Ask any Adivasi in Thane district in Maharashtra why he or she is from home for most of the year and the answer will almost certainly be Ahmi jaagayla jate (We are going to keep ourselves alive). The phrase has been in use among them for at least 50 years and, as Mariam Dhawale, State secretary of the All India Democratic Womens Association (AIDWA), pointed out, is an indicator of how long Maharashtras Adivasi populations have suffered chronic malnutrition. The tribal-dominated areas of the State are Thane, Nasik, Nandurbar in northern Maharashtra and the eastern regions of Melghat, Amravati, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur.
The continuing presence of malnutrition was called a national shame by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a view echoed by the Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute. Released earlier this year, it reported serious levels of hunger in all of Indias States but said that it was particularly shocking to find malnutrition in States like Maharashtra that showed high levels of economic growth.
An analysis entitled Nutritional Crisis in Maharashtra, made public in February, shows that economic progress does not necessarily reflect the real health of the country. The report, brought out by the two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) Support for Advocacy and Training to Health Initiatives (SATHI) and Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), says that malnutrition is an underlying cause for 50 to 56 per cent (about 45,000) of the child deaths in the State.
The actual statistics of deaths and existing cases of children suffering from malnutrition are difficult to gather. The primary problem is reportage. Government hospitals prefer to avoid registering cases because it does not reflect well on the socio-medical work they are supposed to be carrying out in tribal areas. Adivasis, too, do not bother about reporting malnutrition because for them it has become a fait accompli. This usually means that they respond only when a child is in a dire state. Sangeeta Bhimbra, an anganwadi teacher, said, The child is brought only if it is in a very bad condition and that too if the parents have the capacity to get to the hospital. If a child is hospitalised, then the mother, too, has to stay there. This is a big loss to the familys income because it means that one person is not working. To compensate for this the government gives the mother a token amount of cash for each day she is in hospital with the child, but this is not the same as an earning.
In response to a public interest petition filed by two Amravati-based doctors, the Bombay High Court ordered the State government in January to file a report on malnutrition in the State, failing which senior bureaucrats would be summoned to court. The doctors had said that the lack of medical facilities and staff added to the numbers of malnutrition deaths in tribal areas.
Poor access to medical help is a serious problem. But there are also other problems such as young motherhood and inadequate spacing between children among Adivasis. These, however, are contributing factors. The root cause of the problem lies in the socio-economic conditions in tribal areas. Kahi pan rozgaar nahi (There is absolutely no work) is a phrase that is echoed by all Adivasis. To put it very bluntly, says Dr Ashok Dhawale, State secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), Adivasis lack the money to buy food and they have no land to grow adequate quantity of food. Caught in this trap, they are forced to spend about eight months of the year away from their homes looking for jobs.
In Jawhar taluk of Thane district, most of the homes are barred for the greater part of the year as families work in other districts or even States. In Aswali village in Dahanu taluk, 75 per cent of the population is away working in urban and semi-urban areas of Maharashtra and Gujarat. They return just before the rains to sow their fields. They stay on through the monsoon, then they leave again in search of work, to return only for the harvest, a festival or some family-related reason. Their children travel with them, sleeping rough, eating little and, needless to say, with no access to formal education.
The Aswali river was perennial until a dam upstream blocked the flow. Now the riverbed is dusty and dry except in the rains. Aswali village has a well and a 300-foot borewell, but both are dry. Those who stay back eat sparingly of kani, a gruel of broken rice, various roots and leaves. Surrounding wadis or orchards no longer employ as many labourers as before. Chaitya Dongarkar, a 51-year-old Adivasi, recalls how a 10-acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare) wadi used to employ 20 to 30 workers, whereas it now employs only five to ten because the harvest is not as bountiful as before. No land, no jobs, no PDS. The only thing we get is kuposhan [malnutrition], he said.
In the cottage hospital at Dahanu, there are no children with malnutrition at the moment. That, however, does not necessarily indicate the absence of malnutrition in the taluk; rather, it is a measure of the desperation of parents who get their ailing children discharged from hospital because they need to go to Surat, Vapi, Vasai, Virar or far-off Porbandar to work on a road building project, at a brick kiln or on fishing boats. Information made available unofficially to Frontline shows that five children were discharged from the hospital on the request of their parents in the last week of March. The children were suffering from malnutrition of Grade 2 and 3.
The parents are in a bind they know that with the coming rains, children who are already weak are likely to fall severely ill with less access to food and more contact with contaminated water. Yet they are unable to let the children remain in hospitals or provide any other care because of the compelling need to migrate in search of work. A fixed monthly income is an unheard of luxury for most Adivasis. Their fields are not income-generating since the produce is mainly for their own consumption. Adivasi families own two to seven acres of land but over generations the portion of each descendant gets smaller and smaller. There is no money to buy land.
Ashok Dhawale says there are four pre-existing conditions that ultimately result in malnourished children in the tribal districts landlessness, lack of rural employment schemes, a corrupt PDS and a general absence of all developmental indices such as education, health care and infrastructure.
The question of land ownership has been in the forefront ever since Godavari Parulekar fought for tribal rights in the 1940s in Thane district. Even now absentee landlordism is tackled head on in the district with activist tribal people occupying the land and apportioning it among landless Adivasis. But the majority remain cultivators of forest land with no title to it.
There were high hopes around the Forest Rights Acts of 2007, but Ashok Dhawale says only 0.8 per cent out of the three lakh applications made by tribal people in the past two years to acquire forest land were processed up to December 31, 2009. The tribal people are caught in a double bind. Unless you have land you are not eligible for government schemes, which include loans, he said.
Rural employment schemes, according to Ratanraoji Budar of Jawhar taluk, are all rubbish it is just a conspiracy for contractors to make money. Budar, who is the taluk secretary of the CPI(M), and Kisan Gujar, who is the State secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, do not believe that NREGS has helped. All developmental work is mainly done by machines operated by trained people, so what rural employment are they talking about? Kisan Gujar said.
Under the NREGS, workers are paid Rs.100 a day. In a brick kiln or in a private road work, an Adivasi can earn Rs.125. It is also difficult to get work under the NREGS in Maharashtra. Ashok Dhawale said, Many people apply for work under it, but they would get about a week of work in the entire year. How can anyone survive with that?
The PDS was also supposed to be a part of the governments safety net, but like the NREGA it is riddled with corruption. Ashok Dhawale said the majority of Adivasis would come in the BPL category but because of faulty enumeration 40 per cent of the tribal people are not covered by it.
The criteria for determining BPL status are puzzling and often exclude those who deserve it. If you have a pucca house, a two-wheeler, a fan you are ineligible. The pucca house could have been in your family for generations and is not necessarily a reflection of your present situation. There was a government scheme once in which girls were given cycles to ensure they went to schools. Because the girls had a cycle they were not counted as BPL, said Mariam Dhawale.
Corruption in the system meant that a lot of people who should have got a white ration card used political connections to get a yellow card, which fetches 35 kg of grain at subsidised prices every month. The whole chain of corruption from the supply officer to the ration shop owner ensured that PDS grain and kerosene went to the black market, said Mariam Dhawale.
Two other schemes the ICDS and the midday meal plan have also failed to prevent malnutrition in the tribal areas. This is partly because of the migration of Adivasis, but the report on the Nutritional Crisis in Maharashtra says that the State government spent as little as 0.8 per cent of its GDP on these schemes. Both the schemes have the potential to prevent Grades 1 and 2 malnutrition from escalating to Grades 3 and 4, but have failed to achieve this.