Eating Disorder

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Shriya Mohan uncovers shocking tales of tribals battling hunger and starvation in the heartlands of Madhya Pradesh

Weighed down Unlike normal one-year-olds who can walk, malnutrition means that Rinki, at 4.5 kg, can barely crawl
Photo :  Shriya Mohan

TODAY MAUSAM will not eat. There is just enough wheat flour left for three rotis but she stretches the dough thin to make four. She grinds a chutney of raw green chillies with salt and spreads it on each roti — one roti each for her two, three, five and six-year-old. They eat slowly and despite the struggle to swallow the spice, waste no morsel. The bread it covers is the only solid food they will get for the next day. They finish in a few minutes — mouths on fire and stomachs numb. Hunger has vanished. The chillies have served their purpose. Water will fill the rest of their stomachs. One more day has passed. Mausam has to wait until her husband returns from town with wages to buy this month’s food grains from the ration store.

Currently, in the power corridors of the Union government, debates rage about the National Food Security Act. As per the provisions of the Act, families living below the government-defined poverty line will be provided 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3 per kg. There are however sharp disagreements on the net pool of people who should qualify for the food subsidies and if the alloted 25 kg of grains will prove to be sufficient for the family.

Consider the case of Madhya Pradesh — the state often billed as starvation central of India, where hundreds of thousands of Mausams scrape through each day not knowing if there will be food tomorrow. For at least a fifth of Madhya Pradesh, comprising 46 Scheduled Tribes, the state is the powerful sun whose light and warmth never touches the darkness that envelopes them.

Of these, four specific tribes, forming nearly 20 percent of the total ST population, are the most impoverished, faring the lowest in all the human development indicators — the Baiga, Korku, Mawasi and Saharia. Most live in inaccessible terrains where government schemes are fractured and ‘development’ still an unknown word. Every year, malnutrition affects their children, taking away their childhood and very often, their lives altogether. Even today, the Baiga and Korku children fill their stomachs only with paige, the simplest and coarsest possible soup.

In 2010, a report published by the Asian Legal Resource Centre, a human rights organisation with a General Consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, stated that 71.4 percent of tribal children in Madhya Pradesh are malnourished. The figures pose pressing questions to the state. How has Madhya Pradesh really dealt with its tribal population in the face of new development and wildlife conservation projects? What is the root cause of malnutrition — is it a lack of proper government schemes, an unsustainable source of income, poor agriculture or abysmal healthcare facilities? Can the state conceive of an inclusive policy where the tribal population contributes to its development, instead of being hand-held to even pass the basic benchmark of survival?

Over the next four weeks, TEHELKA will unravel how malnutrition operates in the most desperate tribal hamlets of rural Madhya Pradesh. The series will cover the Baigas of Dindori, Mandla and Balaghat, once known as the lords of the jungle; the Korkus tribe in Khandwa whose ancestors believe themselves to be descendants of the mythical Ravana; the Mawasis of Satna, a tribe who served as guards for native rulers in Central India and finally the Saharias of Shivpuri, traditional hunters who were inseparable from the wild jungles of Madhya Pradesh. While some are battling hunger as a direct consequence of being displaced from core forestland, others are exchanging food for money by cultivating cash crops. What unites them all is that constant vacuum throbbing inside the stomachs of their young ones, impairing their growth, stunting their minds and snatching away their lives.

Victor Agauayo, nutrition chief, UNICEF India, says, “If severe acute malnutrition is not controlled within the first two years of birth, then the impact on physical and mental growth is irreversible. Right now, 12,60,000 severely malnourished children in Madhya Pradesh are strapped to live time bombs. The state has to make a quick choice: will it reach out to save them or be a silent spectator as their tiny shrivelled up bodies are piled up to merely be counted for yet another report?

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Love In The Times Of Hunger

BY THE time Samli got her first period, she had eloped and had gotten married. That was three years ago. Today at 15, she is the mother of two boys — two-week-old Umal and 17-month-old Sajanu. Samli’s family and the rest of the 80 families in Jami village in Madhya Pradesh’s Balaghat district are Baiga — a tribe famous for their unique culture and liberal values about women, love and marriage.

