Scheming solutions for hunger

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TEHELKA’s four-part series on Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasis facing severe malnutrition attracted the attention of the state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. His responses could well be classified as evasive because he only harped on the existing government schemes in this interview with Shriya Mohan. Excerpts:

Photo: Ajay Mishra

Why is Madhya Pradesh ranked so low in the Millennium Development Goals like child and maternal mortality, extreme poverty, hunger and safe drinking water?
Social sector allocation has increased only during the last few years. Before 2005, there wasn’t enough money allocated to it when compared to poverty alleviation schemes. Also, it takes time for the benefits of the allocations to reach people and for real change to manifest itself. I admit that malnutrition exists in the state, but we have introduced several measures such as ‘Bal Shakti Abhiyan’, ‘Bal Sanjeevani Abhiyan’ and for the severely malnourished tribal children like the Saharias, we started the ‘Shaktiman Abhiyan’ through the anganwadis to improve their nutrition.

In the 25 villages TEHELKA visited across seven districts — Khandwa, Satna, Dindori, Mandla, Balaghat, Sheopur and Shivpuri — anganwadi supervisors admit that these areas are far too remote for them to monitor. District coordinators don’t even know the names of these villages. Who is responsible then?
I visit tribal areas. In addition to this, a staff member periodically visits these areas and reports directly to the CM secretariat. There might be certain remote areas that are not doing well. But to say that there is no monitoring and nothing functions is not right. I have only just returned from Dindori and I don’t believe that nothing works in these areas. That is exaggerated. I have admitted that we are trying to resolve the shortcomings. If you give me a list of all the places you visited, I will send officers and have a proper inquiry conducted into this.

A fifth of the state population is Adivasis and they are either being displaced for wildlife conservation projects, upcoming dams or are victims of distress migration. What is your development model for tribals? Do you want to bring them into the mainstream?
I believe that tribals alone form the mainstream of Madhya Pradesh. People like us who speak about mainstreaming them are the ones who have come from outside. We have displaced tribals for dams, coal mines, power projects and the ‘Save the Tiger’ project. We want development but it can’t be at the cost of the tribal alone. We decided in the current legislature session that if we take any land for these projects, we will offer a compensation amount of Rs 5 lakh per acre of land. We will also guarantee displaced families permanent employment. And if a company that has taken their land fails to give them employment, it must give them Rs 4,000 per month till the time it operates in the area.

‘Dams, power and coal mines are displacing the tribals’

How do you plan to bring them into mainstream?
First, we need to speak of livelihood and as an extension of this, farming and irrigation. Most of these areas don’t have proper irrigation facilities. Through the Kapil Dhara scheme, we have tried to bring in irrigation through dams, bandhs, digging wells and by providing diesel pumps to draw water. Second, education for children is the biggest change agent that will help them move out of farming and to other areas. Through ashramshalas and hostels we have opened, you can see that these children think differently. Third, to ensure a more permanent employment I have opened skill-training institutes. In Singroli and Sidhi, we have opened polytechnic institutes to help tribals become skilled labourers so that they can avail more opportunities and work outside.

In all the villages we visited, NREGS is available for one week a year. Why?
I will check that.

An IAS officer I spoke to at the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) told me that when he goes on surprise visits he often notices that anganwadis are not functioning properly. He admitted that his team is helpless about monitoring. Despite increasing the number of anganwadis there is nobody to monitor the reach.
The WCD ministry might be helpless. We are not. The anganwadi workers from the village are the first to monitor the children who go to the anganwadi. I am not saying the system is perfect. I admit there are shortcomings and I will get it checked.

‘The state does not have a button to fix everything’

Why have the rural poor lost faith in government health care?
It is true that we don’t have the number of doctors we need at the government primary healthcare centres in villages. As a result, people consult private doctors. Keeping this in mind we have started mobile clinics stocked with medicines and with doctors, compounders and nurses.

At Nutritional Rehabilitation Centres, children are admitted for 15 days and are treated until they temporarily improve, only to go back to their previous diet of rotis and chillies again. Mothers are advised to feed their children eggs, milk and sugar, but these families cannot afford it. What is the sustainable solution to malnutrition?
The people must get regular employment. They must have access to proper healthcare facilities and medicines. ‘Mukhya Mantri Mazdoor Suraksha Yojana’ takes care of mothers who give birth to children and resume their work within a week of childbirth. This leads to malnutrition in the mother and she is not able to breast-feed her child properly. This is why we started giving them 45 days of pay so that they can rest at home without worrying about income.

Why hasn’t this reached any of the areas we visited?
I refuse to believe that. We extend this benefit to a lot of women every year. Very often, I distribute them myself. In a week, I spend three days in the field. At every public function I attend I make sure the distribution takes place openly.

What, according to you, are the primary challenges in tackling malnutrition?
The biggest challenge we face is in spreading public awareness. The government alone cannot be the answer to all problems. That’s why I have started a campaign called ‘Madhya Pradesh Banao Abhiyaan’. It is the villagers themselves who are best placed to ensure that the anganwadis function properly. It is the responsibility of the society to see where the money is going. It is unreasonable to think that the government holds a button that can fix everything. People outside of politics are necessary to ensure things work on the field.

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

WRITER’S EMAIL
mohan.shriya@gmail.com

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