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Malnutrition on the rise in Chhattisgarh

Mohuya Chaudhuri
There is little cheer in southern Chhattisgarh where hunger and malnutrition have increased sharply since the start of 'Salwa Judum', a movement against naxalism.

The movement involves moving out adivasis to resettlement camps. These displaced adivasis without access to forests or livelihood are acutely vulnerable to malnutrition.

The Gorgonda village in Bastar has witnessed the horrifying impact of conflict between the Maoists and the Salwa Judum, a locally raised counter-naxalite force.Homes lie empty, abandoned when villagers fled to save their lives. Some houses were burnt down, others vandalized.

Violence has intensified after the creation of Salwa Judum in July 2005 and villagers are caught in the crossfire.Post conflict, the Integrated Children Development Scheme (ICDS) has collapsed in Bastar.

Thousands of people have left their homes and for them the last priority is food.Strewn foodgrains, a cold stove are the only evidence to prove the existence of an anganwadi.

Pulse polio messages and literacy slogans indicate it also doubled up as a primary health centre and school. Across Bastar, ICDS centres have shut down, either by force or simply because security personnel moved in. At the moment, 250 schools in Bastar's Dantewada district are being used by CRPF battalions

Own brand of terror

Ironically, the state-backed Salwa Judum, meant to take on the Maoists, is now unleashing its own brand of terror."In over 700 villages, teachers, anganwadi workers, health workers, hand pump repairers have been stopped from going there.

Our volunteers tried to go there and take stock of the situation but Salwa Judum members kidnapped two of our workers because we visited enemy villages," said Himanshu, Vanvasi Chetna Ashram.The government's answer was to shift thousands of adivasis to camps near the district headquarters but it has only made matters worse for them.

For a year and a half over 25,000 people have survived in the tiny shanties at Dornapal. It is the largest camp for displaced adivasis in naxal affected Dantewada district of Chhatisgarh. In the initial months, the government doled out rations; around two kilos of rice per person every month. And on some days, small amounts of dal and potatoes, which are not enough to fill people's hungry stomachs or meet their nutrition needs.

Today, even that has stopped. "It is living hell in the camp. They are ill, they are hungry and they are in difficulty. They want to go home. The government has stopped giving rations. In some places, a little bit is being given; everywhere it's not enough. So people are hungry and living a hard life," said Himanshu, Vanvasi Chetna Ashram.

Cycle of deprivation

Till the face off between the Maoists and Salwa Judum the adivasis lived off the forest and their land, eating organic rice, roots, fruits and protein-rich fish and meat.

But with the escalating tension and their own lives under threat, food became scarce. They couldn't go into the forests as often, afraid they could be attacked.

But once they reached the camp their access to the forest ended completely and so did their livelihood. The absence of any purchasing power only increased their impoverishment and its visible everywhere, reed thin children with vacant eyes, clinging to their underfed mothers who are barely able to breastfeed.

Volunteers at the camp say this cycle of deprivation has caused widespread malnutrition. Twelve children died of malnutrition in July last year, deaths that went unacknowledged by the state government. The state health workers confirmed the deaths but refused to speak on camera."We found that at least 12 children had died but did the government do anything? It does not even acknowledge the deaths.

This was bound to happen when you uproot people from their homes and force them to live locked up in these camps. They have no freedom to look after themselves," said Subhash Mahapatra, a human rights activist.

UNICEF intervention

It was only after deaths were reported that the government stepped in. Four ICDS care centres or anganwadis were set up for 2000 children who live here. Even though children below six are supposed to receive food, healthcare and elementary schooling at the anganwadi all they get is a daily meal of khichdi.

The state minister for women and child development was on a visit in the area. At the UNICEF-run nutrition rehabilitation centre she spoke to anganwadi workers, all of whom had been shifted from their centres in conflict-hit villages to work at the camp."After Salwa Judum came we couldn't work over there, so the government told us to come here," said Savita, an anganwadi worker.Set up five months ago, the centre's first task was to identify the grade four or severely malnourished children below six.

Many families had been living here under appalling conditions since August 2005. NDTV's team had visited the camp then and found rampant illness and children on the brink of starvation.Today at least 95 children are seriously malnourished.

The UNICEF provided immediate intervention, a diet of egg, banana, milk and khichdi, and some of the children like Raju did improve. But now the worry is that less than half the children turn up since their mothers can't spend their entire day at the centre and have other children to take care.Minister defends ICDS

But the minister defends the ICDS programme."It is not as if dalia and other goods are not reaching our anganwadis. I can guarantee you 101 per cent that nutritious food is reaching all anganwadis in Chhatisgarh," said Lata Usendi, Minister of Women and Child Development.But the reality is starkly different.

The trauma of living in a conflict zone, homeless and battling hidden hunger has taken a severe toll on the health of the adivasis and the greatest impact has been on young children and mothers. In a similar experiment, the Andhra Pradesh government had moved thousands of adivasis in Kurnool, Mahboobnagar and Prakasham districts to camps.

Social activists say that many wasted away within a period of ten years, a costly price that Chhattisgarh too may have to pay if the government continues to believe that Salwa Judum is a Gandhian movement fostering peace not violence.


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posted by Bimal 31.1.07,


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