A government in denial

Cannot wish ecological poverty away

Published: Sunday 15 August 2004

-- MALNUTRITION is the terminal stage of a disease called ecological poverty. As everyday 16 children die in Maharashtra of malnutrition, and a state government admits it only after some hard prods from the state high court, one expects some rethinking on the disease. The state health department records reveal that nearly 9,000 children under the age of six have died directly or indirectly of malnutrition in the state's tribal areas since last year. The court got the budget for tribal development doubled, there were high profile visits by the state chief minister and other politicians and various tribal affairs departments were administratively restructured -- but they treat only the symptoms.

Nandurbar district in Maharashtra -- the most malnutrition deaths occurred here -- is a pointer how ecological poverty, lack of access to the natural resource base, can trigger catastrophe. The government's myopic interpretation of the problem makes it more fatal. With the speedy depletion of forest and lands, food scarcity has badly hit tribal districts solely dependent on these for its food needs. Long spells of scarcity leave women and children -- the first victims of environmental degradation -- malnourished. This makes them vulnerable to various diseases. Nandurbar, just a few decades ago densely forested and with fertile agriculture lands, was a food-sufficient district in Maharashtra. A survey carried out this year by the Maharashtra State Tribal Research Institute found that three out of four infants in the predominantly tribal district of Nandurbar were malnourished.

In 1995-1996 a severe drought hit the region. It was obvious that without access to forest and agricultural lands the tribal population would perish. Close to a thousand children died that year. But continuing to treat the symptom, government declared a nutrition enhancement programme and forgot all about it. Five years hence, again the government is making similar noises.

Denial that deaths have taken place has precipitated the problem further. There is no basic health service for immediate needs; the famed Employment Generation Scheme has failed to create ecological assets to secure food; most importantly, constantly denying tribals access to the forest has resulted in large-scale deaths. The chief minister's insistence that not all children died of malnutrition was a clinical approach to a huge human and ecological crisis. It is time the chain reaction of ecological poverty was controlled.

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