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Mumbai's invisible people

Meena Menon

Surveys have established a significant incidence of malnutrition in some Mumbai slums. But the several families living there are not even a blip on the radar of policy-makers.

— PHOTO: VIVEK BENDRE

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD? Naina Rathod with her malnourished son Pradip.

MAHARASHTRA'S SEVERELY malnourished children exist not just in its villages but also in the heart of its capital, Mumbai. However, while rural child malnutrition has provoked some action from the Government, the starving children of Mumbai remain virtually invisible.

They include the two-year-old daughter of Usha who lives in a plastic-roofed shanty in the eastern suburb of Bhandup. Her husband Pratap, a daily wage earner, has come back after getting no work. "I waited at the roadside till noon, but there was nothing," says a dejected Pratap. As a result, the family has nothing to eat.

"Come in and see our house — all the tins are empty. We really have no food," says Usha. She does not even own a stove for cooking and spends a lot of time foraging for dead wood in the nearby gutter and then drying it for use as firewood. Food is in erratic supply in the Rai household.

Soon after the deluge on July 26, Usha lost her youngest child, a two-month-old daughter who was severely malnourished. She was underweight since birth, points out Vinod Udartia, a social worker with Sallah, a voluntary organisation.

Sallah conducted a few medical camps after the floods and found a high rate of malnutrition in this settlement called Chamunda located in Bhandup. The residents are mostly rag pickers or migrants from Gujarat who used to work in the saltpans that were abundant in Bhandup.

Few among the 130 families here own ration cards and even fewer are on the voters list. These are the people considered "illegal," and neither politicians nor civic authorities are interested in them. Along with multitudes like them living on the brink, these are the invisible people of Mumbai.

Last week, Child Relief and You (CRY), a voluntary organisation, conducted a medical camp in Chamunda. Akshay Agarwal and Shailey Agarwal from the United Kingdom, who conducted the survey, said about 70 to 80 per cent of the children were underweight and that was a conservative estimate. Malnutrition was detected among children of a very young age. Levels of malnutrition ranged from mild to severe among the children and many of them were severely anaemic.

According to the Maharashtra Economic Survey 2004-05, the incidence of poverty in the rural areas of the State dropped from 57.7 per cent in 1973-74 to 23.7 per cent in 1999-2000.

In the same period, in urban areas it dropped from 43.9 per cent to 26.8 per cent. At present, the incidence of poverty is higher in urban areas than in the rural areas. Of the 2,38,247 children weighed in June 2005 at various anganwadis in Mumbai, 1,066 were severely malnourished, according to government figures. But the numbers could be much higher. In 2002, a study conducted by Neeraj Hatekar and Sanjay Rode of the University of Mumbai's Department of Economics, projected a floor estimate of least about 750 children dying of malnutrition in Mumbai alone each year.

Although there are 23 Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) projects in Mumbai, often people who need them most cannot access them. Ranjana Rama Manmote, who has been living in Chamunda for over 15 years, has a two-year-old son who is malnourished. She is a rag picker and with her husband manages to earn between Rs.50 and Rs.100 a day.

It is people like Ranjana who need access to anganwadis. But though there is an anganwadi near Chamunda, few families know about it. The children at the anganwadi are from other localities. No anganwadi worker has visited the Chamunda slum or weighed the children there.

Many of the children are ill and as the slum is considered illegal, it has no water supply or electricity. People use the nearby gutter for washing and cleaning. Drinking water is precious and has to be bought or fetched from far away.

Naina Rathod, who now begs along with her two children as her husband is in hospital after an accident, says she took her young children to the anganwadi twice but they were not given the mid-day meal unless they sat there for a few hours.

"My children are two and one year old, they get restless there," she said. Her one-year-old son Pradip is severely malnourished. She had three daughters earlier, two of whom died due to some illness. She earns Rs.50 to Rs.100 a day and rarely cooks. "I feed my children milk or vada pao, they don't have a good appetite," she said morosely.

A half constructed building is home to 700 families in nearby Shyam Nagar. They have neatly divided the space among themselves and partitions of cloth and plastic flap around, forming the walls of their bare homes.

Here again you find severely malnourished children such as Rajni Tambe's one-year-old son Suraj. She works as a domestic help all day and has to rely on her eldest daughter, who is 10, to look after the baby. She came to Mumbai with her husband from Ratnagiri district but now has to look after four children after her husband deserted her. Once again, the anganwadi, a short distance away, serves little purpose.

Mumbai's "illegal" slums, such as Chamunda or Shyam Nagar, do not figure on any national survey.

Although the number of families living in them is substantial, and recent surveys have established a significant incidence of malnutrition, they are not even a blip on the radar of policy-makers.

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