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A hundred-and-sixty kilometres from Gwalior lies the Karahal block, which comes under the Morena Lok Sabha constituency in Madhya Pradesh.
The area is dominated by members of the Sahariya tribe, declared a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group by the Centre. Most of the families in villages comprise migrants that work as labourers in cities and return home during the harvest season.
Far from the din of cities, as one reaches Karahal after taking the road through jungles in MP’s Chambal belt, the usual signs of election campaigns, like posters and flags, are completely missing.
Though the region may not seem to be politically sensitive, this area has been making headlines for the number of children dying of malnutrition. As part of The Quint’s ‘Kya Hua Tera Vaada’ series, we decided to check the status of schemes such as the Mid-day Meal and facilities being provided at Anganwadis under the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) programme.
Malnutrition a Harsh Reality in Sheopur
Our first stop was the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) in Karahal where the Sahariya women from neighbouring villages get their malnourished kids admitted.
This particular Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre was set up by the government in 2005 with the aim to help women and children cope with the shortage of food.
One-year-old Sameeksha Adiwasi had been admitted at this NRC on 19 April 2019. At 7 kg, she had recovered slightly in the last 10 days, according to Sameeksha’s mother, Pooja. Ask her, what is the difference in food at the NRC and home that explains Sameeksha’s fast recovery, this is what Pooja said:
“I get breakfast in the morning as well as evening [meal], along with tea.”Pooja
Two women who spoke to us at the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre were reluctant to admit that there was shortage of food at home. When asked what they were fed at home, both said ‘rotis’ – not enough nutrition for a child.
Can a 20-Bed NRC Handle an Emergency?
In September 2016, it was reported that 116 children had died of malnutrition-related ailments within five months in the Sheopur district.
Two years later, Karahal’s Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre doesn’t seem to be well-equipped to handle a similar emergency.
Currently it has a capacity of 20 beds, out of which 15 were occupied at the time of our visit. Uma Tomar, the in-charge or ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) is confident that another 20 beds, which means a total of 40 beds, right before the onset of diseases should be enough to handle sudden influx of kids between April and September.
“This NRC has 20 beds, as of now we have put out 40 beds here as chances are that more kids might come in during this season.”Uma Tomar, ANM, Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre, Karahal
But for a centre that had admitted around 150 kids in September 2016, even 40 beds doesn’t inspire confidence when it comes to handling a crisis.
Do the Angawadis Have Enough Stock of Food?
Anganwadis or child care centres are another critical element in the battle against malnutrition. In Panar village, 95 children have been enrolled at a single Anganwadi, which has two rooms with a separate kitchen and storage room.
Gajribai, who has been employed as an Anganwadi worker since 2001, admits that around 10-12 children have died due to malnutrition. When we requested Gajribai to show the stock of milk powder available at the Anganwadi, she could produce only three packets from a container.
Pinky’s daughter had been discharged from a hospital recently. Constant drooping of eyelids suggested that the child was in a state of fatigue and had not recovered completely.
Empty shelves in Pinky’s one-room-house explained why her daughter was so weak.
Local activists who have been working among Sahariya tribals blame the government for failing to monitor schemes related to distribution of food.
“Food given by the government in rural areas is sold in the black market so it never reaches the beneficiaries. When the food doesn’t reach the Anganwadi how is the Anganwadi worker supposed to distribute it?”Gayatri Sharma, Activist
The National Nutrition Mission launched in 2018 was aimed at improving the quality of services at the anganwadis. However, on the ground, government’s well-intentioned schemes have failed to improve the health of children.
Marred by illiteracy and unemployment, will the Sahariya tribals be able to raise their voice against political neglect that is pushing their kids towards death?