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Monitoring malnutrition
Following up on media reports, a Supreme Court team visited the areas of concern in Uttar Pradesh and confirmed the alarmingly high levels of acute hunger due to a total breakdown of the social security system in the region.

A grim picture emerged from an inquiry team appointed by the Supreme Court to look into deprivation in the village of Ganne in Uttar Pradesh. Nine out of 10 children are in the last stages of malnutrition; 8 out of 10 people are deprived of every national social security scheme and live with starvation and hunger; the average lifespan here is 40.  

The report attributes the crisis in Shankargarh area, spread over 150 sq km and comprising Ganne, to “apathy, insensitivity, nexus between vested interests and elected representatives, with active approval of the administration and state”. There is “a total collapse of food security-related schemes,” says the report, recommending “emergency measures” in up to 46 villages.  

“Protruding stomachs, dry, whitish hair, ashen skin, skinny children -- hunger stares you in the face,” says the report which has been refuted by the state government. “Habit, not hunger,” says the local government, makes children eat mud in Ganne, 45 km east of Allahabad and a 12 km walk from the nearest tar road. 

Written by Arundhati Dhuru, an advisor to the Supreme Court, and economist Jean Dreze, the report is the latest indicator of the frailness of India’s vast but inefficient and corruption-ridden social security system on which the nation will spend more than Rs 1.18 lakh crore over 2010-11.  

The Planning Commission is presently working at identifying the number of poor in advance of right to food legislation, stalled since March. Experts have said reform of India’s social security schemes is vital if the government is to deliver “inclusive growth”, an ambition repeatedly stressed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  

After the Supreme Court team visited Ganne, the district administration, which had earlier rubbished the newspaper reports, re-started several programmes like the midday meal scheme, child health centres, jobs-for-work programme, and drinking water projects. “Following the observations of the Supreme Court team about the anganwadi (a nutritional health centre) outside the village, the same has now been opened within village limits,” said the director of Uttar Pradesh’s child development and nutrition department, Devendra Verma. 

Verma quoted the state’s own findings saying: “It was found that children were eating mud as a habit and not due to hunger.” Earlier, reporters from the newspaper Hindustan Times had found frail, malnourished children eating lumps of mud laced with silica -- a raw material for glass sheets and soap -- because they were not officially classified as poor and so were ineligible for assistance.  

Most families here work in stone quarries and eat one or two meals a day comprising boiled rice and salt, with a watery vegetable if they are lucky.  

Since Shankargarh is rocky and most of the land is unfit for cultivation, villagers have little choice but to work in the silica mines. The mining rights to 46 villages over 150 sq km vest with the former ruler, the Raja of Shankargarh, in perpetuity. He leases the mines out to contractors who exploit thousands of villagers, says the newspaper report. 

“There are strong indications that people are living in conditions of bonded labour,” the Supreme Court report said. 

The villagers belong mainly to a community called the Kols, a scheduled caste found across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Originally jungle-dwellers, they were driven out when the forests were cleared. The Kols do not own even the land they live on; their children help them break stones and when the monsoons arrive they migrate as far west as Surat, in Gujarat.  

The Grade IV malnutrition that the team found in 90% of children requires hospitalisation, according to Union health ministry standards. 

Apart from hunger, the team found every third person diagnosed with tuberculosis through inhaling silica. ‘Shankergarh-wali TB’ is the name given by locals to what appears to be incurable silicosis. Medical care for most is a luxury. “They are not covered by any labour laws or medical benefits,” the report says.  

The report was forwarded to the Uttar Pradesh government by the Commissioners to the Supreme Court which monitors programmes related to food security as part of a nine-year-long case that seeks to make the right to food a fundamental right. 

India is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry -- about 230 million people -- according to a World Food Programme report released in March 2009.

 

Source: InfoChange