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Portraits of hunger from Rajasthan’s food insecure district

Aug 15, 2014

This is the story of a community that has been in the grip of acute hunger for over a decade. While it is not a new narrative, it nonetheless points to the gaps in the efforts being undertaken to tackle severe malnutrition, especially among tribal children.

Rajasthan Poverty

The words ‘Sahariya’ and ‘Baran’ conjure up compelling images of poverty and starvation. One of the 22 districts in Rajasthan designated as ‘food insecure’ Baran has gained the infamous reputation of adding to the number of child malnutrition cases in India every year. For the marginalised Sahariya tribals of this region, times have only changed marginally since 2002 when reports of drought-related starvation deaths in their community had sent shock waves across the country and prompted the state government to set up Malnutrition Treatment Centres (MTCs) in its district hospitals. Year 2014 and a walk around the villages of Bikhera Dang and Mandibohra still reveals numerous families that are feeding their young ones a staple diet of roti and chilli powder with an occasional treat of watery dal or berries collected from the nearby depleting forests. Mothers of one-and-a-half-year-old Rajvati, one-year-old Saurav and baby Kavita are simply unaware of the grave future their children are facing due to undernourishment. And yet, today there is reason to hope, as the MTCs provide them with a fighting chance at survival. Even as India prepares to assess its progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the deadline for which is 2015, here’s a powerful photo essay that looks at the present state of hunger and health in Baran.

This is Bikhera Dang village in Shahbad block of Rajasthan’s Baran district, home to around 80,000 primitive Sahariya tribals. So remote is this dusty hamlet that the nearest ‘pucca’ road is located 21 kilometres away, making it virtually impossible for the villagers to access food supplies as well as proper medical care. Poverty, illiteracy and caste issues have marred the very existence of the Sahariyas here.

Typically, Sahariya families survive on small-scale farming, manual labour or sale of minor forest produce. While the adults, including able-bodied women, set off in search of any kind of work they can get to buy meagre rations at the end of the day, it’s the children, and especially the girls left behind, who chip in to cover the household chores and other domestic activities. This reality not only reflects lost childhood but also a bleak future.

Listless eyes, sallow skin, reddish-brown hair, distended abdomen and weak limbs – all these are visible signs of severe malnutrition that afflicts a majority of the Sahariya children. Although they are entitled to food subsidies, owing to their marginalised status this community is unable to secure its share. So they end up surviving on ‘roti’ and chilli powder with an occasional treat of watery dal or berries from the nearby fast-diminishing forests. The even more unfortunate aspect of this situation is that few mothers are aware of the fact that their malnourished children have such low immunity levels that they are actually living on borrowed time.

The Accredited Social Health Activist of Bikhera Dang village shares some of the factors that contribute to the emaciated condition of the Sahariya children: “They live in extremely unclean surroundings. There are no toilets in the Sahariya ‘basti’ so open defecation is the norm. The drinking water that they get from an old hand pump needs to be boiled before consumption but they don’t do that. Look at the way they prepare their food. Their kitchens are located outside and they use dung as cooking fuel, which is stored right next to the ‘chulha’ (mud stove), where they prepare their meagre meals. The swarming flies, dirt and dust contaminate the food. Moreover, the utensils are also washed with ash. All this makes them vulnerable to diseases like diarrhoea that is life threatening for the young ones.”

Healthcare worker and anganwadi cook Makhandi Sahariya has tried her level best to motivate the women of her community to break out of this cycle of misery and ill health. But she understands their helplessness and difficulties. “Every day, it’s a battle for sustenance and survival. Tribals are not landowners and have always been exploited for their labour. People don’t get paid wages on time. Due to poverty, they resort to drinking. There is no sense or inclination left to see how the children are faring,” she rues. Alcoholism is high among the Sahariya men so it is left to the women to keep things going.

Meet one-and-a-half-year-old Rajvati and her mother, who is all of 25 years. Rajvati’s mother goes into the small forest adjoining the hamlet of Bikhera Dang every day to pick tendu leaves that she sells in the local ‘haat’ (market) to add to the family income. Rajvati, who only eats the rotis her mother can manage to feed her, is so malnourished that she has already been admitted twice to the Malnutrition Treatment Centre (MTC) at Shahbad for “milk and medicines”. The MTC treats malnourished children for two weeks as per the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) that map out a strict diet, drug and monitoring regime.

Kavita Sahariya is one year old and weighs only four kilos – far less than what a normal Indian baby her age should weigh. When the already weak toddler got diarrhoea her mother Leela was more inclined to take her to the quacks than visit the MTC at Shahbad, which is 30 kilometres away from her village of Mandibohra. It took a lot of coaxing from Pinky Bhil, the anganwadi worker, before Leela rushed her to hospital. “Kavita’s health was deteriorating rapidly but Leela chose to take her to witch doctors before we came to the MTC. We lost a lot of time.”

There is a steady stream of young Sahariya patients and their mothers at the Shahbad MTC, which opened its doors in 2006. An overwhelming 90 per cent of the children who come here are between one and one-and-a-half-years of age. As soon as a child arrives, s/he is weighed and their mid and upper arms are measured to determine the level of malnutrition. Treatment is designed accordingly.

Sanjeev Nagar (in white), the male nurse at the MTC, who has been working at the facility for five years, believes that the only reason mothers flock to this 12-bedded centre, which is open 24x7 and run with a skeletal staff of six, is because the government offers an incentive of Rs 200 for the duration of the 15-day stay. Nagar believes that children need to spend at least two months at the MTC and that has to be followed by rigorous community intervention. “This year we have treated 384 children (May 2014). Some parents have brought their children here four to five times and they slip back to their original state once they get back home,” he states.

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