'All we want is to live'

By Anosh Malekar

Deaths related to malnutrition have been in the news in Melghat, Amravati district, Maharashtra, since the 1990s. Despite an interim order of the Bombay High Court and several welfare schemes, 670 infants died of malnutrition in Melghat between April 2005 and March 2006. What is going wrong?

 Everyone in Saddu Bethekar's house appears to be sick and frail after years of sleeping on an empty stomach. There is Shanti, who hardly looks her four years and is irritable instead of playful, her older sisters, Sugana, 8, and Sugarati, 12, and their mother, Bughai, 40, who tiredly goes about doing her chores inside their straw and mud house. Saddu himself is complaining of recurring abdominal pain and appears to be defeated by his family's endless health problems. "We are helpless," the 44-year-old Korku adivasi says.

Across the villages and hamlets in Melghat, 750 kilometres northeast of Mumbai in Maharashtra's Amravati district, many in the Korku community are similarly afflicted. We could call their condition 'malnutrition', a term popularised by NGOs who swear by the World Health Organisation's guidelines.

It is tough to survive the monsoon in Melghat. The grain stocks of the previous agricultural season are exhausted and the current season demands hard labour in the fields. The Korku families eat whatever little is available. "We are living on jowar roti. Sometimes we have dal. Rice is out of the question," Saddu says. The Korkus occasionally eat kutki, a local variety of rice. There is little else

Deaths related to severe hunger in Melghat have been in the news since the 1990s. Between 1992 and 1997, an estimated 5,000 children died in the 2,600-square-kilometre area of forest. Despite an interim order of the Bombay High Court and several welfare schemes, 670 infants died of malnutrition in Melghat between April 2005 and March 2006. The number was 468 for the previous year in the same period.

The fact that most of the villages in the forests of Melghat are difficult to reach, is one of the reasons trotted out for this continuing state of affairs. The state and central governments and NGOs too claim to have poured money into Melghat to ensure supplies and medical aid, but the Korkus continue to be hungry.

Other reasons are also cited-the poor quality of the food that is available, a lack of safe drinking water and sanitation, the low social status of women and early marriages, the tendency to not breastfeed infants for at least six months or give them adequate complementary foods thereafter.

In reality, unrelieved poverty that the state's policies have done nothing to mitigate, a non-existent healthcare system and a lack of civic and education facilities, remain some of the main reasons for the misery in Melghat.

Some years ago, the Maharashtra government appointed a committee of doctors. It declared that sickle cell anaemia was rampant among the Korkus. The implied excuse was: if the Korkus were born with a genetic "defect", what could the government do? However, this anaemic condition could itself be the slow outcome of generations of malnutrition. Can India ignore 500,000 adivasi citizens (about 240,000 in Maharashtra and the others across the border in Madhya Pradesh) by saying they are genetically predisposed to certain health problems?

Over the years, government officials have tried in other ingenious ways to refute charges of death due to malnutrition. Typically, they cite poverty, "ignorance" and the "obstinacy" of the Korkus. Government doctors, anganwadi workers and forest officials say the Korkus will never change, that they lack "nutritional sense", they refuse to milk their cows, sell off nutritious farm products for cash and use mahua, which has high nutritional value, to extract liquor. The list of what the Korkus do wrong, is long. Even some of the many NGOs in Melghat echo this line of reasoning.

The people have a different story to tell. They say that cash crops like soybean and cotton have taken over from local crops like kodo, kutki and savarya, which once formed the basis of their year-long food security. "Agriculture is a waste. We take loans to buy seeds and fertilisers but hardly anything grows. Whatever grows has to be sold to pay back the moneylender, whether we have enough to eat or not," says Sukhdeo Kasdekar from Rahu village.

The Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) was meant to ensure a fair price for the adivasis' produce. But a complex procurement procedure compels these marginal farmers to sell their produce to local landlords. When they are really on the edge, the Korkus barter their soybean for food or even sell the standing crop at throwaway prices.

A big blow came in 1974 when a 726 square kilometre area, which included 47 villages, was declared part of Project Tiger. In her book Our Children Are Gone, human rights activist Sheela Barse has explained how the forest laws worked against the Korkus. The Forest Working Plan for Melghat (1993-2003) required all creepers and so-called "inferior species" in the forest to be destroyed. This instruction, the book says, was given despite the fact that officials in Melghat knew that a number of the creepers were of "ethno-medical importance" and were used by the Korkus to treat a variety of ailments.

The denial of access to products like mahua, tendu leaf and edible gum proved a matter of life and death for the adivasis, observes Vinita Tatke of Maitri, a Pune-based NGO. "Today, they cannot collect forest produce in large quantities to sell. They cannot hunt or fish without bribing the forest officials."

Still, the argument goes: the Korkus eat unhealthy food, they have too many children, they spend money on drinking and trust traditional healers more than doctors. The fact is, there are not enough doctors, government or private, in Melghat that the Korkus can approach.

"If there is a health problem the bhumka, a local healer, steps in to administer 'damma', a painful procedure which involves branding the patient with hot iron," says activist Madhukar Mane. If there is a major health crisis, the Korkus trek through the forests before boarding a bus to the nearest town. "All we want is to live," Saddu says.

Melghat remains what it was when India became independent. A few dust roads winding through dry streambeds, which flood in peak monsoon, cutting off all communication with the rest of the country.

Beyond these dust roads, you will find Saddu's home. Here, Shanti has "grade four malnutrition", according to Dr Sharad Ransing, who is volunteering in Melghat as part of a campaign against child death organised by Maitri. "Her family members are also suffering from common ailments. Their immunity is taking a beating and they all stand at risk of getting life-threatening diseases."

A confirmed case of severe malnutrition and others at high risk of degenerating further into a state of emaciation, in a single family of the Bodhu hamlet in Melghat. Not too far from a bustling and powerful Mumbai, where perhaps not many could care about what is happening in these hungry forests.

Growing hunger

The rich forests of Melghat are home to an impoverished people

Melghat hit the headlines in 1997 for the death of 500 adivasi children due to malnutrition. Children have been dying every year, especially during the rains when the adivasis do not have adequate employment for daily earnings.

Melghat is a vast forested tract spread over two tehsils of Amravati district, Chikhaldara and Dharni. It covers a geographical area of about 4,426 sq km. Of this, 3,630 sq km is in Chikhaldara. This tehsil retains its dense forest cover because of its comparatively low population—about 76,000 people in 197 villages. The 796 sq km of Dharni tehsil have fewer forests due to the pressure of 1.13 lakh people living in 153 villages.

It was earlier estimated that the deaths of adivasi children mostly occurred in Dharni and not in the Melghat Tiger Reserve. The problem has now spread, with deaths in 39 villages of the Multiple Use Area (MUA) of the tiger reserve. The reserve covers 1,676 sq km of forests. It includes the Gugamal National Park (361.28 sq km), which has no village within its boundaries, the Melghat Wildlife Sanctuary (788.75 sq km) with 19 villages and a MUA (526.90 sq km) with the 39 villages.

The reserve has a human population of 25,000. Of these, 8000 people live in 19 villages of the sanctuary and 17,000 adivasis live in the 39 villages of the MUA. Studies have shown that one of the reasons for the rising child deaths among the Korkus of Melghat is that they are denied access to traditional foods like wild flowers, tubers, fruits, crabs and fish from the rich forest.

(Anosh Malekar is an independent journalist based in Pune)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2006