The Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, writes:
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information that 28 tribal children have recently been allowed to die of malnutrition. According to a field report by Madhya Pradesh Lok Sanghash Sajha Manch and the Right to Food Campaign Madhya Pradesh, the families of the deceased children have clearly been deprived of their right to food and right to health of the children in particular, due to the failure of government programmes to reach tribal communities. Despite this, the relevant government authorities have not yet taken action to support the victims, or other children in the villages confronting the same situation.
Shama, a four-year-old boy, died of malnutrition with the associated symptom of diarrhea on 23 December 2009. Shama belonging to the Bhil tribe and lived in Madrani village, Meghnagar Block, Jhabua District. His father Galia took him to the Anganwadi Centre (AWC; child care centre at village level) where he was not able to get any assistance; they were ignored. Even when the human rights activist assisting the villagers informed the AWC on 9 November that Shama’s health condition had severely deteriorated, no action was taken by the authorities. Shama was neither registered at the AWC nor given any support from the government facilities, and died as a result.
In the past three months (October to December 2009) there twenty more children have reportedly died in similar circumstances in the village, with seven dying of malnutrition in Agasiya village, located in the same Block (please refer to the list of the deceased children in letter below). The field report proves the implementation failure of government programmes to ensure the rights to food and health in tribal villages.
Galia and his brother Bhur Singh cultivate four acres of farmland, from which they harvested just four bags of maize in 2009 – insufficient for a family of nine, which includes his wife, brother and six children. He can only cultivate maize according to rainfall as he has no irrigation system or other agricultural facilities.
“Without the Below the Poverty Line (BPL) card, we have to buy maize and wheat from the open market at 200 rupees and 300 rupees per quintal each. Accordingly we are forced to migrate to other area seeking any kind of labour work.” Galia has reported.
The living conditions of other tribal villagers are not dissimilar to Galia’s. Most of the Bhil tribe in Jhabua District have small scale farms, and up to 92% of the land lacks irrigation systems and other agricultural facilities. Irrespective of the facility or output from the farms, many villagers that hold land are identified as Above the Poverty Line (APL), denying them access to food subsidies or other relevant programmes for food and health security. In addition, farmland is often cultivated as a joint family venture like Galia’s family, while they actually live separately.
Despite this lack of facilities and the soaring food prices since 2008, the relevant authority has not paid attention to agriculture and therefore has not ensured food security. The children are dying of hunger while the government neglects its duty, despite several interventions and appeals from civil society.
At present, according to AWC data, 25 children are identified as suffering from grade II malnutrition while five children are grade III in Agasiya village. However only one child out of them was referred to the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) for treatment. In Madrani village 26 children are identified as grade II while three children are in grade III, and one child is identified as grade IV malnutrition. Grade III and IV belong to the Severely Acute Malnutrition (SAM). This data does not cover unregistered children.
Food insecurity and migration
Approximately 45.5% of the children in Jhabua are recorded as belonging to a BPL family. Under the Public Food Distribution System (PDS), BPL families are entitled to collect 35 kilograms of rice and wheat at subsidized prices. In practice they only get 16 kilograms of wheat. The families can only afford to buy two kilograms of sugar during the Holi and Dewali festival from the ration shop. As a result insufficient harvests and such a meager wheat subsidy contribute to child malnutrition, which is further aggravated by the migrant labour environment. Out of the 28 deceased children 5 fathers had migrated away when their children died in their home villages, whereas two children (Sivan and Bundi) died in Kota after the families had migrated together.
“We spent 4500 rupees for Bundi’s treatment in Kota. After all, we sent Bundi back to our village for which we spent another 7000 rupees,” Bundi’s grandfather has said. Bundi’s family took a loan from the contractor for whom they worked, and Bundi’s father now works as a bonded labourer until he can pay back the debt.
Right to work
One of the key elements of programmes ensuring the right to food is the supplying of employment. The government promise of 100 days of employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is not grounded in reality or practice. In both Agasiya and Madrani villages, villagers holding job cards got a maximum of 15 to 20 days employment in 2009. Furthermore villagers who worked for 10 to 15 days under the NREGA programme in October 2009 have still not been paid; it has been reported that the head of Agasiya village has kept their job cards, while not distributing their wages.
The lack of food and the failure of government programmes to be fully implemented have forced people to migrate. The social audit to monitor the implementation of programmes, which is carried out with the villagers' participation, often malfunctions due to lack of its publicity in the tribal community. As a result the social audit reports (No.172100324, 172100311 dated 20 August 2009) stated that no problems were reported in the two villages, which does not reflect the real situation. Please see more on the malfunctioning of the social audit in Jabalpur district, which was reported in a previous hunger alert; INDIA: Government's neglect and corruption drives a 30 year-old Dalit woman to death through starvation.
Child health care
The deceased children were completely deprived of health security by being excluded from the public health system. Of the 28 children, 17 were not registered at AWC, which is the most primary public health institute at village level. However even the children who were registered have never been provided with public health care such as supplementary food grain and immunization, which is a duty of the AWC.
There is one AWC in Agasiya village comprising 359 households, while there are two AWCs in Madrani village comprising of 716 (as of Jan 2009). The only AWC in Agasiya village is located in a Hindu upper caste community area which is far away from other communities who find it difficult to access. Eighty out of 150 children in total in the village are not registered in the AWC. It is commonly seen in other villages that the government data excludes a number of unregistered children. Please refer to previous hunger alert; INDIA: 22 children died of malnutrition associated with diseases for past two months in Sidhi district, Madhya Pradesh.
Even those registered among the deceased children have not received public health care – since workers and other relevant officials never visited those tribal children. As a result, although the deceased children suffered from malnutrition and other sicknesses such as fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, public servants, as duty bearers, failed to respect their right to life.
The failure of public health care creates a financial burden for families and extends their bonded labour, as with Bundi’s father Jalu (see above).
In another case Arjun, who is two months old, fell sick and began to spit up milk. Binnu, his father took him to the hospital where they were not provided with any medicine. Binnu then spent about 1000 rupees for medicine and 200 rupees for transportation, and had to pay 50-100 rupees for the consultation fee, since children there are completely excluded from public health care.
Jhabua District is located in the far west of Madhya Pradesh, adjacent to Rajasthan. The majority of people are from the Bhil tribe - comprising 86% of the total population in the district. Communities within the villages are widely scattered, which creates more difficulty for poor villagers to access available government facilities.
According to the field report, 93.9 % of the total population lives in rural areas and 87.6% of the urban population lives in poverty. Only 4.5% of the rural population has access to toilet facilities while 1.5% take water from a pipe. Merely 19.4% of the children between 12 to 23 months are fully immunized while 14.6 % of the children between 9 to 35 months have received one dose of vitamin A. These poor facilities and conditions are reflected in the fact that the government recognizes that more than 40% of the children are malnourished in this area.
Please write a letter to express your concern and grief about the needless deaths of these children, and regarding the danger faced by those currently suffering from malnutrition in Jhabua. (To send a letter please visit AHRC site)
The AHRC has also written a separate letter to the Chief Justice of India, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and the Committee on the Rights of the Child calling for their intervention.