Malnutrition, illness and abject poverty have taken a severe toll on children in Mumbai's Rafiq Nagar slum. Situated in a vast dumping ground, swarming with flies, and packed with garbage heaps at every step, the destitute colony has seen a series of child deaths since April this year, even as authorities scramble to ascertain their causes.

The infant, Asif Sheikh, from Rafiq Nagar slum died on Tuesday. His death comes less than a week after one-and-a-half-year-old Sahil Sheikh lost his life in the same slum. Sahil was not able to digest his food properly, officials of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) told The Hindu.

The ICDS ward office has asked for data from the organisation Apna Le, which has been keeping a record of child deaths and malnutrition in 650 houses in the area for the past five years.

The Apna Le volunteers have recorded 18 deaths since April of which 10 have been due to malnutrition, said Pushpa Adhikari. There are 429 children in the age group of zero to 5. Of those who have been weighed so far, 25 were found to be in the acute stage, 80 fell in the moderately underweight stage and 143 were normal.

Najmunisa's four children are in varying stages of malnutrition. Her two-year-old son Mohammad Ahmed falls in the acute stage, weighing only 6 kg instead of the required 8 kg. Her six-day-old daughter weighs 2.5 kg, about 1/2 kg less than the average weight.

The pale Najmunisa is herself has a low blood count of 9.5, due to which she cannot undergo family planning operation.

It's the same story in Asma Sheik's house and practically every other house in Rafiq Nagar. Many of the residents here are migrants, eking out a living as garbage-pickers for which they erratically earn around Rs.3,000 a month.

“During the monsoon there is no work, so we have to take loans to survive,” said Najmunisa. Of the meagre earnings, a large amount is spent on water, which costs about Rs.40 a drum. Large families subsist on one drum for two days. Asma's house of five children, for instance, uses the same water for drinking and cooking.

“There are times when for eight days there is no water tanker. So there is no water to cook food,” said an ICDS staff. The extreme squalor gives rise to a host of diseases against which the children of Rafiq Nagar completely lack immunity.

Mothers reported that municipal schools refused to admit their wards either without birth certificates or summarily. Due to this, many cannot avail of the mid-day meals they are entitled to.

The Apna Le, which provides food for 250 children daily, hit out at the lackadaisical approach of government agencies. “We cannot blame the anganwadi teachers; they simply don't have the tools – the weighing scales, the cards to track malnutrition. Workers don't come to weigh the children every month. Two years ago, in reply to an RTI application, the ICDS said, there was not a single malnourished child in this area. In anganwadis, no record of beneficiaries is kept. The ICDS is a good scheme, but its implementation is poor,” said Ms. Adhikari.

According to the ICDS data, in Shivajinagar area, in which Rafiq Nagar falls, 915 children between zero to five years had severe underweight problem in the month of October this year. A climb down from 1,113 children in the same category in September.

The number of children who are moderately underweight rose from 1,982 in September to 2,122 in October. The ICDS has recorded 12 deaths in Shivajinagar, of which two were due to malnutrition, six still births and the rest were due to illness, ICDS staff said.

“Migration and demolitions [severely affect the growth of the children]. Their immunity is very low. There is no gap between the children. Anganwadi gives only one meal, but that is not enough,” the ICDS workers said.

Rafiq Nagar is part of a 900-acre dumping ground, which stretches over many other slum colonies. “It's an encroached property. How can the civic body provide any services? Do they pay taxes? They come here because in Mumbai they can at least get two square meals,” said a civic official.