impart pre school education and health awareness to mothers and importantly, keep a tab on malnutrition by periodically weighing the children and reporting on their status to the supervisors.

2. Setting up of Nutritional Rehabilitation Centres or NRCs to treat SAM children for a period of 14 days, taking care of the mother and the child with a monitored nutrition packed diet.

An acutely malnourished child at an NRC at Satna district is fed on a monitored diet of groundnut powder, coconut oil and milk known as the F100 formula, known to ramp up a child's weight in a few days. But later, children like these go back to being malnourished for lack of a sustainable long term solution.

But sadly, these have managed to make just a small dent in the magnitude of the problem. According to a report compiled by Special Commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court, Harsh Mandar and Dr. N.C. Saxena, the number of anganwadis required in the State at 1, 46,000 while the current number stands at 69,738. Also according to the state’s National Rural Health Mission, Madhya Pradesh has 200 NRCs, which can totally accommodate 48,000 children in an entire year. Yet, in 2008, only 22,000 children made it to NRCs, mainly due to its non-conducive locations. Compare that to 12,60,000 SAM children in Madhya Pradesh and you get an idea of how grave their chances of survival are.

There are pressing questions that the state needs to answer. How has Madhya Pradesh really dealt with its tribals in face of several new development and wild life conservation projects? What is the root cause of malnutrition – is it a lack of a sustainable source of income, poor agriculture, abysmal health care facilities or a culmination of it all? Is the solution to malnutrition only food supply and distribution? Is it not possible to make a more inclusive policy where the tribal population of Madhya Pradesh can contribute to its development, instead of always being hand held to even pass the basic benchmark of survival?

Right now, as you read this, 12,60,000 children are strapped to live time bombs. The State has to make a quick choice: Will it reach out to save them or be a silent spectator as their tiny shrivelled up bodies are piled up to merely be counted?

(Shriya Mohan is a freelance journalist and a media fellow of the National Foundation for India.)

3 thoughts on “Living the Lesser Life”

  1. Terrible situation; heartbreaking pictures. Without sustainable livelihoods for the tribes, how can things improve? they are losing their future generations. Has not NREGA for eg not reached them?


  2. hi. Excellently writen. While the mainstream media is all for glieter and gossip, the path you have taken is appriciable.


  3. it is commendable that you have chosen to write on such issues. i sincerely hope that this is out of true concern and not just trying to be offbeat as malnutrition deaths have high news value.
    it would have been great if you would have dwelt deeper into the causes of hunger – land aliniation, land grab, the feudal and caste system under which the tribes of satna have been exploited etc. anganwadis and food security bills will never solve the problem of hunger caused by alineation of resources – land and forests.
    there is always scope for part 2


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