Baran (Rajasthan), Dec 28 (IANS) Night has begun to fall and Kamla Bai is tossing chapatis on the griddle kept on the burning earthen stove in her partially-built house. The woman, who appears to be nearing her 60s, is in grief as her two-year-old grandson, Roop Kishore Raghuraj, died last month.
What pricks Kamla Bai even more is that Kishore succumbed to malnourishment and she could not save him despite being an assistant at an Anganwadi – government-sponsored mother and child healthcare centre.
Kishore is not the only causality of malnourishment among the children of Sahariyas in Rajasthan’s Baran district – an underprivileged primitive tribal community of 125,000 which reported hunger deaths in 2002 and struggles to lead a life of two meals a day even today. Baran is some 300 km east of Rajasthan capital Jaipur, near the border with Madhya Pradesh.
“He was admitted to the hospital (Malnutrition Treatment Centre) for nearly a month, but could not be saved. He was always sick and had stopped responding well,” Kamla Bai told this visiting IANS correspondent in Baran’s Kariria village.
In Baran – where the poorest of the poor of Rajasthan live – most people till a couple of years ago were bonded labourers and lived a life of neglect. Today, almost all of them are daily wage migrant workers or earn by working in the paddy fields of rich farmers.
Baran – one of India’s most backward districts – was in the news in September for the death of two children who were reportedly extremely malnourished. The issue kicked up a political storm.
This IANS correspondent visited several villages and hamlets in Sahabad and Kishanganj blocks of Baran, where most children have similar physical features – bloated stomachs, spindly legs and gaunt eyes.
Before Kishore, the last victim of malnourishment was Mangal in 2013 in Kirari, the residents of the village said.
“If our children fall sick we cannot do much. Either we are dependent on tablets sold in the village shop or the primary health centre which is very far from here,” Angoori, a mother of three, told IANS.
Baran has nine Community Health Centres and one district hospital.
From January till September, 1,583 malnourished children were admitted for treatment.
Local NGOs claim that the numbers are much higher than the official figure.
Though there are government schemes for the welfare of Sahariyas, the benefits do not reach all of them. Under one such scheme, each Sahariya family gets 35 kg wheat, two kg of dal and cooking oil and one kg of ghee per month.
In one of the villages visited by IANS, many Sahariyas had voter identification cards”- but no ration cards.
“The problem is the leakage of supplies,” a Rajasthan government official told IANS.
IANS spoke to a very senior doctor, who has worked in the region for over two decades, about the problem.
“The Integrated Child Development Scheme is a failure in Rajasthan. The Aanganwadis don’t function properly. In remote villages, they don’t open for months,” the doctor said, requesting anonymity.
Aanganwadis cater to children in the 0-6 age group and provide outreach services to poor families in need of immunization, healthy food.
“The consumption of food is shown in the record book, but that’s not the case. Either it ends up getting wasted since centres don’t open for a long time or it reaches the houses of the Aanganwadi workers,” the doctor said.
He said the Malnourishment Treatment Centres are always short-staffed.
Local journalist Firoze Khan, who has extensively studied the community, said that Sahariyas are also to be blamed for their state.
“They don’t want to be in the mainstream. They want to live in villages. They are averse to cities. They can only work here,” Khan told IANS.
Alcohol addiction among Sahariya men is also a problem, he added.
When IANS spoke to one of the Additional District Magistrates, he gave a bizarre answer for the high malnutrition levels: “The problem is only among the children between 0 and 6 ages. Once they grow up and go to school, you cannot say they were ever malnourished.”
(Gaurav Sharma can be contacted [email protected] This story is part of a National Media Fellowship awarded by the National Foundation for India in association with World Vision India)