Nov 27, 2008

India - Ignoring the republic of hunger - MP

The BBC's Soutik Biswas travels to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, one of six states holding key elections, and asks why malnutrition has not been a major issue with politicians.

When did baby Richa finally fall silent?

Social workers direct the question about the three-year-old girl to an extended family living in a mud-and-thatch hut in the bleak landscape of Jamoda in Madhya Pradesh. It is the country's second biggest state in size and also one of its poorest.

The workers belong to a group that is raising the issue of chronic hunger and malnutrition.

"She died recently. She had measles. The quack gave her an injection, but she did not survive," says Kolai Bai, grandmother of the dead girl, matter-of-factly. She is now left with six grandchildren.

In these parts, more and more children like Richa are "falling silent" because of diseases associated with malnutrition and hunger.

But their deaths remain cold statistics; they largely escape the attention of political parties battling to win the upcoming state elections.

Groups like the Right to Food Campaign insist that malnutrition is chronic in vast swathes of Madhya Pradesh.

Some 325 children, they say, have died of diarrhoea, measles and acute respiratory distress - diseases typically associated with severe malnutrition - in just four districts between May and October this year.

More worryingly, they say, the government is in complete denial.

Authorities blame illegal doctors for making matters worse and say the children are dying of diseases common elsewhere in India.

However, the first India State Hunger Index (Ishi) this year found that Madhya Pradesh had the most severe level of hunger in India, comparable to Chad and Ethiopia.

Even federal health surveys show that 60% of children under the age of six in the state are malnourished - more than 12% of these severely so.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the state, does not mention the issue in its manifesto.

The opposition Congress party takes note of it and promises to make Madhya Pradesh a "malnourishment-free" state if voted into power.

Life struggle

Jamoda is one of the 20 villages in Khandwa district where 62 children have died from diseases associated with severe malnutrition in two months alone - September and October - according to investigations by an NGO engaged with the Right to Food Campaign.

Many other children are struggling to stay healthy and alive.

Eighteen-month-old Sanju Silale is one of them. The boy has bone for arms and legs and has already lost an eye to measles. He lets out a dull, incessant cry from his mother's lap.

The mother, Tulsa, says she lost her earlier child, a boy, when he was two years old. The father, Kamal, is away working on a farm in a neighbouring district because work is scarce in Jamoda.

"I could not breast feed my boy and he died. These days I cannot breast feed Sanju much because I have very little milk," Tulsa says.

In the dark recesses of another village hut, one-year-old girl Drupta weighs merely 2.5kg and coughs incessantly in her mother's arms.

"There's not enough food at home to feed an infant. Parents go out looking for work, leaving the children at home who end up sharing a roti (Indian flatbread) between them," says a family member.

Tribal decline

Why is there so much hunger and malnutrition in Madhya Pradesh's tribal countryside?

It is partly to do with the decline of the tribal way of life in India - the relationship between the animist tribespeople and forests is under threat.

Forests are being denuded and laws prohibit tribespeople from hunting and freely growing their crops in whatever is left.

This, say social activists like Prakash Michael, has meant the dietary habits of tribespeople have changed from indigenous coarse cereals and game meat to the more "mainstream" mix of rice, bread and vegetables, which they mostly end up buying from the markets.

With farm incomes stagnating because of soaring prices for fertiliser and seed -combined with lower prices for crops - there is less money to buy food. Most families here earn less than 1,000 rupees ($22) a month.

To make matters worse, the state-run "ration shops" selling cheap rice and wheat as part of India's notoriously fickle and porous "public distribution system" have cut supplies from 35kg of rice and wheat per family per month two years ago to 20kg.

That's not all. The shops - essential to feed the poor - open three days a month these days instead of eight days a month earlier. (Last month, authorities, reacting to the deaths of children, ordered the local shops to open every day).

So if you miss going to the shop on the day it opens, you could end up going without food for a week or more.

"We should give a serious thought to why malnutrition is rife only among the tribal children in the state," says Prakash Michael.

Jamoda offers a few grim clues. They point to the marginalisation of tribespeople in a state where they comprise nearly 20% of the 60 million population.

Set in a largely parched and stony countryside, it is home to some 450 families of indigenous Korku tribespeople - they comprise 80% of the 130,000 people living in the district's 147 villages.

The nearest government health clinic is 12km (8 miles) away, the nearest hospital 16km away. Most forests in the neighbourhood have been cut down.

The derelict state child-care centre, run by community workers, points to India's neglect of its children: the kitchen has no utensils or stove, doors and windows are missing, the roof is creaky and leaking and the unfinished floor is covered with stones and crude tiles.

"We give out packed food to 30-40 children here three times a day. We have no utensils to cook. We have to be careful about children who sit on the floor because there is no flooring and poisonous insects come out," says the centre's worker, Sushila Patil.

Many tribal children end up in local hospitals with hunger-related diseases.

"There," a local tribesperson says, "many doctors refuse to treat us because they find us dirty and smelly."

So who will the people of Jamoda vote for in the upcoming elections - the lotus (the symbol of the BJP) or the hand (Congress)?

A BJP tribal candidate has been winning elections in the area for the past few years without any competition, and a few saffron party flags fly weakly atop some of the huts.

Village elder Budhia Pati says they will vote for the party their neighbours do. Somebody has even told her that if she votes for Congress she would not be able to sell firewood any longer.

"Anyway, I will vote for somebody. Does it really matter? Voting for a party doesn't really bring any gain, does it?," she asks wryly.

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