Between January and September 2011, 565 children below 5 died in Yavatmal alone

The Vidarbha region of Maharashtra which has gained notoriety for its farm suicides, is also reporting a high incidence of child deaths. Data compiled under the Right to Information (RTI) Act shows that in Yavatmal district alone 565 children below five died due to various causes between January and September 2011. In addition, the district reported 489 still births for the same period.

Yavatmal is second only to Amravati district which reported 910 child deaths between January and September 2011 and 516 still births. Bandu Sane, activist from the NGO KHOJ in Melghat, sought information on child deaths in Vidarbha under RTI. Melghat region, located in Amravati district, has had a long tryst with malnutrition among children, despite the government pumping in huge funds of late.

Other districts in Vidarbha such as Gadchiroli had 364 deaths of children under five for the same period, while Wardha reported 321, followed by 302 in Bhandara and 229 in Gondia districts. In contrast, Nagpur reported 24 deaths and nine still births.

Between January and September 2011, seven of the 11 districts that make up Vidarbha region reported 2,715 deaths of children under five, 1,819 still births and 104 deaths of mothers, the highest being 28 in Amravati district followed by 26 in Yavatmal district.

Writ petition

While the pathetic health situation in the Melghat region is the subject of a writ petition in the Bombay High Court, Mr. Sane wanted to check if the infant mortality was just as high in other districts of Vidarbha. Despite the court case, the situation in Melghat continues to be abysmal, according to petitioner Purnima Upadhyay.

In a recent hearing, the High Court expressed concern over the action taken to deal with under-nutrition as only 114 children were admitted to the Child Development Centres last year in Melghat, Ms. Upadhyay said.

Underweight children

She said in 2011-12 there were over 11,061 children who were moderately and severely underweight; of this 1730 were severely malnourished going by the height-to-weight criteria. The government has also been asked to provide data on the fulfilment of bonds of medical students in rural and tribal areas.

Lack of specialists

Between April and November 2011, 729 deaths of children below six took place in Amravati district, out of which 296 were in two blocks of Melghat i.e., Dharni and Chikhaldhara. The court was informed that no specialists were available and only one specialist doctor was recruited, as a result of which though there were two rural hospitals, 11 primary health centres and one special district hospital, there was a dearth of paediatricians, gynaecologists and anaesthetists. Even in critical cases, pregnant women had to travel 100 to 150 km for treatment at the district hospitals at Dharni or Amravati.

No ventilators

In addition, no ventilators were available nor was there even a single ambulance with a ventilator. The court had earlier expressed serious concern over the lack of doctors and said the situation must receive the remedial attention of the State government on a war-footing. The State government has been asked to file by May 4, information related to the number of bonds signed by medical students for rural service and how many fulfilled those bonds.

Maharashtra has been trying to tackle malnutrition and child deaths in mission mode in the rural areas but during the hearings of the petition in the High Court, the government had been repeatedly rapped for not delivering services.

Urban areas too

In urban areas too, malnutrition and child deaths are on the rise, especially in Mumbai where slums areas are reporting increasing malnutrition. Apnalaya, an NGO, is monitoring 7,500 families in eight bastis around the garbage dumping ground in Shivaji Nagar in north east Mumbai since April 2011. Only 25 anganwadis are there for a population of 50,000, when it should be double that, Dnyaneshwar Tarwade of Apnalaya says.

The latest data from February shows that of the 3,780 children below six, 3016 were weighed. Of this, only 217 had above normal weight. Forty-seven per cent or 1411 were normal weight, 901 were moderate underweight (30 per cent) and 487 were severe underweight (17 per cent). Almost half the children are below normal weight, he points out.