COVID-19: Tribals take double hit as job-loss and malnutrition on rise

Updated: May 21, 2020, 06:59 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

As supplies to aanganwadis are hit in the state's worst-hit regions, data shows alarming rise in numbers of both moderately and severely malnourished children in April

A malnourished child in Nashik in 2011
A malnourished child in Nashik in 2011

As the COVID-19-caused lockdown nears two months, tribal areas in the state have started witnessing signs of deterioration with an increasing number of malnutrition cases as the supply of ration to aanganwadis in the first 21 days of the lockdown was greatly impacted. Activists told mid-day that in Melghat, one of the worst-hit tribal areas, there was no ration for the first three weeks to make free meals in aanganwadis.

Poornima Upadhyay, associated with the NGO Khoj has been operating from Melghat district of Amravati.

"In tribal areas around Chikhaldara block in Melghat and in a block comprising nine tribal beats (Motha, Salona, Hatru, Jarida, Khatkali, Gaulkheda, Tembrusonda and Semadoh), during the first 21 days of the lockdown, the supply chain of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) was adversely impacted. Tribals had to survive on stock available at home, with no new stock or cooked food coming in."

Malnourished children from Jawhar, Mokhada, in 2013. File pics/Atul Kamble
Malnourished children from Jawhar, Mokhada, in 2013. File pics/Atul Kamble

Khoj found that in the block, 377 kids between the age of six months and six years were in the MAM (Moderate Acute Malnourished) category in March. In April, that number increased to 1,016. For the corresponding periods, the number of children of the same ages under the SAM (Severe Acute Malnutrition) category was 39, and then increased to 296.

Worsening scenario
Upadhayay added, "The scenario will continue to worsen in coming weeks as the lockdown has been extended and moreover, with monsoon coming, it will be tough for kids to get nutrition as cooked food is not coming from aanganwadis."

Tribals are also not able to access markets amid the lockdown. "In addition, as per NREGA records, nearly 1.90 lakh tribals and villagers from Melghat had job cards. Of these, only 45,000 have managed to get a job with a minimum wage of R237 for eight hours, which is too meagre a salary."

Malnourished children in Jawhar, Mokhada in 2013. The tribal belt has always struggled with malnourished children, who are entitled to cooked meals at aanganwadis
Malnourished children in Jawhar, Mokhada in 2013. The tribal belt has always struggled with malnourished children, who are entitled to cooked meals at aanganwadis

The Shramik Mukti Sangathana had filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court for the distribution of free ration to the poor under the National Food Security Act. Two other organisations too filed PILs with similar concerns in April 2020. The court clubbed all PILs and directed district legal aide cells to address tribals' grievances.

"Shahapur is a tribal area that falls under Schedule Tribes and out of Murbad's 160 villages, nearly 72 are tribal ones deprived of nutritious food supply. At present they are given rice, 5 kg wheat per person. But daal is only 1 kg, which is insufficient for a month. After our PIL, the government agreed to supply foodgrains even to those without a ration card," said Indavi Tulpule, member of Shramik Mukti Sangathana.

However, the demand has not been fulfilled as sufficient edible oil and daal for each ration under the Public Distribution System (PDS) have not been provided.

Tulpule added that due to afforestation, the forest produce is already declining. Tribals would have earned from the produce during the ongoing season, but the system was disrupted by the lockdown. There is no demand for products such as mangoes, mahua flowers and thendu (beedi) leaves. Currently, Shahpur has 90 kids with SAM and 538 kids with MAM.

She added that in Maharashtra, the implementation of Amrut Ahar scheme has been substantiated by a Governor's Order, wherein cooked meals, including eggs, have to be given to children up to six years old in scheduled areas. Amid the lockdown, the cooked meal has been replaced by rations which lack sufficient protein.

"Under the NREGA, three villages — Akleshawadi, Khutal, and Bramhan Gaon, were to get work within a 4 km radius. But in the scorching heat, women cannot leave the house and also have to take care of the house. With no transport, men have to walk for an hour every day to reach work. When they approached concerned authorities, they were asked to submit a letter saying they can't take up the job under NREGA because they do not want to travel. Isn't this unfair? And a wage of R237 for eight hours is not justified," Tulpule said.

Hiralal Sonawane, CEO, Zillaprishad Thane, rubbished the claims saying they have provided foodgrains to each and every villager under the scheme and that the needs of the tribals are being taken care of in Shapur and Murbad. When asked about data on malnutrition, he said, "I am in a meeting at Collector's office, and do not have the data with me. I will ask my Deputy CEO to speak to you." However, no one called till the time of going to press.

The other side
Indra Maloo, ICDS commissioner for Maharashtra, said, "The department of Tribal Welfare has issued a GR regarding APJ Abdul Kalam Amrut Yojna for tribal areas. It has three choices of food — supply of dry ration, supply of tiffin (cooked food) and direct benefit transfer of money (R36 per person) to the beneficiary's bank account."

Maloo added that other than the Amrut Aahar program, ICDS has its own supplementary nutrition program, comprising Take Home Ration (consisting rice, wheat, fortified oil, and salt, chawli, turmeric, chilli powder, etc) and cooked meals being provided during the lockdown to maintain social distancing. "Nearly 65 lakh households have been benefited across the state," Maloo said.

Maloo also admitted that cases of malnutrition are increasing as a result of lack of nutrition to children in Shahapur, Melghat and Chikhaldara. She added that due to issues in internet connectivity, online educational program are experiencing a lag.

"As per data available till February 2020, the state has around 50,708 malnourished children in the age group of six months to six years under SAM. The top three districts area Ahmednagar with 1,518 cases, Akola in second place with 841 cases and Amravati (Melghat/Chikhaldara) has 1,069 cases."

With regards to the PIL in high court, she said, "We are party to the PIL and have already made our submission in the court."

When told about the malnourishment numbers collated by NGOs, Maloo said, "I do not have their data, it will be difficult to make any comment."

Malnourished kids in March in one Melghat block

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