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Tribals battling hunger and starvation in the heartlands of Madhya Pradesh

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Shriya Mohan

uncovers shocking tales of tribals battling hunger and starvation in the heartlands of Madhya Pradesh

TODAY MAUSAM will not eat. There is just enough wheat flour left for three rotis but she stretches the dough thin to make four. She grinds a chutney of raw green chillies with salt and spreads it on each roti – one roti each for her two, three, five and sixyear- old. They eat slowly and despite the struggle to swallow the spice, waste no morsel. The bread it covers is the only solid food they will get for the next day. They finish in a few minutes – mouths on fire and stomachs numb. Hunger has vanished. The chillies have served their purpose. Water will fill the rest of their stomachs. One more day has passed. Mausam has to wait until her husband returns from town with wages to buy this month’s food grains from the ration store.

Weighed down Unlike normal one-year-olds who can walk, malnutrition means that Rinki, at 4.5 kg, can barely crawl

Currently, in the power corridors of the Union government, debates rage about the National Food Security Act. As per the provisions of the Act, families living below the government-defined poverty line will be provided 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs 3 per kg. There are however sharp disagreements on the net pool of people who should qualify for the food subsidies and if the alloted 25 kg of grains will prove to be sufficient for the family.

Consider the case of Madhya Pradesh – the state often billed as starvation central of India, where hundreds of thousands of Mausams scrape through each day not knowing if there will be food tomorrow. For at least a fifth of Madhya Pradesh, comprising 46 Scheduled Tribes, the state is the powerful sun whose light and warmth never touches the darkness that envelopes them.

Of these, four specific tribes, forming nearly 20 percent of the total ST population, are the most impoverished, faring the lowest in all the human development indicators – the Baiga, Korku, Mawasi and Saharia. Most live in inaccessible terrains where government schemes are fractured and ‘development’ still an unknown word. Every year, malnutrition affects their children, taking away their childhood and very often, their lives altogether. Even today, the Baiga and Korku children fill their stomachs only with paige, the simplest and coarsest possible soup.

In 2010, a report published by the Asian Legal Resource Centre, a human rights organisation with a General Consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, stated that 71.4 percent of tribal children in Madhya Pradesh are malnourished. The figures pose pressing questions to the state. How has Madhya Pradesh really dealt with its tribal population in the face of new development and wildlife conservation projects? What is the root cause of malnutrition – is it a lack of proper government schemes, an unsustainable source of income, poor agriculture or abysmal healthcare facilities? Can the state conceive of an inclusive policy where the tribal population contributes to its development, instead of being hand-held to even pass the basic benchmark of survival?

Over the next four weeks, TEHELKA will unravel how malnutrition operates in the most desperate tribal hamlets of rural Madhya Pradesh. The series will cover the Baigas of Dindori, Mandla and Balaghat, once known as the lords of the jungle; the Korkus tribe in Khandwa whose ancestors believe themselves to be descendants of the mythical Ravana; the Mawasis of Satna, a tribe who served as guards for native rulers in Central India and finally the Saharias of Shivpuri, traditional hunters who were inseparable from the wild jungles of Madhya Pradesh. While some are battling hunger as a direct consequence of being displaced from core forestland, others are exchanging food for money by cultivating cash crops. What unites them all is that constant vacuum throbbing inside the stomachs of their young ones, impairing their growth, stunting their minds and snatching away their lives.

Victor Agauayo, nutrition chief, UNICEF India, says, “If severe acute malnutrition is not controlled within the first two years of birth, then the impact on physical and mental growth is irreversible. Right now, 12,60,000 severely malnourished children in Madhya Pradesh are strapped to live time bombs. The state has to make a quick choice: will it reach out to save them or be a silent spectator as their tiny shrivelled up bodies are piled up to merely be counted for yet another report?


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