Systemic Starvation In Melghat

By Shirish Khare

Endemic malnutrition of children causes thousands of deaths in
Melghat a remote area in Maharashtra, even though government
authorities prefer to call it as natural deaths. However, deaths
that happen every year, through starvation, and have been
happening since records were maintained starting in 1993.

Vidarbha, the suicide zone of farmers in Maharashtra has been in the
news because of it is also referred by the national and international
media as ‘centre of farmer suicide’ in India. However, what is not
known is that the hills of Melghat in the Satpura ranges have seen
disastrously high numbers of deaths among infants and young children.
Every year thousands of children among the tribal communities of the
Korku tribes are dying.

The first case of death among children owing to malnutrition among
these communities came to light in 1993, when the late President of
India, Mrs Pratibha Patil became the MP from this constituency. Since
then 12,000 children (at least) have died owing to malnutrition. Since
then, despite the government having claimed to have spent crores of
rupees in this area, death by malnutrition among children continues
unabated. In 1996-97, as many as 1050 children died from malnutrition
– according to government data.

Even this year, in a survey conducted before the onset of Monsoons,
the data suggests worrisome and even shameful trends. They suggest an
almost doubling of deaths among chldren.

Government data for the last five years for death by malnutrition
among children between ages 0-6 years old are as follows: 504 deaths
in 2005-06, 490 in 2006-07, 447 in 2007-08, 467 in 2008-09. By
mid-year of 2009-10, the community has already seen 510 deaths among
children by malnutrition. In addition, 39 children are suffering from
grade 4 malnutrition, and 442 from grade 3 – both numbers
significantly higher than past years.

Just like past years, as the deaths soar, the administration will
attempt to react with some programs. However, with no proactive
programs, the close look at the data points to the absence of thought
and ineffectiveness of these programs.

During the monsoons, people cannot leave their homes for work. They
often find it difficult to arrange for food. Most deaths happen during
this period. It is notable that government programs begin right after
this period.

In 1993, right after the rains, then chief minister of Maharasthra,
Sharad Pawar visited this area. There was many promises made and much
planning – but the community largely stayed untouched by the goodness
of intentions.

During such tours by political bigwigs, the focus stays on those
regions that are most accessible by roads. Hospitals and
administrative offices along the main highways get spruced up. Visible
implementation of programs is ensured in these areas. Communities that
are further inland are left un touched and government offices in these
areas continue their complacent way of life. While deaths in these
areas are explained, the limitations of planning or of the programs
are hardly visible.

Melghat is among such extremely remote and poor communities in
Amravati district. 51.28 per cent of families are below the poverty
line. Unemployment is extremely high and healthcare infrastructure is
minimal at best. As a result, children are often born in conditions of
Grade 1 malnutrition which quickly transitions to Grade 2, Grade 3 and
then Grade 4. In fact, despite high number of deaths for over 15
years, there is almost no significant healthcare infrastructure in
this region.

There are 56 primary health clinics that need to meet the health needs
of 30,000 people each. In addition, there are 320 sub clinics
responsible for 6000 people each. In 1981, for a population of 100000
people, a 63 bed hospital was built. 10 years later, in 1991, the
hospital had 62 beds and by 2001, the hospital only had 56 beds. In
addition, the behavior of health staff is pathetic.

The closest emergency health care center lies 15 km away in Khatru.
Usually, such a center should have one child specialist and over 112
different kinds of medicines. There is not such infrastructure here.
Any serious case is further forwarded to Dharani. Patients have to
travel – during emergency situations – 110 km through bad roads to get

Even here, there is little to be offered. While equipment is present,
they often do not work. They are broken. Or, there is often no
electricity. Even when generators exist, there is no diesel. As a
result, people often have to go all the way to the hospital in
Amravati, the district HQ.

Khutida – a small hamlet with 45 families – is an example. The closest
sub-clinic is 8 km away. The clinic should be staffed regularly during
the day and have 27 kinds of medicines for common ailments. However,
local families say that the staff is never around. Even the midwife
does not show up. As a result, those who can afford it, visit private
clinics and those who do not, stay at home hoping for the best.
During the rains, though, when the river Khandu floods to surround the
village on three sides, the only hope is a clinic in Mohra village in
MP, 19 km away.

Another typical example is Karanjkheda Village with 113 homes. The
local pre-school ‘anganwadi’ has 98 children. The government run
‘anganwadi’, per government guidelines, requires Rs 2.40 to spend on
food for every child every day. As it is across the state, this
mid-day meal program is run through contracts. However, in this case,
the staff members of the anganwadi have taken the contract themselves;
thus distribution of mid-day meals is pathetic. The staff members, in
their bid to increase their profits, provide very small quantities of
non-nutritious meals, consisting mostly of dilute rice porridge. Half
the children do not get meals. The state of mid-day meals in 337
preschool anganwadis and 213 primary schools is similar – existing
primarily on paper.

Another example is that of the village of Ektai. Among 175 families,
only 40 have ration cards for public distribution of food. Villages
point out that the ration store keeper gives out only 25 kg of
subsidized grain, as opposed to 35 kg as per government guidelines.
The rest is hoarded and sold illegally. This caused riots in the
village some time ago, leading to investigation. Over 50 people were
found guilty of being part of a scam and the government locked the
store. Thus, there is no public distribution of grain anymore. Thus,
people have to walk 6km to get grain from a public distribution
center. Thus, the government rewarded those villagers who opposed
corruption by making life harder for them.

In the past year, 75,909 job cards were distributed here in Melghat as
per the Employment Guarantee Scheme. However, jobs were provided only
to 14,502 people. Public documents available at the Panchayat or block
office do not provide any details of how money was spent on EGS or on
other schemes such as child welfare programs or adivasi welfare
programs. The absence of details is telling.

Melghat is home to about 3 lakh people, 80 per cent of which belong to
Korku tribe. The community uses 27 per cent of land for agriculture.
Agriculture depends completely on monsoons. The rest of the land – 73
per cent - is forest land. Thus, forests have been a major source of
livelihood. However, since 1974, this was marked as the Melghat Tiger
Reserve Area and the Korku adivasis were pushed out of the forest.
After 1980, they were not allowed to collect firewood and other forest
products such as leaves, and honey from the forest. They were
prohibited from fishing in the forests or collecting roots. This has
been a major cause for shortage in food in this area, for a community
whose lives were tied to the forest. Thus, while Mumbai was
celebrating the 50th anniversary of the statehood of Maharashtra,
Melghat was suffering from hunger and starvation.

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