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Children Held Back By Hunger: How COVID-19 Intensified UP's Malnutrition Crisis

"We had only one meal a day. My stomach ached, so I kept rubbing my belly and slept off," says 8-year-old Sahil.

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Video editor: Puneet Bhatia

"We weren’t getting food. We had only one meal a day. My stomach ached, so I kept rubbing my belly and slept off. I will grow up and become a doctor, and give people medicines. And when I start earning, my mother will never be hungry again."
Sahil, 8 years old
"We had only one meal a day. My stomach ached, so I kept rubbing my belly and slept off," says 8-year-old Sahil.

Eight-year-old Sahil has had to spend many a night on an empty stomach.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Sahil is a young, malnourished kid from the village of Chak Jamaluddinpur in east UP's Azamgarh. Ever since the first outbreak of COVID-19 in India in March 2020, Sahil and his 5-year-old sister Sandhya have had to sleep hungry on many, many nights - having eaten just one meal in the entire day.

At 17 kg and 109 cm, the effects of malnourishment are showing starkly on 8-year-old Sahil's health.

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In the village of Bhurkuraha in Jaunpur, 4-year-old Sejal Kashyap has suffered a similar fate. She now fails on the key indicators of nourishment - and is both underweight and stunted for her age.

"We had only one meal a day. My stomach ached, so I kept rubbing my belly and slept off," says 8-year-old Sahil.

Sejal (right) and her mother Savita Kashyap

(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Sejal's mother Savita says, "We too were badly hit by the pandemic. There was no work, and our troubles grew manifold. We can’t feed our kids properly. How will we buy vegetables when we don’t earn that much?"

"Sejal weighs 12 kg and is 91 cm tall. For her age (4 years and 9 months), she is both underweight and severely stunted", says Maneka Prajapati, the local anganwadi worker in Bhurkuraha.

In this ground report from east UP, we find out how severely the pandemic has intensified UP's malnutrition crisis, and the reasons behind it.

Children Go Hungry, But UP Govt's POSHAN Funds Remain Unutilised

"We had only one meal a day. My stomach ached, so I kept rubbing my belly and slept off," says 8-year-old Sahil.

The children of Bhurkuraha

(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

As per central government data from November 2020, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of children with Severe Acute Malnourishment (SAM).

Out of 9.28 lakh kids in India with SAM, UP alone accounts for 3.98 lakh. That’s 43% of the national figure.

From 2017-18 to 2020-21, the Centre released Rs 570 crore to UP under the Prime Minister's Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition or POSHAN Abhiyaan. But till March 2021, the government of Uttar Pradesh had only utilised 34% of the funds received. 66% of the funds were left unutilised by the UP government.
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'Insufficient Rations Forced Us to Have One Meal a Day'

"We had only one meal a day. My stomach ached, so I kept rubbing my belly and slept off," says 8-year-old Sahil.

"When Sahil's school was shut due to the pandemic, even the mid-day meal wasn’t available," laments Suryakanti.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

We meet 8-year-old Sahil and his mother Suryakanti in a Musahar hamlet in the village of Bhurkuraha, in east UP's Jaunpur. They are staying at Suryakanti's paternal abode for a few days.

Suryakanti explains why her family has had to sleep on an empty stomach on far too often an occasion since the onset of the pandemic, "First, there was no work during the lockdown. Then, the rations we received were not enough to feed the family for the entire month. Our rations for the month got over in a week. We had to buy our supplies after that."

But given the economic distress due to the pandemic, that hasn’t always been easy. As a result, Suryakanti and her kids were forced to resort to having only one meal a day.

"When we don’t have enough food, what else can we do? On a lot of days, we could only eat one meal a day. The kids cry, they rub their bellies with hunger, and have to sleep off famished."

With schools shut due to COVID-19, her son Sahil also missed the important nutrition he would otherwise get from his school midday meal. "When his school was shut due to the pandemic, even the mid-day meal wasn’t available," laments Suryakanti.

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The Dreams of a Hungry Child

"We had only one meal a day. My stomach ached, so I kept rubbing my belly and slept off," says 8-year-old Sahil.

Sahil dreams of the day when he will start working and earn enough for his family to not go hungry again.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Sahil dreams of a day his family won't have to rub their bellies and go to sleep hungry.

He tells us, "When I grow up, I want to become a doctor. I will give people medicines and earn a living. And when I start earning, my mother will never have to go hungry again."

He adds, "I will earn enough to manage our expenses, and will take care of my family. If anyone in my family asks for money, I will give them. We will be able to sustain ourselves on our own."

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The Agony of a Mother Unable to Feed Her Child

Sejal's mother Savita Kashyap reflects on the agony of seeing her children go hungry, and on having to turn her kids away when they come to her with their empty stomachs aching.

"When they are very hungry, the kids come to me. Sometimes, I manage to give them something to eat - but sometimes, I can’t. As a mother, it really hurts a lot to see my children hungry. I console them by saying that their father will come with food. But often, they have to go to sleep without a second meal."

She asks despondently, "People say that she is unable to feed her kids - but is there anything I can do?"

As we come to the end of a fiercely contested election season in Uttar Pradesh, neither the state's malnutrition crisis nor the state government's lack of utilisation of POSHAN funds have featured prominently in the electoral and political discourse. But it is regardless an issue that will impact the lives of lakhs of children like Sahil and Sejal for years and years to come.

As UNICEF notes, "A lack of food and nutrients directly affects the growth of children, causing irreversible damage to their bodies and brains. They live with the effects of malnutrition for the rest of their lives because their bodies and brains have not developed as they could."

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