Over 25 children died in two villages of the Jhabua district in the past four weeks. Agasia and Madarani villages, falling in the Meghnagar block of the predominantly tribal district, registered 27 deaths since October 19
Malnutrition has reached epidemic proportions in most parts of Madhya Pradesh, with children being the most vulnerable group.
This, along with a general deterioration in the health conditions of children and continuing government apathy towards tribal regions, has resulted in a large number of child and infant deaths being reported.
Over 25 children died in two villages of the Jhabua district in the past four weeks. Agasia and Madarani villages, falling in the Meghnagar block of the predominantly tribal district, registered 27 deaths since October 19.
Alarmingly enough, most of these children were in the 0-6 age group and most weren’t even registered at the local anganwadi centre. Agasia and Madarani are just a small part of the larger story that has emerged. Recent reports from Sidhi district mention the death of 22 children in 48 days since August 2009. Malnutrition, especially among the tribal populations of the State, according to the reports of the Supreme Court Commissioners and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, is much higher than in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-III, 60 per cent of the children in the 0-3 years category in Madhya Pradesh are malnourished, while 82.6 per cent in this category are anaemic. The Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in the State stands at 70/1,000, while the same indicator for tribal areas is 95.6/1,000.
In October, The Hindu first reported severe malnutrition among the Kol tribal group in Jawa block of Rewa district. Recently, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) issued an international appeal to several organisations urging them to persuade the State government to address the issue. The AHRC report mentions that over 80 per cent malnourished children are in Rewa.
The deaths in Jhabua have reportedly been caused due to symptoms resembling those of dengue and malaria along with high incidence of anaemia. However, the alarming levels of malnutrition in the region could be the primary cause, leading to a fall in immunity levels.
“We have discovered 14 deaths till now and the primary causes are severe malnutrition, anaemia and falciparum malaria,” says Meghnagar Block Medical Officer (BMO) Vikram Verma.
“Anganwadis are located far from these regions and the ANMs [Auxiliary Nurse and Midwives] too hardly ever reach there. This, along with the remoteness of these tribal regions, compounds the problem. We are taking this seriously and efforts are on to address the situation.”
While the BMO’s statements acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, the ambiguous position of the Health Department comes to the fore with an entirely different version of the story from the joint director of Health. “There have been only four deaths and that too, in early October. I have ordered action against the supervisor and the ANM and served a show cause notice on the BMO over the delay in reporting this situation,” said K.K. Vijayvargiya. He refuted any role of malnutrition in the deaths. “Although the reasons are not clear, there definitely is no malnutrition, maybe just seasonal fever.”
The apathy and indifference displayed by the health officials have led the villagers to seek medical help from quacks and private practitioners. “The children here appear extremely weak and show malaria and dengue like symptoms and die within an average span of four days,” says Ajit Singh, a local journalist.
While the Health apparatus is obviously not serious about handling the issue, other social welfare schemes do not seem to be helping either. The fathers of all the four children who died in Agasia village were not with their families as they had migrated to seek employment since their National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme cards were being withheld by the village sarpanch.
The displacement of tribal groups from their traditional forest dwellings, where they had access to minor forest produce like berries and other fruits to feed their children, has made matters worse in a scenario where the Public Distribution System shops in tribal areas often open only once a month.
The last reports received from the region said one more child died in Madarani. The situation in Agasia, where four deaths have taken place, was deteriorating, with eight children in the 0-6 age group being critical. The district administration’s response, however, continues to be cold.