9,000 Kids Starve to Death in Shining, India

“There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men.” —Proverb 30:14


The Times of India, Monday 5 July 2004, by S. Balakrishnan


logo ARTICLE 1896MUMBAI: One of India’s most prosperous states has revealed a horrifying underbelly. More than 9,000 tribal children below the age of six have died of malnourishment-related causes in 15 districts of Maharashtra in about a year.

Government statistics released on Monday acknowledged the deaths in these areas, some close to the country’s ritziest metropolis, Mumbai, occurred between April 2003 and May this year. Between April and May this year alone, 1,041 children have died. The toll until April was 7,970. The state’s top health official said, however, all the deaths were not related to malnutrition. "There are a variety of factors, including low birth weight, jaundice, convulsions, hypothermia and premature delivery," said state’s director, health services, Dr Subhash Salunke.

These figures have emerged out of a survey conducted by the government to map the extent of the problem. In April-May ’04, 807 children have died in the five districts of Thane, Nashik, Amravati, Nandurbar and Gadchiroli alone.

Dr Salunke sought to downplay the shocking statistics by observing the number who have died form less than 2% of the tribal child population. He said the government was tackling the "socio-economic component" of the problem by treating adolescent anaemia and other factors. According to Unicef figures, about 2.3 million children under the age of five die annually in India, half of these deaths due to malnutrition. A rough calculation shows Dr Salunke’s figure for Maharashtra’s tribal children is roughly seventeen times the national average.

Amar Jesani, trustee of a NGP Centre for Inquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), said malnourished children are bound to be vulnerable to diseases like jaundice. The government does not accept malnutrition to be the cause of these deaths since it becomes a "political liability." The government should treat the basic cause of these deaths, instead of blaming them on communicable diseases which can be tackled in any way, he added.

The president of the Association for Consumer Action on Safety and Health, Dr Arun Bal, squarely blamed the government. "There is enough evidence to prove these deaths are because of malnutrition. But the government is attributing the deaths to the effects of malnutrition, not to malnutrition per se.

It is like saying a man has died of diabetes, whereas the real reason lies elsewhere. The situation is the same whichever party is in power," Dr Bal told TNN.

"The fact is the health bureaucracy is both apathetic and corrupt. Crores of rupees meant for tribal uplift are pocketed by the bureaucracy. Health activist Dr Abhay Bang (of tribal-dominated Gadchiroli district) has proved how these deaths can be prevented in a cost-effective manner. The government simply lacks the will to tackle the problem," Dr Bal observed.

"It is sheer nonsense on the part of the government to say it is sending doctors to tribal hamlets. The problem is one of accessibility to food and affordability. But no party is interested in addressing this core issue," he said.

SOURCE: The Times of India, Monday, July 05, 2004.