A Handful of Pebbles


In the land that once sheltered Lord Ram, Mawasi tribals tell Shriya Mohan that they struggle to feed their children every day

IN PATNI, a remote village in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh, sevenmonth- old Sandeep is playing in the mud. He finds a pumpkin seed in the dust and promptly puts it into his mouth. A tiny piece of cow dung, a pebble, a fallen leaf and finally the sole of a rubber slipper follow the pumpkin seed. For Sandeep and the children in the 300- odd families in the village, this is their daily breakfast spread.

Photos: Shriya Mohan

As legend goes, Chitrakoot jungles or present day Satna is divine land that once played host to Lord Ram for 14 years. The winding mountainous terrain that the Mawasis call home today bears no resemblance however to the lush jungles that Ram chose as shelter. The Mawasis are forest dwellers from central India, who were once hired as gatekeepers, watchmen and orderlies of native rulers — jobs that complemented their robustness and physical strength. Today, poverty means that there is no sign of the famed physical strength. Their primary concern is how to keep their children alive with food that is sparingly available.

Sandeep’s village, Patni, is one of the larger ones in the district. By eight in the morning, the men, women and older children are in the fields — babies are left in the care of their grandparents. Since mothers spend all day working in the fields, children, even those as young as Sandeep are fed diluted goat milk, twice a day. Weaned away from breast milk, the children are severely malnourished. As Sandeep drags himself on the floor, signs of malnutrition are very visible — wrinkled skin hangs loosely around his limbs. Anand Shriwas, an activist with Adivasi Adhikar Manch (AAM), an NGO that partners in the government’s Right to Food Campaign, talks of how most mothers leave for work soon after childbirth. “When a child is left in the care of a grandparent or an older sibling, it is automatically fed much lesser. Malnutrition starts right there, he says. If Sandeep isn’t given proper care, he will become the thirteenth child from Patni to die of malnutrition in the last 20 months.

Good rains mean that Mawasis have food to last seven months

Mostly live in:
Population: 11,012 (1981census)
Percentage malnourished: 45%
Number of NRCs: 4

Elsewhere, Chauti Bai is at the grinding stone making a side dish to go with the coarse rotis she has just prepared. It is a mixture of salt, coriander and green chilli, all in equal proportions, to make a semi-dry powder. Ask her about dal or vegetables and her response is telling, “Last time I cooked dal was for a celebration last monsoon.” Chauti Bai has six children — the youngest is 8 months old while the oldest is 15 years. The frugal meal she is preparing will feed everyone in the family — including two severely malnourished children. Her youngest, Omvati weighs 5.5 kg, when a girl her age should normally weigh 6.5 kg as per WHO health standards. Three-year-old Raj Bahadur at 7.9 kg is no better — he should ideally weigh 11.5 kg.

The story of Chauti Bai and her family is typical of families in the region. Along with other relatives, they farm with three acres of dry land. Scattered rainfall and absence of alternate irrigation facilities mean that the small holding does not yield beyond six quintals of rice and wheat to feed 16 stomachs of both families. A good monsoon then means food supply for 100 days for Chauti Bai’s family. Add to that a 35 kg supply of grains from the ration shop — food for 11 days every month. In essence, the calculations mean that on an average, there isn’t a single grain to eat for nearly five months. When the monsoons are bad, there is no food to eat for half the year. Last monsoon, Chauti Bai’s husband was assigned 10 days of road work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). Payments were doled at Rs 60 a day instead of the guaranteed Rs 91. Now, Chauti Bai takes a loan each month just to be able to afford their monthly ration quota.

A STATE HEALTH department report states that 4,954 children below six years of age have died in Satna in the last three years. Activists believe that a majority of the children who die are tribal children whose lives are claimed by malnutrition. The last time the Mawasis were counted was in the 1981 census. They numbered 11,012 —0.1 percent of the tribal population in Madhya Pradesh. Over the years, their numbers are feared to have decreased; malnutrition proving to be a significant threat faced by the Mawasis.

4,954 children below six years have died in the last three years

Absent mothers Mawasi kids are left in the care of the elderly as their parents go to work in the fields
Absent mothers Mawasi kids are left in the care of the elderly as their parents go to work in the fields

In a neighbouring village of Madlehai, an old police station doubles up as an anganwadi centre. The building has half a ceiling, two walls and one broken parapet and resembles a haunted ruin in the middle of the village. The children from 100- odd families are supposed to come there for a meal every day, but only 10 turn up for the tasteless khichdi (rice and dal mix). The anganwadi is meant to be a village day care centre where pregnant mothers and children are fed nutrition supplements, given vaccinations and where the children are given pre-school education. The centre performs none of these.

Problems at the anganwadi centre are not restricted to the building structure, but extend to the poor training of the anganwadi workers. Technically, they have to have their pulse on malnutrition, but ground realities are different. In Kanpurgaon, another Mawasi village in the region, Pappi Bai, the anganwadi sahayak or helper weighs the children every month. Pappi herself has four children, two of whom are blind and severely malnourished. Her youngest, one-yearold Rinki is 4.5 kg against a normal weight of 7 kg. The skin on Rinki’s face is peeling and her arms and legs are painfully thin. She can’t even crawl. Ask Pappi what malnutrition means and she stares blankly. She has never heard of the word. Ask her why she weighs the children every month and she says she has been asked to do so.

As night falls, men gather. Songs and a smoke of marijuana is the only relief on hand for all of them. The laughter accompanies the upbeat music and claims the entire audience.

(Shriya Mohan is a media fellow of the National Foundation for India)

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