Less than normal

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

in Rohtak

Social scientists and experts in the health sector had little to cheer as the overall results of the NFHS-3 came in. The results were particularly alarming in the case of States that were not traditionally considered backward. For instance, nearly 82.3 per cent of children in the age group of 6-35 months in Haryana were anaemic. Here was a State that was not in the BIMARU category but boasted a high per capita income, a high agricultural growth rate and high per capita availability of foodgrains, in addition to being a centre of the Green Revolution. (BIMARU is a term coined by the renowned demographer Ashish Bose to denote Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, which were lagging behind in most indices of growth. Later, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were added to the list.) The highest prevalence of anaemia was recorded in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, along with Haryana.

The NFHS-3 results showed that only 44.8 per cent of the children in the 6-9 months age group in Haryana got solid or semi-solid food and breast milk; 43.3 per cent of the children under three years were stunted, and 38.2 per cent of the children below one year were underweight. Though the State government does not deny the prevalence of malnutrition, it sees it as a matter of health and hygiene alone. NFHS-3 did not delve deeper into the matter to find why there was a regression in the nutritional levels in the States that fell outside the BIMARU fold.

In the course of its interviews with functionaries of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), children and mothers, Frontline found that there was a definite connection between the food consumption basket, which itself is a function of the wealth index (a correlation that NFHS-3 also established); the agrarian pattern of development; and irregular employment. With rising prices and changing agricultural patterns of production, there has been a visible decline in the consumption of certain kinds of food that are rich sources of protein, iron and essential nutrients. The main crops now grown are paddy, wheat, cotton and oilseeds.

A senior functionary of the ICDS, with nearly two decades of experience, said that all along she had seen mothers being told to give their children gur (jaggery), ber (a kind of berry) or lassi (whey). How can we ask them to eat jaggery when we know that it is not affordable? It is a rich source of iron but costs Rs.30-35 a kg. With chana, or gram, cultivation almost non-existent, another rich source of iron is lost.

Jaggery became unaffordable to the common man mainly because of the decline in the production of sugarcane in the State. In fact, the area under sugarcane cultivation now (74,000 hectares) is only half of what it was in 1966-67 (150,000 hectares).

According to Economic Survey of Haryana 2009-10, the area under sugarcane cultivation has seen the sharpest fall since 2008. In one year from 2008-09, there was a decrease of 17.8 per cent in the area under sugarcane when there was an 11.4 per cent increase in the area under cotton and a 3 per cent increase in the area under oilseeds.

Samar Gopalpur Kalan is a big village in Rohtak district. It has three anganwadi centres for children in the 3-6 age group and pregnant and lactating mothers. It is a typical village with segregated colonies for upper castes and Dalits. Two of the three anganwadis are in Dalit colonies and are managed by Dalits. The third one, located in the well-to-do part of the village, is run by a Brahmin. Most of the children who come here are either from the upper castes or from the backward castes. No Dalit child comes to this anganwadi because of the distance as well as for social reasons.

The children in one of the Dalit anganwadi centres told Frontline that they had tea and chapattis daily before coming to the centre. Milk and curd were unaffordable luxuries. The anganwadi workers said that on an average a family of 10, including three minor children, could afford only a litre of milk a day and that too with much difficulty. A family requires at least four to five litres of milk. Here one litre is divided among ten, said one worker.

Most of the children in the centres belonged to landless families that did not own any livestock. Dhanpati, 70, a self-help group (SHG) worker, said that earlier landlords used to sow chana, which was available for Rs.3 or Rs.4 a kg. The same now costs Rs.30 a kg.

It is assumed that in a State where the per capita availability of milk is higher than the national average, the consumption of milk and related products would be high. But it is not so. Clarified butter, or ghee, is sold at Rs.350 a kg in the villages, making it unaffordable to the poor and the landless. Earlier, whey was given free or given to animals. Now it is sold.

Being a Dalit makes matters worse, particularly so for women. A popularly consumed weed called bathua, rich in iron, is known to grow abundantly in winter amid other crops like spinach. Earlier, this was not a saleable item. Following its marketability, Dalit women have to go in the dark to pick bathua leaves.

Things are no different in Valmiki colony. When we do not even have enough milk for tea, how can we give milk to our children in decent quantities? asked Priyanka, a 16-year-old girl.

Everything has a price now. We have to pay even for drinking water from a government tap, she added. The provision of taps in homes, no doubt, has reduced their dependence on wells owned by the upper castes for drinking water. But the colony stands next to a pond of stagnant water, which is full of garbage and is infested with mosquitoes and other vermin. There are two safai karamcharis (scavengers), both Valmikis, responsible for the sanitation of the village of 2,000 homes. But the colony is a picture of neglect. Only 40 per cent of the households have latrines; others defecate in open fields.

In another part of the same village lies the third anganwadi centre, run by Sheela Devi in her house. It is well ventilated and airy compared with the congested centres in the Dalit habitations. But Sheela Devi is unhappy that her records showed children slipping into first- and second-grade malnutrition soon after they completed one year. The children who came to her centre were mostly from backward castes with the exception of a few from the upper castes. Their parents are unable to feed them properly because of poverty, not ignorance, she said. The people are trapped in a vicious circle. A buffalo owner has to sell his entire stock of milk in order to buy fodder and rations for the family. That is why the poor get their children into the habit of drinking tea early on, said Savita Malik, a superviser with the ICDS. Apparently, anganwadi centres are under tremendous pressure to declare the children listed under their centres as healthy and normal. They are given a three-month target to improve the status or grade of malnourishment. There are also incentives to reward village-level committees that show a decline in malnutrition levels.

It was also learnt that the number of BPL households in the village was much lower than the number of eligible households. Many landless families that do not have any livestock are not in the BPL list.

Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), comes from an agricultural background. As a child he has worked in the fields and made gur. He later went to do his studies at Hisar Agricultural University. Inderjit Singh recalls how mustard crops were grown along with wheat and how much of the oil from the crops was consumed by the family unit. The crop used to be pruned after reaching a certain height and the pruned leaves were consumed by the poorer Scheduled Caste groups. But the commercialisation of mustard cultivation and the mechanisation of the processes ensured that the S.Cs could not utilise the discarded portions of the crop anymore.

The decline in the production of gram has made its consumption, either in nascent form or of its pods, impossible. This is not a rice-eating State, yet we produce a lot of paddy. We used to grow gram, now we dont, he said.

There are a number of factors that have adversely affected the economic status of the hitherto oppressed social groups: lack of an equitable alternative in relations of production compared with the traditional jajmani system (a semi-reciprocal relationship between the artisan caste and the landed castes); lack of land reforms; shrinking of common lands; and a general lack of decent employment.

NFHS-3 brought out other startling facts as well. For instance, it was the children of the S.Cs, the Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes who had high levels of malnutrition; that the nutritional status of children was strongly related to maternal nutritional status; and that under-nutrition decreased with an increase in the wealth index of a household. Infant- and young-child- feeding practices improved with the wealth index of a family as well as the mothers educational level.

The survey also said that poverty had a strong negative effect on the consumption of nutritious food and that women and men in households with a low standard of living were most likely to have a diet particularly deficient in fruits, milk and curd.

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