Not a Lion in Sight

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Losing homes to Asiatic lions that never arrived is enough to drive Saharia tribes towards hunger and malnutrition, finds Shriya Mohan

Photo : Shriya Mohan

THE BROTHERS are named Sunny Deol and Bobby Deol. But their similarity to the Bollywood Deol family ends there. Two-year-old ‘Bobbeedyol’, as he is called, has straggly, light brown hair and loose skin forms wrinkles on his stickthin limbs. He squats listlessly on a cement parapet, watching older boys play. His elder brother, five-year-old ‘Sunneed yol’, is malnourished too, and sick with pneumonia — for the nth time in his life. Bobby and Sunny live in Naya Palpur, a resettled village in Sheopur district about 450 km from Bhopal. Their entire village was displaced from their original home in Kuno sanctuary.

The story has an odd twist. Gujarat’s Gir sanctuary is the world’s last refuge for 400-odd endangered Asiatic lions. For decades, however, Gujarat has stubbornly refused to transfer lions from Gir to the Kuno sanctuary in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. In 1995, Saharias from 24 villages were relocated to make way for the lions that never arrived. Bobby Deol and Sunny Deol’s family cultivate mustard on five acres of dry land; the annual 20-quintal yield translates into Rs 10,000. With the children being sick with pneumonia or diarrhoea every other month, and forced dependency on private doctors, the family struggles to get by. The children are trapped in a vicious cycle. A weak immune system that makes them prone to infection and diseases that affect their ability to eat and digest food leaving them more malnourished than before.

Traditional hunter gatherers from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Saharias are classified as a “primitive” tribal community in India. In 2008, the Madhya Pradesh Government set aside Rs 6.5 crore in a five-year plan for the development of Saharias. The funds were marked for education, health, nutrition, drinking water, agriculture, housing and employment. But Sheopur and Shivpuri, districts dominated by Saharias, still have a malnutrition record of 51 percent.

Shivpuri, Sheopur
Mostly live in:
Shivpuri, Sheopur
Population: 3,23,285
Percentage malnourished: 51%
Number of NRCs: 12

In Shivpuri district, Saharias are being displaced by two upcoming projects — a 1,60,000 hectare Madikheda dam and the Madhav National Park where homes of Saharia families will make way for tall grass for wild deer. The families have been given stony dry land and Rs 50,000 for an acre of land, as compensation for relocation.

Despite all odds, Shivpuri has got one thing right; the district has nine Nutritional Rehabilitation Centres  (NRCs) — government centres where malnourished children are taken care of — one in every block. For any family in the district, the nearest NRC is less than an hour away. The NRCs here also don’t follow the 14-day admittance period like others across the state. Children stay till they achieve a basic level of normalcy in weight and health.

And yet, controlling malnutrition in these parts isn’t easy. Constant displacement has meant that the Saharias are afforded no opportunity to think beyond the immediate, an immediate that unfortunately does not even include their children’s lives.

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

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