AS YAMUNA Dopa fed her two-year-old son Pramod inside her hut at Kundachapada village in Palghar, she recounted how he almost died from severe malnourishment a year ago.
With no fixed source of income, she and her husband had left the village for work as most in this impoverished tribal belt do. When they returned, Pramod was undernourished and weak. “We had to admit him to a hospital,” she said.
While Pramod recovered, Kishan Sawara (50) of the nearby Khoch village, wasn’t as fortunate. His son Vishwas passed away in October 2017, after his health deteriorated owing to irregular feeding patterns when his family was residing at a construction site in Nashik’s Surgana. “It was too late by the time we took him to the hospital,” said Kishan.
Child deaths, owing to chronic illnesses and undernourishment, are a reality in Palghar, which is situated barely three hours away from Mumbai. Activists put this down mainly to the annual pattern of migration for work.
Consider this. Between April 1, 2016 and February 28, 2019, official statistics show that 1,351 children under the age of six died in the region, which is plagued by poverty, water scarcity, high unemployment and illiteracy.
While the government announced mitigation measures when such deaths peaked to 557 in 2016-17, Vivek Pandit, Chairman of state-run Tribal Area Development Review Committee, admitted that these had been “poorly coordinated”. The toll has come down in the past two years, but statistics show that the total malnutrition count in 2018-19 (till Feb-end) was 1,965.
Shivaji Gode, a local activist, said: “Lack of an assured income is threatening the existence of our tribal communities.”
Just as Congress and BJP are lining up behind jobs guarantee and minimum income support in the poll season, Manga Wagh (65) remains skeptical. “They say all these things when they need votes. There has been no change in our lives. My parents would go to Bhiwandi for eight months a year to do odd jobs. I’d to quit studies to join them. Now, my son and grandchildren are doing the same.”
Villagers start leaving their hamlets post monsoon in October to construction sites and brick kiln factories in Bhiwandi, Nashik, New Mumbai and Gujarat where they often work in 12-hour shifts. “We’ve to live in the open in unhygienic conditions,” said Ishwar Sonar, who hails from the Katkari tribe, identified as the most vulnerable to such migration. They return to their villages for a month in March before Holi. Once the monsoon halts construction, they again return to their villages in June to farm mainly for their own consumption.
This year, officials fear that the “displacement pattern” would be “severe” with the ongoing drought worsening water scarcity conditions. Lata Nagwasi (30), a Kharamba resident, said, “There isn’t even enough drinking water. The government’s tanker supplies are not sufficient. We’re forced to feed our children dirty water. Even that has to be fetched from 2 km away.”
However, Pandurang Malak, sarpanch of Khoch village, said: “Sufficient fresh water was available to cater to both drinking water and farm requirements. But these aren’t being tapped.”
Pandit agreed. “It is a case of misplaced priorities. Much of the problems can be addressed if the government invests in building water storage structures. In 2011-12, a feasibility report, submitted to the government, had shown that all of this can be done with just Rs 12 crore.”
Tribals in Mokhada tehsil have formed a Sangharsh Samiti, which is protesting a plan to lift water from a local reservoir to Nashik as part of a river linking project. Gode said that five water supply projects for the local community had remained incomplete for 15 years. “Unless these are completed, we won’t allow the water to be lifted to Nashik,” he added.
Malak said, “If surplus water (in the reservoirs) is first provided to locals, we can take a second crop. This will give us all a source of living, generate local employment, and curb migration.”
BJP secretary (Palghar) Hemant Sawara said: “Slow progress of infrastructure works and the lacklustre performance of MNREGA had affected the pace of reform.” His father, Vishnu Sawara, is a local MLA, and also Maharashtra’s tribal development minister, but locals complained that he hasn’t been accessible to them.
Officials admitted that migration and poverty were also the causes for a high dropout rate among school students, but they insisted that a “lot of progress had been made in recent years”.
Shiv Sena’s “imported” candidate from BJP, sitting MP Rajendra Gavit, will be locked in a straight fight with Bahujan Vikas Aghadi’s Baliram Jadhav, a former MP, for the seat.
Mapping projects for migrating tribals
A project of mapping the migration pattern among tribals has been taken up. Palghar Collector Dr Prashant Narnaware said, “We’ve been sending down medical teams to their sites of work. A plan of setting up mobile (mini) anganwadis at these place is in the works. We’re holding medical camps upon their arrival as well.”
For curbing migration among pregnant women and lactating mothers, the anganwadis have initiated a ‘Godhdi’ project, where such women are taught and paid to stitch quilts, which are then supplied to public health centres. Palghar Zilla Parishad’s (ZP) Chief Executive Officer Milind Borikar said that to curb dropouts among children, ZP schools for classes IX and X have been opened.
While Narnaware admitted that building of water storage structures is his administration’s priority, he said various skilling initiatives had been undertaken. The administration had tied up with experts to improve agriculture yield and change cropping patterns while setting up with corporates for community workshops. A plan to make hotels along the highway provide space for local tribals to sell products, is in the works, he added.