Rajasthan: When children die of hunger

Acute malnutrition stalks the Sahariyas of Baran, but the district collector cares two hoots

Sadiq Naqvi and Akash Bisht Baran (Rajasthan) 

Half-naked children in tattered clothes with mud all over their bodies gather around a dilapidated hut in Sunda village in Baran district of Rajasthan. Unperturbed by the chill in the air, the children are in a playful mood; but Suman is not amused. Sitting outside her decrepit hut, she tells them to play somewhere else as she tries to put her six-month-old daughter to sleep. The child looks terribly unwell and has been crying inconsolably since morning. Suman is clueless about her agony. However, a villager tells us that the child is suffering from acute malnutrition as the family can’t afford to provide her proper food.

Suman’s husband works as a bonded labourer in the fields of a powerful Gujjar landlord. It means endless hours of work with low wages. All they get is a few kilos of grains and Rs 8,000 to 10,000 for a year of hard labour. Most of this money is anyway taken back as interest from the landless labourers, while their daily wages are a pittance. 

With their abysmally low income, Suman’s family has not been able to provide the kind of nutrition a child needs. Talk about milk, pulses or even vegetables and the villagers break into sad laughter. They say, “Khane ko to hai nahin, doodh kahan se laayenge. Roti mil jati hai wahi bahut hai. (There is nothing to eat, from where can we get milk. We are lucky to get just bread.)” Though Suman’s family owns a cow, with no fodder to eat, the emaciated cow gives hardly any milk. “With the cow’s milk we can afford only two cups of tea, so where do I get milk for my children?” she says

A visibly weak Suman reveals that her children survive only on wheat rotis and chillies and salt. The ration card is under Suman’s father-in-law’s name; they share the subsidised 35 kg of wheat provided by the government with 10 other members of the family. Despite several requests, the family is yet to get a ration card. “We separated from the family after we got married 10 years back. Since then, we have requested several times for a ration card, but we are yet to get one,” she says.

About two months ago, Suman lost her three-year-old daughter, Sapna. Locals believe that Sapna too was suffering from severe malnutrition before she finally succumbed. “We spent whatever money we had on her treatment,” she says.

 The probability of a child dying before attaining the age of five was a shocking 99 per 1000 children in the region. The household survey of 2002-04 reveals that 67 per cent of the children in the district are underweight

Not far from Suman’s hut, Ram Nivas is still recovering from the death of his three-year-old daughter, Divya. She was severely malnourished and the family’s story is not too different from that of Suman. They too don’t have a ration card and share the food with several others. “She was not keeping well. Her hands and feet were very weak and her face had kind of elongated. She also had a bulging stomach and doctors said that she was suffering from malnutrition,” says Ram Nivas.

His extended family owns seven bighas of land; they share the produce. “It is very hard to survive on what the farm provides. We need to work as farm labourers to ensure extra income to feed our children,” he says.

The fear of death stalks this village. Several other families have lost their children in the past to malnutrition. Munna Lal too lost two children to malnutrition and is still struggling to take care of his three children. 

Munna Lal lost his first daughter in 2002 when a wave of malnutrition deaths was reported from Baran district. In 2002-03, several malnutrition deaths were reported from the region and it was revealed that most of the children were surviving on wild grass. Again, in 2011, deaths of three children were also attributed to malnutrition.

According to the 2001 census, the probability of a child dying before attaining the age of five was a shocking 99 per 1000 children in the region. The household survey of 2002-04 revealed that more than
67 per cent of the children in the district were underweight; the phenomenon is acute in Kishanganj and Shahbad tehsils of the district that has a predominantly Sahariya population.

One of the oldest tribes in India, Sahariyas have been forced out of the forests, their traditional habitat. These malnourished tribals were marginalised and devastated by all government developmental schemes. “When I came here 30 years back, there was no malnutrition among the children. They were collecting minor forest produce like honey, chironji (a nut), mahua, gum, amla, herbs, fruits; this helped them maintain their nutritional levels. Now the government has directed that they should have calcium and iron tablets. Can these pills substitute their traditional, high-nutrition food?” asks Motilal of Sankalp, an NGO working with the Sahariyas in Baran district.

Though the government has launched various schemes to help these children, most of these promises don’t translate into concrete action on the ground. Every village has an anganwadi centre and ration from PDS outlets is also being provided. However, locals complain that PDS ration is being sold in the open market and they are being provided substandard food items.

Also, the lack of training and expertise of anganwadi workers has made matters worse. “They give them iron tablets, but never tell them that it has to be taken after one has eaten some food. The intention of the government is right but the approach is wrong,” says Motilal.     

Most families don’t have ration cards. Several villagers complained that, despite their requests to issue them a new ration card (after they have separated from their families), their plea has fallen on deaf ears. This has led to a situation where several families share limited food items derived from one card.

However, district collector Sumati Lal Bohra rebuts these claims. He says that there are numerous government schemes for Sahariyas and they have benefitted immensely. “They do nothing except for complaining. These schemes have made them lazy and they don’t want to do any work. There is no problem of malnutrition and they have plenty to eat,” he says. When told that the reality on the ground sharply differs from his claims, he refuses to entertain any more questions. “I don’t have anything more to say,” he says.

Meanwhile, Suman is worried whether her weak daughter will recuperate from the repeated bouts of fever. “I have not yet recovered from Sapna’s death,” she says. “If something happens to her, I will not be able to die in peace. God will never forgive me for not taking care of them.”

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2013