COVID-19 impact: Barely 3 hours from Mumbai, Palghar tribal mom suicide points to acute food shortage

Updated: Jul 02, 2020, 07:34 IST | Diwakar Sharma | Mumbai

Just hours from Mumbai, suicide of a 30-year-old, who killed her child and hanged herself, brings a brewing crisis into sharp focus

Some of the malnourished tribal children in Palghar District
Some of the malnourished tribal children in Palghar District

The lockdown due to COVID-19 not only left migrants out of work and starving, but also hit local tribals in Palghar hard. The tribals, many of them whom worked in brick kilns, are jobless and forced to fetch plants from the jungle to survive on. But the biggest impact has been on pregnant women, lactating mothers and children, as the Amrut Ahaar Yojana has stopped. The yojana was launched in November 2015 in 16 tribal-dominated districts of the state.

It aimed to improve the health of pregnant women, lactating mothers and children between seven months and 6 years of age. Such women in Washala village of Mokhada Taluka complained that aanganwadi workers have stopped distributing nutritious foods since May 22.

The locals show some of the plants from the jungle that they now survive on. Pics/Hanif Patel
The locals show some of the plants from the jungle that they now survive on. Pics/Hanif Patel

"Earlier we used to get nutritious foods including rice, chapati, pulses, one egg, etc. six days a week. But the aanganwadi workers have stopped this since May 22. They said ration is not being supplied during the lockdown," said Meenakshi Dayanand Dagle, mother of a four-month old baby, and a resident of Washala.

A seven months pregnant woman, Shalini Hamare, also from Washala added, "This is my first pregnancy and I don't want any health risk. There should not be any cut in the free nutritious foods sanctioned by the government."

Tribals show Mahua seeds from which they extract oil
Tribals show Mahua seeds from which they extract oil

Children at risk
This reporter saw malnourished kids who had nothing to eat at home. A three-year-old malnourished handicapped girl was so feeble that she could not even stand properly. The ribs of several children could be seen sticking out. "These children are underweight and malnourished. The conditions of their mothers are alike and there is urgent requirement of medical assistance for them," said Sita Shankar Ghatal, who is in-charge of the Vitthu Maoli Charitable trust where malnourished children and their mothers are treated free of cost.

Tribal leader Vivek Pandit, who is the chairman of a government-appointed committee to look into the status of schemes for tribals in Maharashtra, had filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court in April regarding the issue. An order was passed on May 15 directing the state government to ensure that 'not a single member is left without food and the basic necessities in these dark hours'.

Locals from Dehre Kadvyachimali village show the electricity bills they received but can't pay. Pics/Hanef Patel
Locals from Dehre Kadvyachimali village show the electricity bills they received but can't pay. Pics/Hanef Patel

'Breach of HC order'
Pandit's counsel Vaibhav Bhure said, "It is sad to hear that the Amrut Aahaar Yojana was discontinued. The Tribal Development Department (TDD) of the state government categorically made a statement through the government pleader before the HC, that food grains and other essential items under the different welfare schemes are reaching the beneficiaries only on being asked by the HC. The HC recorded the same as an undertaking given to the court in its order dated May 15. If essential food items are not being provided to the pregnant tribal women and lactating mothers, then it is serious breach of the order passed by the court. Sincere efforts should be made to follow the order of the Bombay HC in its letter and spirit."

mid-day visited various villages in Jawhar and Mokhada talukas on Tuesday and found the tribal communities living in extremely deplorable conditions in villages such as Dehre Kadvyachimali, Hiradpada, Nangharmoda, Washala, etc.

Dilip Wagh's wife killed their toddler and herself allegedly due to poverty. He had to borrow Rs 1,000 for their last rites
Dilip Wagh's wife killed their toddler and herself allegedly due to poverty. He had to borrow Rs 1,000 for their last rites

Poverty led to extreme steps?
Last week a 30-year-old tribal woman Mangla Wagh strangled her three-year-old toddler before hanging and killing herself in the jungle, which is 5-km away from her village Dehre Kadvyachimali in Jawhar Taluka. Mangla is survived by her husband Dilip and a seven-year-old daughter, Nandani, who is not yet in school.

Dilip said, "I used to work in the brick kiln in Bhiwandi. But the work had to be stopped due to the lockdown and we returned home. I have no money. The government should help us."

Pandit told mid-day that Dilip is reeling in poverty in the lockdown and had to even borrow R1,000 to conduct the last rites of his wife and daughter. "One can imagine in what conditions these tribals are living," added Pandit, who was told by the state government to visit the village and submit his findings in a report before the state.

Deputy Sarpanch Nanu Gavli, who is from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), said, "I would hold the state government responsible for the pathetic conditions of the tribals. When a tribal woman committed suicide, everyone was shaken. They should focus on improving the conditions of the tribal community. The government is well aware that the Katkari samaj (a tribal community) does not have agricultural land and their financial condition is not good."

Foraging in the jungle
Amidst the severe crunch of food, the tribals have been fetching 'loti' and 'vela' plants from the jungle, which they dry and then eat. "It takes us two hours to walk into the jungle and get these leaves to eat," said Matthi Janu Pawar from Dehre Kadvyachimali.

The mid-day team saw a few women extract oil for cooking. "We cannot afford to buy mustard oil. We collect Mahua seeds which are left under the sun to dry and later extract oil from them for cooking," Chandu Rama Wagh, a tribal from Dehre Kadvyachimali said.

Most of the tribals worked in brick kilns in Bhiwandi, Vasai and Thane. Since they shut in the lockdown, many of them are on the brink of starvation, said Ghatal.

The electricity bills have also worried the poverty-stricken tribals. "The electricity department has sent us bills after three months. I don't know how will I pay R1,020," said Ramchandra Gavit, from Dehre Kadvyachimali.

Bhau Janu Bhoye from the village, said, "My bill is R1,100. If I don't pay the bill, the electricity connection will be snapped, and it will be tough to live in the dark specially during monsoon when the threat of snake bite is high. I don't know what to do now. I have no money. The government must do something to give us relief."

Gavit said, "No political leader has visited us to see our pathetic condition. Politicians visit us only during elections to seek votes. I have been working in the field as a daily wage worker to meet two square meals. It is utter shame that we have to shake the government machinery to safeguard tribals even after seven decades of independence."

Tribal development minister KC Padvi told mid-day that he agreed the lockdown has deteriorated the living conditions of tribals in the state. "I had directed all the collectors to arrange for an alternative modern medium of income for the tribal community but they were all busy in controlling the pandemic. A few district collectors have taken positive initiatives to improve the conditions." Talking about the malnutrition in the tribal hamlets, Padvi said, it is among children and pregnant/lactating women not only because of deficiency of nutritious food but because of early marriage, teenage pregnancy and no ideal gaps between kids. He also said he would check why food distribution under Amrut Aahaar Yojana has been stopped.

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