Barely there 15-year-old Samli with her two malnourished children outside their home
Barely there 15-year-old Samli with her two malnourished children outside their home

Jami village is tucked deep inside the 940 sq km core zone of Kanha National Park, one of India’s largest tiger habitats. It is the 28th village to be displaced from the park’s core zone as part of the nationwide Save the Tiger project. While the idea of children like Umal and Sajanu being raised in the wild with tigers on the prowl might appear dangerous, the Baigas disagree. The jungle is their home and they have offered more protection to the forest and wildlife than any forest department ever has. The survival of the children is however under threat — not by the 100-odd tigers in the park, but because of hunger and severe malnutrition.

At 2.4 kg, 15-day-old Umal is a low birthweight child. A boy that old should weigh at least 3 kg, says the World Health Organization (WHO). His brother Sajanu at 6.7 kg is also severely underweight; the normal weight for a boy his age is 8.6 kg. The consequence is that while boys his age walk normally, Sajanu continues to crawl on all fours. He was fed rotis with raw chillies from the time he was 8-monthsold, since his pregnant mother could no longer breast feed him. “The most common reasons why malnutrition occurs in these communities are child marriages, frequent

pregnancies, anaemic mothers and no exclusive breastfeeding. During the first six months a child is to have only breast milk. Not even water,” says Dr Manohar Agnani, health commissioner for Madhya Pradesh’s National Rural Health Mission. A reasoning that holds no water with the impoverished Baigas.

The Baigas have been victims of relocation since the 1970s. Thirty kilometers from Jami village is Ghursi Behra, a village that was resettled 40 years ago. At the time, the government had handed out 6.25 acres of unirrigated land per family as part of the rehabilitation package. It was a raw deal — most families were allotted uncultivable land. For the Baigas who depended extensively on the forest for their survival — families cultivated 18 varieties of crops including rice, wheat, millets, corn, and pulses — life changed drastically. They now grow only one crop in a year. Sporadic rainfall has affected soil productivity and hence crop yields.

Sajanu ate rotis and raw chillies from the time he was 8 months old

Yet another reason for hunger is the debt traps that families often find themselves in. Rai Sinh, a father of four, typifies migrant families in the region. Every year, for four months, he migrates to Mumbai or Delhi to work at a factory for Rs 100 a day. And yet it is better than the 10 to 12 days of labour that he would get annually under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The money he sends home is used to pay off debts — with a marginal amount used to meet expenses. Two years ago, Rai Sinh took a loan of Rs 3,000 from a local moneylender at an exorbitant Rs 3,600 in annual interest alone. In two years, he has managed to pay back Rs 2,000. It is a debt trap he will probably never come out of. “We have cut down on eating at home just to repay the loan,” he says stoically.

TRIBE: BAIGA
Mostly live in:
Dindori, Mandla, Balaghat
Population: 3,17,549
Percentage malnourished: 51%
Number of NRCs: 7

KILOMETERS AWAY, a mobile dispensary van drives down the bumpy road. Baiga children come running through the clouds of dust trailing it. At first glance, this could be Sub-Saharan Africa — desolate, dry, and empty, and children with bulging bellies, sunken eyes and skinny limbs. A Right to Food campaigner is examining the children, talking to their mothers and handing out medicines. In a few minutes, both the medicines and oral rehydration salt packets are over.

The Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) located 100 km away is teeming with people. Currently a 20-bed centre, children are fed a monitored diet of powdered groundnut, coconut oil, milk and sugar, known as the F100 formula. Questions abound — what would happen to the child after discharge; is there a permanent solution to address the problem of child marriage that leads to malnutrition? Convenor of the Right to Food campaign in Madhya Pradesh, Sachin Jain, says, “It needs prolonged awareness-building for a community to resolve to discontinue child marriage. The government can’t give up on the tribals that easily saying that they tried talking them out of child marriage and it didn’t work. It requires serious continuous effort to change social behavior.”

Eighty kilometers away from Dindori, it is daybreak in Ranjhra village. Last night, 15-year-old Janki eloped to get here to marry her lover. The starry-eyed couple stand in front of a small committee of village elders and declare their love for each other. Janki refuses to go back home, saying she will die here if she has to. The committee is pleased with her boldness. The marriage is approved. The Baiga circle of life continues — one short-lived joy at a time.

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

[email protected]

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