In the weeks since Gehnawati’s year-old son Krishan died she and her husband Surma Sahariya had gone about with their usual life, hunting for work and fending for their five other children. Though it was heartbreaking to find their youngest child not wake up from sleep one morning, the couple from remote Chaurakhadi village in Baran district, are not unused to seeing children die in their community.
The Sahariyas, one of the most backward tribes concentrated in the state’s Baran district, have reported malnutrition and starvation deaths for over a decade now. The community is anything but utterly shocked to see their young ones die within the first few years of birth.
While Gehnawati had reason to be taken by surprise as the child, according to her showed no signs of illness, but just did not wake up from sleep in the morning on August 28, her neighbour Shivraj’s 10-month-old son Rinku was suffering from acute diarhhoea and died on August 30. “My child was perfectly fine. We have no idea what happened to him. He did not seem to have a fever or diarhhoea,” said Gehnawati.
Shivraj, however, consulted a local quack for his ailing son and was suggested some remedies. “The local doctor said he would be fine but he died a day later. He was suffering from acute diarhhoea,” explained Shivraj in a local tongue.
Shahbad block chief medical health officer, Lalit Rathore told the Indian Express, “Both the deaths were due to diarhhoea. The children were not malnourished.” However Rathore admitted that a post mortem was not conducted on either of the children and he also could not tell their weight or other health parameters to back his conclusion.
Reacting to the recent deaths, the state government sprung into action and admitted 47 malnourished children to the Shahbad MTC, 46 in Kishanganj and 9 in Mangrol. The children here are mostly below three years of age and are provided milk and vitamin supplements. The parents are given Rs. 200 per day to compensate for their daily wages.
Even as Rathore oversaw a bustling malnutrition center, he maintained, “Malnutrition is not such a big problem here. It is more about hygiene. The children crawl on the ground and put their dirty hands into their mouth leading to infection.” Asked if a meal of only rotis was sufficient in terms of nutritional value, Rathore said, “Wheat has all major nutrients. If children are brought to the MTC we also give them milk.”
The deaths, commonplace for the Sahariyas, hardly had any effect on the villagers, who carried on with their lives, moping around in the village, playing cards and sometimes venturing out to find a job. The reason behind the deaths were not probed, the local quacks told them it must have been an insect bite in Krishan’s case and evidently diarhhoea in Rinku’s. Similar deaths are reported in all their neighbouring villages including Bhoyal and Pahadi.
Most children in Chaurakhadi, Bhoyal and Pahadi villages were found to be frail, stunted and pot-bellied but the community does not see it as an anomaly. Even as the Sahariyas live on a daily unappetizing diet of plain rotis and once in a while manage a vegetable, they have little to complain. Instead they insist they have enough to eat. “Last year we used to get ghee, daal, cooking oil along with 35 kg wheat for Re. 1 but now we get only wheat that too at Rs. 2. But we are not starving. There is always enough to eat. Our children are not dying of hunger. They also have enough rotis,” argued Prayag Raj, one of the villagers.
As most lactating mothers are malnourished, the children as soon as they can start swallowing semi-solid food are fed moistened rotis. Health workers in the area said that several children die as solid food gets stuck in their food pipe.
The 35 kgs of wheat rationed to every family though suffices their appetite fails to provide complete nutrition. While Chaurakhadi had one cow in the village that supplied milk, albeit insufficient to everyone’s needs, villagers in Bhoyal laughed at the mention of milk. “We do not have a cow here and who has the money for milk? We get rotis and that is enough for us,” said Ajay Sahariya, whose year-old daughter died two weeks ago.
Keeping in view the poor health conditions of the Sahariyas, malnutrition centers were set up in the region. But the MTCs continue to be short-staffed and due to lack of awareness among villagers, children are rarely taken to the centers. Instead locals are heavily dependent on quacks.
Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) Sangeeta Verma, who was posted at the malnutrition treatment center in Shahbad temporarily to manage the rush, said, “Most children in this region are malnourished and therefore have a weak immunity system. The Sahariyas are extremely irresponsible and do not feed their children properly. They go off to find work leaving their children behind unattended. Unless there is awareness among them, the problem cannot be handled.
Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee chief Sachin Pilot, who visited the deceased families on Monday, said, “How long will the government live in denial? Unless they accept the problem, they will not be able to deal with it. One-year-old children here weigh about 2 kgs. They are visibly malnourished, wasted children with poor immunity. Our workers have visited villages across the district and gathered data that show over 20 children have died in the last one month.” “Till September 16, the Baran hospital had 23 malnourished children admitted and the number magically rose to 87 by this morning. Let us not avoid the issue by being in denial but address it. Our government gave the Sahariyas a wholesome package of free ghee, edible oil, sugar, pulses and wheat, which the new BJP government stopped. The hospitals are ill-equipped and there are no drips too.”