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State of misery

Print edition : Nov 03, 2006 T+T-
MALNUTRITION IS WIDESPREAD among children in Sheopur district. Here, in Karrai village.-A.M. FARUQUI

MALNUTRITION IS WIDESPREAD among children in Sheopur district. Here, in Karrai village.-A.M. FARUQUI

The Sahariya tribal population in Sheopur district continues to suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

LIFE for the Sahariya tribal people in Madhya Pradesh is an unending struggle against hunger, malnutrition, disease and, above all, neglect. In August 2006, Frontline reported hunger-related deaths in Sheopur district, which has a high concentration of Sahariyas. Earlier too, in May 2005, Frontline had reported hunger-related deaths in the district. In another visit in October 2006, Frontline found that not much had changed except in Patalgarh, the village that was in the news so often in the past year, and for all the wrong reasons. In other villages, children continue to slide into the dark folds of hunger, and disappear.

In Ranipura village, about 60 kilometres from the district headquarters, eight children died this year, six of them in August. Right to Food activists had prepared a list of severely malnourished children whose lives were in danger and who needed immediate medical attention. By the time Frontline visited the village in the first week of October, two of the children, both one year old, were dead: Raju, son of Ramdin Sahariya, and Aphim, son of Jasbir Sahariya.

Local residents were not sure what went wrong, but they said that the children became weak and looked like they were "drying up from the inside". Imarti, the helper at the anganwadi centre in Ranipura, said: "We did what we could for Raju. I gave him biscuits to eat, but couldn't save his life. What can I do? The jeep [the mobile medical unit] came only twice in the last couple of months. The medicines were not working anyway. If there is no jeep, how am I to take the children to the hospital? Where is the money?"

An elderly person of the village, Ramratan Sahariya, put the matter in perspective: "The world dances to the tune of money. That is the trouble." The real trouble is that the Sahariya tribal population in Sheopur district has very little money and therefore limited access to nutrition and health care. The Sahariyas are one of the three most backward tribes in Madhya Pradesh; they are entitled to BPL (below poverty line) ration cards (which many of them do not have), basic health services and at least 100 days of employment a year. Their children are entitled to mid-day meals in schools. Despite these entitlements, deprivation persists.

There is a mobile `medical van' that goes around the district; but it usually visits only 20-25 villages that have been identified as `hotspots' of sickness.

Jeevan Devi, who is at least 60 years old, of Gothra village in Karhal block, is suffering from swelling of the stomach, which probably needs surgery. She said she had gone to the district hospital but "the hospital asks for money. They say it will cost at least Rs.4,000-5,000. I do not have that much. Even the nurse asks for money." BPL families are supposed to be given health cards, which entitle them to free treatment up to a certain amount. But residents of this village have never even heard of this.

In Kapura hamlet, at least 13 children have died over the past year. None of their names is to be found in the anganwadi register. The anganwadi worker, Bilasi Devi, cannot write; her husband helps her to maintain the register. She told Frontline: "My superviser came and took down the names of the dead children, but she did not give me a copy." There were other irregularities in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) records. For instance, there were no names of children under one year. In short, there were no records of births or deaths.

Recently, a Supreme Court-appointed Joint Commission of Inquiry visited Sheopur district. The team included activists, doctors and government representatives. P.S. Vijay Shankar, the representative sent by the Supreme Court adviser Dr. Mihir Shah, told Frontline that the commission's report was not yet ready, but that going by first impressions nothing seemed to be working in the district. "Because there was a huge hue and cry, they are doing something for Patalgarh. The Collector often visits the village and activists keep a check too. But elsewhere, curative health in tribal hamlets is almost absent. You cannot even find private hospitals. There are some preventive services, like vaccination. However, in an emergency, the whole structure collapses."

The team was witness to some interesting exchanges. In Ranipura, the primary schoolteacher showed up, asking how he was expected to manage alone a school with 108 children. The villagers responded by shouting at him, saying that since he did not "manage" anything at all, he should not talk. The school was open only about once a week, on an average, and that was the only time their children got their mid-day meals. In another instance, the villagers' job cards were found to be in the custody of the panchayat secretary. After some interrogation by the team, the sarpanch admitted that he and the secretary had split between them the funds meant for wages for work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

"Patalgarh was, in fact, the best we could hope to find," Vijay Shankar said. "At least, temporary BPL cards had been issued as an emergency measure after the media reports last year. The villagers were still using them. NREGA schemes were working. Job cards were distributed. A link road is being made. The PDS [public distribution system] supplies are now being sent on a tractor, instead of waiting for the villagers to come to the ration shop." The only problem with this arrangement is that the date of distribution is not a fixed one, and the villagers are never sure when exactly the ration-bearing tractor will show up. If they miss a month's quota of 35 kg of rations, they miss it for good; there is no `carry-over' quota when the rations arrive the following month. Even otherwise, they rarely get more than 30 kg.

Vijay Shankar pointed out that in 2004 the apex court ruled that if people could not afford to buy even subsidised grain at one go, they should be able to buy their rations in parts. "This is not happening. If they cannot afford to take it all at once, they can say bye-bye to their rations."

An observer present during the court-appointed team's visit said that things have started to change. "There is some social support now, which was missing five years ago. People are getting work, almost at their doorstep. All of it adds up. That a tractor comes with ration supplies is also a good sign. That way, collecting rations becomes a collective event, and it is harder to turn away people. It is harder to push them around now. Patalgarh is moving in the right direction."

Maybe. But Patalgarh is only one of the many tribal villages of Madhya Pradesh that continue to suffer. Jaddapura village, for instance, even more remote than Patalgarh, has recorded at least 10 deaths this year; five of the dead were children. But it gets no attention because, unlike in Patalgarh, no doctor has certified that these deaths were caused by hunger.

The administration, of course, denies that there were any starvation deaths in the region. The children who died never got any medical examination, so it is impossible now to prove what killed them. However, Collector M.S. Bhilala admitted that there is widespread malnutrition in the district. "We cannot deny it. It is a perennial problem among the Sahariyas, especially because they are not educated and are very superstitious. But we are also facing a severe shortage of staff. There is approximately a 40 per cent shortage of medical staff, anganwadi workers, teachers and so on. We have written to the State administration and asked for more support. There is one malnutrition rehabilitation centre in Sheopur and we are trying to set up centres in Vijaypur and Karhal."

Such centres are needed urgently. In Sheopur, 57.68 per cent of the children are malnourished, 2.59 per cent of them severely so. Madhya Pradesh has a bad overall record, with 49.2 per cent of the children being malnourished. Compounded by the lack of health services, this translates into a higher death toll. As Vijay Shankar put it - "Hunger is part of the backwardness package, and the Sahariyas are particularly vulnerable. Our aim, during this trip, was not to establish that starvation deaths happen. Those are like the flashpoint at the tip of the volcano. We have to listen to the rumblings beneath the earth."