Granaries full but children are starving to death
In the village of Gangapur, near Akalkuwa in Nandurbar district, they continue to wish bad weather had not prevented Sonia Gandhi from coming to see them last month. They think her coming would have made a difference to the wretchedness of their lives. She had announced that she would be touring villages in which children had died of starvation and Gangapur and Akkalkuwa were made ready for her.
They painted the hospital in Akkalkuwa and converted a nearby field into a helipad. And, they tarred the road to Gangapur and prepared the family of Vesta Bawa to tell Mrs Gandhi their woes.
‘Officials came and told us that she was coming because she wanted to see children suffering from malnutrition. My daughter is suffering’, Bawa told me when I met him last week.
Gangapur is a convenient stop for those doing starvation tours because it is less than ten minutes from the small town of Akkalkuwa and Vesta Bawa’s mud hut is the first one you see when you enter the village. Bawa and his wife, Pramila Bai, with their lined faces and hollow eyes look much older than their years and have that look of resignation you see only in the very poor. They have seven children, nearly all of whom are half starved, because they live on one morning meal a day.
This meal consists of watery khichdi for the smaller children and dry rotis for the older ones. They have never tasted milk or vegetables because when you are living on Rs 10 a day and there are ten mouths to feed nobody gets to eat more than a rupee’s worth each.
Technically, because everyone gets one meal a day, the family is not starving, at least not by the inhuman standards of Indian officialdom. Only one child was treated for malnutrition in Akalkuwa hospital because her weight fell dangerously below normal.
For the few days she spent in hospital the family was given Rs 40 a day by the government and the doctors ensured that she was fed eggs and nourishing broths and three meals a day but no sooner did she come home than it was back to one daily meal, all that Vesta Bawa can afford for his children. ‘How can I give them more’ he says in a voice devoid of emotion ‘when there is nothing in the house to give them. Everything I earn goes on food’.
Bawa earns Rs 20 a day as a farm laborer but manages to get no more than fifteen days of work a month. I ask why he needed to have seven children and he said his wife had tried to have a hysterectomy but doctors in the hospital told her she was too weak to be operated on.
After news of starvation deaths in Akkalkuva spread needy families in Gangapur have been getting help from a nearby madrassa but from the government there has been only the usual tokenism in the form of schemes with grandiloquent names like Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
But, as social activist Sheela Barse pointed out in her public interest litigation before the Bombay High Court schemes like the ICDS are deeply flawed because their system of declaring children malnourished or not on the basis of their body weight is itself wrong.
According to a report she submitted before the court on September 17, 76% of children in Maharashtra is anemic and stunted, 56% of the population is chronically short of food and 3% of women are ‘fatally starved’.
In a district like Nandurbar you see the horrific reality of what these figures mean. Gangapur is close enough to Akkalkuva to be better off than the remote Adivasi villages that exist in scattered, irregular settlements in the hills above Akkalkuva.To get to the first of these, Dhadgaon, I travelled a gutted, broken road and when I met a man whose three-year-old daughter had died the week before in Akkalkuva hospital he said it had taken his wife an hour and a half in someone’s borrowed vehicle to get his starving baby girl to hospital. They had tried their best, he said listlessly, and given her seven ‘saline’s but at the end of the seventh one she died.
It is not just children who starve in these villages it is everybody but while adults can survive on one meal a day children usually cannot. Nearly 10,000 children in Maharashtra are believed to have died of what officials call ‘malnutrition’ in the past year. According to Sheela Barse’s report 1561 in Pune district alone but because these deaths occur slowly, painfully, over many months of not having enough to eat officials find it easy to dismiss them as deaths from ‘other causes’.
It is a conspiracy of evil, callous silence in which the district administration plays a vital role. At the end of a day spent in villages around Akkalkuva I went to meet the Collector of Nandurbar, Sanjay Khandare. His first reaction was to tell me that I did not understand the problem. I understood that children were dying, I replied, and that there was no sign that the district administration was doing anything about this. Which villages had I gone to him asked with that air of superiority that Indian officials specialize in? When I told him he said, with a sneer in his voice, that these were not remote villages. Precisely, I said, so things must be much worse in the remote ones. Again I was told that I did not understand that there were other social and cultural problems like early marriage.
Adivasis married their children off when they were still teenagers, he said, as if he were talking about people who were a race apart that had nothing to do with the common humanity to which he and I belonged.
When I asked what he, as Collector of Nandurbar, was doing to prevent child marriages he got irritated and told me he did not need to talk to me. Our conversation ended on a bad note with me as contemptuous of the Collector as he was of me.
Our encounter was useful, though, because it convinced me that conditions in rural India will never improve as long as districts are headed by men holding a colonial post that should no longer exist.
If we want to end the shame of children dying of slow starvation we will have to funnel funds for rural development directly to the villages and let Panchayati control them.
In districts afflicted with chronic starvation like Nandurbar, grain should be handed over to women’s groups in the villages and women should in given charge of guarding emergency supplies.
When I mentioned this to a Chief Minister friend he said I was probably not aware of how corrupt village officials are.
I am aware but believe that it is easier for villagers to control corruption in a sarpanch than in a Collector. With our granaries bursting at the seams not a single child should be living on one meal a day.
The word ‘malnutrition’ should have disappeared from our records. If it has not it is because of an obsolete system of administration that must be changed. Indian children will continue to starve to death unless this happens no matter how many visits Sonia Gandhi makes to see starving children with her own eyes.