Multiple exclusions push Odisha’s children into malnutrition death

Nearly 90 per cent of the rural tribal households live in extreme distress conditions with no liquid cash

By Ravi Behera
Published: Tuesday 11 April 2023
Some 80 per cent of the rural tribal household are either landless or marginal farmers, owning less than an acre of land. Representative photo: iStock.

The saga of malnourishment deaths of infants and children continues unabated in the mineral-rich districts of Keonjhar and Jajpur in Odisha. “Rich lands and poor people” is a grim reality and efforts to secure and protect the lives and livelihoods of common citizens of the country have gone for a toss.

Indigenous communities continue to live under conditions of semi-starvation and hidden hunger for almost a quarter of the year. They have little information and knowledge of their entitlements and means to access and claim benefits and services from the state.

Also read: India’s tribal village infrastructure in a shambles

The forest department has considerably restricted their dependency on resources, including greens, mushrooms, tubers and wild animals, for almost two to three months. The provisions, rights and concessions provided to indigenous communities under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, have become a point of discussion. 

Nearly 90 per cent of the rural tribal households live in extreme distress conditions with no liquid cash and have mortgaged their assets to support their families.

There are limited work opportunities in and around their villages and the working-age population are either unemployed or has migrated to other parts of the state to find gainful work opportunities.

Tribal women are responsible for most of the household chores and they work in the fields as agricultural labour. The onus of running the family lies mostly with the women in the community, with little or no support from their male counterparts.

Some 80 per cent of the rural tribal household are either landless or marginal farmers, owning less than an acre of land. Agriculture is the main occupation for a majority of rural households. Paddy is cultivated during the Monsoon season, and the fields are left fallow during most parts of the year due to a lack of assured irrigation facilities.

Also read: I don’t feel hungry: How food inflation is gnawing at Madhya Pradesh’s Sahariya tribe

The average annual income for a rural household from all sources ranges between Rs 5,500 and Rs 25,000. 

State apathy and social exclusion of the poorest and most vulnerable from the government’s food, nutrition, health, education, social security and employment schemes, benefits and services are now exposed.

Unfortunately, Aadhaar card seeding is linked to food, social security and employment schemes, benefits and entitlements by the government. This is an outright violation of the Supreme Court verdict on the Right to Food case.

The government is trying to dilute all pro-people Acts and environmental clearances to garb forest land and give it on lease to the private sector actors, especially in the mining sector, in the name of “so called development and national security”. 

Large corporate houses in Odisha’s districts with mining sites have played little or no role in improving the lives and livelihoods of the poorest indigenous communities as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts.

Also read: Seven die of cholera in Odisha’s Rayagada in a fortnight

Community-based organisations are limited or non-existent in most of the tribal villages. Community caring mechanisms have failed miserably. Frontline workers serving in the government have little to do and are blamed most of the time for the starvation deaths.

The author was part of a fact-finding mission which assessed the ground reality in Ghatisahi village of Jajpur district. Some of the findings of the assessment are listed below.

Some findings:

Chronic malnutrition: Interactions with the Anganwadi workers and the doctors at the Sishu Bhawan suggest three children suffered from chronic malnutrition and didn’t receive adequate attention and support. We suspect it has led to the avoidable demise of Arjun. There are also multiple cases of chronic malnutrition among children under five years and above in the village. Without the necessary actions in place, it is difficult for the local service providers to assess the situation.

Lack of nutritious food, care and support: Most households in Ghatisahi reported food insecurity during summer. March, April and May were reported to be food scarce months / periods of hunger. Most children in Ghatisahi can afford to have only one proper meal, mainly the mid-day meal they get from school.

Invariably, most of the children from the hamlet go to school without having breakfast. Dinner is also not guaranteed. Most of the households are living under semi-starvation and prolonged hunger. 

Handia and other tobacco-related items are consumed to suffice for the hidden hunger of most households. Guardians of these children are not in a condition to take proper care and provide attention due to their compulsion to go out and work as agricultural labour. The eldest siblings in the family take care of the younger ones. 

Exclusion and deprivations: The affected household faces multiple exclusions from different social protection programmes. Most families lack cultivable land and have been excluded from receiving ration even after being eligible.

Many of these households were initially allotted with ration cards. Three children, including the deceased, were excluded from disability pension, jobs under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and housing under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.

MGNREGA’s work has been stopped for some time and the Sarpanch here cited people’s reluctance, with the National Mobile Monitoring System app being one of the reasons. 

Service apathy: While interacting with local health service providers, it is understood that nine children here had non-institutional deliveries.

There were irregularities in the immunisation of the mother and the children. It seems the family did not receive adequate counselling on family planning and support for institutional delivery and immunisation. 

Access to Aadhaar: None of the nine children possessed Aadhaar cards. Our interaction with the community suggested that most children here lack Aadhaar, making them excluded from Public Distribution System and other welfare schemes. Since Aadhaar is needed to access banking, the lack of it furthers exclusion. 

Lack of community-based groups: No Self Help Groups (SHGs) or other community-based groups/ associations were found in the village.

Institutional finance and credit: The local Munda community has limited financial literacy and negligible access to institutional finance. Two of the pension beneficiaries here are unable to get their pension after it shifted from cash in hand to bank transfer. 

Daily dietary diversity: Most Ghatisahi households’ dietary diversity and food intake is limited. Most families consume mainly carbohydrates (rice) with salt and chillies. Consumption of proteins, vegetables, fats and oils, vitamins, minerals, milk, etc., is limited or negligible.

Water sanitation and hygiene: The community practices open defecation. A majority of the members and children have limited awareness and knowledge of improved water, sanitation and hygiene.

Community members and children rarely practice handwashing. Adolescent girls and women have limited knowledge and awareness of improved health and personal hygiene practices. The school toilets remain locked most of the time due to lack of water connection.

CSR intervention: The village comes under the Kalinga Nagar industrial area, with TATA Steel Ltd operating a few kilometres away. However, we could not identify any visible interventions by the companies under its corporate social responsibility initiative.

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