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Madhya Pradesh: ‘Malnutrition ka dil dekho’

Neha Dixit |

As the Madhya Pradesh government sanctions a Rs. 150 crore budget for the state tribal museum, the tribals in the state suffer malnutrition and are forced to migrate.

As Raghubir Yadav, the actor cum singer, beckons the world to see ‘hindustan ka dil’ in the backdrop of fascinating shadow puppetry that paints the different landscapes in the Madhya Pradesh tourism advertisement, 80,000 people migrate from some of its most famous tourist destinations, every day. The state’s aggressive promotion of tourism and the recent allocation of Rs. 150 crore for an under construction tribal museum does not help divert attention from the apathy towards the tribal population in the state.

Khajuraho, a UNESCO world heritage site and the most popular tourist attraction in the state is situated in the Chhatarpur district. The district is home to several tribes including Bedia. The district is facing severe distress migration of tribals. A drought prone area, it has been witnessing migration for the last three years due to a shrinking agriculture scenario. Bedia community, traditionally a nomadic tribe who eventually turned into settled agriculturists, is one of the worst hit. The tribe once known as that of snake charmers was also infamous for traditionally forcing its girls into sex work.

 Photo credit: Seema Prakash

Sunita Devi, 30, migrated from Chhatarpur to Delhi a year ago. She worked as a sex worker and cyclical pregnancy for lack of contraceptives and negligence led to severe anemia. It was further aggravated when she started working as a daily wage labourer in Delhi. “I was better off in Madhya Pradesh. The wages are not enough to take care of my three children. My husband is an alcoholic. He is depressed and cannot work at one place.” Mela Ram, her husband had borrowed Rs. 50,000 at 60 percent annual interest. Colossal debts following crop failure and unemployment due to a failed National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has led to his migration along with his family. When last spoken, Sunita’s hemoglobin level was six. The normal hemoglobin level for a woman is 12. She is suffering from acute anemia and malnourishment. She lives in a small settlement in south Delhi called Rangpur Pahari.

As one spoke to Sunita, one was alarmed that Galia, a tribal from Bhil tribe lives four jhuggis away. He migrated to Delhi from Jhabua district in 2009. Bhil tribe is one of the starred seven tribes Madhya Pradesh government is promoting in its tribal museum. They were traditionally warriors in the armies of Maharana Pratap and others but they like the Bedias, turned to farming as a full time occupation. Seven hundred kms from Chhatarpur, Galia planted maize in his fields in 2008. At the time of harvest in 2009, he only managed to generate four nags of maize. “It was just three kgs more than the seeds I had planted,” recalls Galia. His nine year old daughter Shama, died in 2009 due to malnutrition. She was among the 43 children who died due to malnutrition in three tribal villages in the district that year. Galia, his three children and his wife now work at a construction site. They have not managed to get a BPL ration card till now and still face food insecurity. “When the daily battle is to manage two square meals for five members of the family in Rs 200 as daily wage, nutritious food only becomes a dream,” says Galia, contextualizing the problem.

Rangpuri Pahadi has a large migrant population. It is not difficult to find other tribes in the vicinity. Puttan, 35, is from the Korku tribe, which is now at the risk of extinction. Korku is another tribe the Madhya Pradesh tribal Museum plans to showcase to the world. Last year, the Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong-based NGO which monitors human rights issues in Asia came up with a report that claimed that since 2008, 62 children from Korku tribe had died of malnutrition.

The report claimed that malnutrition is causing death and migration of the child of the community, which in turn has led to decline of the tribe’s population. Korku tribe is traditionally a hunting gathering forest dwelling tribe. They are known for their excellent cultivation skills and also work as agricultural labourers. When Khandwa, one of the 250 most backward districts of the country, situated at a distance of 290 km from Jhabua, was hit by drought, work became sparse for the likes of Puttan. He was forced to migrate to Delhi with a group of 10 more families from his village. “My son was only a year old when he died. The doctor told me that my elder son, a year older than the one who died was also at risk,” he says. His other son lost the function of his legs seven months ago. It was due to malnutrition and attacks of several diseases like diarrhea and malaria one after the other. Puttan works as a carpenter apprentice now. Work is irregular and specific focus on nutrition for the child due to lack of resources is still missing.

According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, tribal children in Madhya Pradesh do not have access to the facilities provided by Aanganwadi Centres under the Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS). From the three examples from Rangpuri pahadi above, it is apparent that many families, who lost their children, do not have Antyodaya Card, issued Under the Public Food Distribution System to the poorest among poor.

Like Bhil, Bedia and Korku, several other tribes depend economically on agriculture and natural resources from the forest. Soaring food prices since 2008 and drought for the past few years have been aggravating food insecurity in tribal predominant areas. Traditionally, forest resources easily met nutritional needs of tribals. Recently, in the name of forest conservation, tribals are being evicted from their natural habitation, resulting in gross livelihood insecurity and malnutrition among them.

Distress migration, often the only option left for survival, results in increasing the burden of debt and food uncertainty. For those who stay, lack of nutrition and unhygienic environment cause malnutrition and other sicknesses to their children. In Jhabua district, only 4.5% of the rural population has access to toilet facilities, while only 1.5% can access water from a pipe.

Nevertheless, the government statistical tools to determine who is living Below the Poverty Line (BPL) and are thus eligible to food assistance, do not take into account the specific agricultural structures of tribal areas. Possessing land is an indicator of living Above the Poverty Line (APL) and therefore prevents small landowners, like Galia, from receiving food assistance.

A new system introduced in 1992-93, called the Targeted Public Food Distribution System, is yet to be fully implemented in the country. For instance, 200,000 families in Madhya Pradesh are denied BPL status. The central government has identified only 4.2 million BPL families against the state's claim of 6.5 million. To ensure nutrition and food security, the BPL must be abolished and the ration quota must be made universal.

In 2005, the Special Rapporteur on Right to food, following a mission to India, acknowledged that the marginalization of tribal people hampers their access to state institutions, including public programs ensuring food security, which further aggravates their food insecurity. Approximately 50% of children in the tribal areas are not registered at childcare centers, denying them supplementary food grain. This implies that the government does not have accurate data about the number of tribal children suffering from malnutrition and thus cannot design specific policies targeting them.

In Madhya Pradesh, 67% of the people live below the poverty line and 60% of the children are undernourished while 73.9% of tribal women are anemic. However, the budget for health service accounts for merely 2.4% out of total state budget. One bed is available for every 2,425 persons in hospitals, and more than 1300 out of 5005 doctor posts remain vacant. Although child malnutrition has increased over the last five years, not one Primary Health Centre has been built and 1,659 out of 4,708 medical officer posts remain vacant at the centers.

While the Madhya Pradesh government is paying attention to revenues generated from tourism and the tribal museum, which almost seems like a white elephant, it has failed to encourage the empowerment of its tribal population to help them develop sustainable food production systems. Clearly, it is impossible without combating discrimination and without securing the right to land of indigenous people, notably by guaranteeing against the risk of arbitrary expulsion from land because of industrial projects. Currently, all the token measures by the Madhya Pradesh government focus on short-term hunger-relief assistance only. Till then the marriage of state apathy and tribal malnutrition will keep consummating into migration.

(This story is fifth in the six part series on malnutrition. It has been facilitated under the One World-POSHAN fellowship grant.) Others in the series:

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.




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