The Hunger Games, Again

Javed Iqbal
Grist Media



Meghala died a day after 23 children in
Bihar’s Saran district died from contaminated mid-day meals. Meghala died of malnutrition and pneumonia in the heart of Bangalore. She was six.

On July 17, as the mudslinging began over the mid-day meal tragedy and as Bihar’s death toll entered national and international headlines, Murugamma was burying her daughter at the Dodamma Burial Grounds near DJ Halli in Bangalore.

Perhaps you’ve read some statistics about malnutrition. UNICEF says that one-third of the world's malnourished children live in India. You’ve perhaps even read the ongoing debates about the lack of current data about malnutrition in India.

Malnutrition remains the moon-faced shame that the economy turns its back on. Between 2009 and 2011, 2,689 died in Raichur, Karnataka alone. In Maharashtra, the issue was raised in December 2011 in the state assembly where it was revealed that 65 infants die daily in Maharashtra, with 13,683 deaths between January and September 2011. Yet, the State Woman and Child Development Minister claimed that these were not related to malnutrition.

More dreaded statistics from the grim reaper statisticians of the UNICEF: 3.97 lakh children under the age of five died of pneumonia in 2010. The most recent example in the news has been of Kerala, which boasts the lowest infant mortality rate in India – 54 children so far have died in Attapady.

Dates, numbers. Statistics, policies, hunger. They tend to remain the same, sound the same. Now Meghala has joined the march of the statistics.

Meghala was born on the November17, 2006, to a Christian Dalit mother who lived in a decrepit corner of the slum in DJ Halli, Bangalore. They lived next to a garbage heap that leaked and seeped its miasma into their lives.

Meghala’s mother Murugamma is visually handicapped. Murugamma sometimes spent her days sitting at her neighbours’ thresholds – sometimes tolerated, often abused and sent away, left to her own means. A family of hijras would occasionally help feed Meghala, her sister and her mother, stretching their own limited means.

Mostly, it was Meghala’s older sister, Ruth, who would feed the family. She once spent her waking hours in a factory making incense sticks for Rs 15 a day. Ruth would then come home with callused and sooted palms and cook, clean, collect water and help her mother get about. Ruth has stopped working in the factory since her hands gave way. Ruth is 13.

Ruth’s old toys were Meghala’s toys. When I met Meghala earlier this year, it was clear that her quiet demeanour grew out of spending the day around her mother’s stillness. But she did have a wholly child-like curiosity.

She loved her cake, whenever she could get some, and watching Chutti TV. Unlike her elder sister,Meghala had a few friends in the neighbourhood with whom she had running gags and jokes.

She also suffered from malnutrition. She couldn’t use her legs. She looked like a toddler even though she was turning six. Her most recent weight was 11 kg, almost half of the standard weight of 21 kg for a six-year-old.

Meghala spent her entire life in DJ Halli, a place with more temples, churches and mosques than anganwadis. From her home at Modi Road, you can clearly see the temple encroaching over the nearest anganwadi building – or is it the anganwadien croaching into the temple? The anganwadi has neither toilets, storage space nor – as in Meghala's own home – any supply of drinking water.

Here are some of the schemes Murugamma should have access to but doesn’t: a BPL card, a widow’s pension and a disability pension. Hers is a history of cynicism, unemployment, listlessness and pain. She lost her eyesight when she was nine to an inexplicable fever. Her mother Pushpamma had been a construction labourer who worked every day till she died in July 2008. To Murugamma’s history is now added her bitter helplessness in bringing up her own two daughters.

Yet there is strange sense of resolve in her. “I beg, what else can I do?” she asks, taking her children to the nearest church or dargah for food. This was as unsteady a supply of nutrition as the anganwadi that would only deliver rations to her house once in a while. Once Meghala turned six, an age above the mandate of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, the anganwadi was no longer legally responsible for her nutrition.

*****

A week ago on July 14,after Sunday Mass, Murugamma noticed that Meghala was developing a fever. Ruth, Murugamma and a social worker took Meghala to the nearby BR Ambedkar Medical Hospital at Tannery Road, but the hospital refused to admit her.

The family says that the staff there was apparently afraid that her death, which they had already assumed, would be stuck on their hands. Similarly, the family says that Baptist Hospital too had the same attitude; they admitted the little girl and diagnosed her with pneumonia only after a social worker threatened to expose them with legal threats and media coverage.

Within two days, she lost the use of a third of her lungs, which were filling up with mucus and blood. She vomitted and coughed blood. She was hooked to a ventilator just to breathe.

Meghala finally died at 4:31 pm on July 17. At Dodamma Burial Grounds later that evening, only the headlights of an ambulance lighted the cemetery. Ruth quietly said goodbye tot he girl who had been both sister and daughter to her. A ceremony in Tamil, interspersed with silence, songs and the tears of a very small group of broken people, went quickly.

The pastor asked Murugamma if she would like to see her daughter one last time. She touched her and moved back. The sounds of shovels throwing earth over her small coffin filled the quiet landscape. Murugamma and Ruth left the cemetery and simply sat down on the side of the road, watching the church members and others leave. Her neighbours were all absent.

The Woman and Child Welfare Department says it has no responsibility for pneumonia, which comes under the watch of the Health Department. This family's wrecked house, the heaps of garbage, the seepage of rainwater, they don't come under either department since infrastructure comes under the ambit of the Bruhat Bangalore Municipal Corporation.

“Why did no one from your community ever help you, Murugamma?” I had to ask her, and she replied in broken Hindi. “Unko dil nahi lagta hai, woh bhi garib log hai (They're not that affected, they're also poor).” She’d eventually joke and say, “Meri beti abhi hamari ammi ban gayi (My daughter has become my mother).”

Ruth has always taken pride in looking after her mother and sister. Now she is filled with doubt. “Do you think I should go to school?” she asks. “Everyone keeps telling me to go to school. But I wonder what is the point of going now? I have already missed so many lessons and what will I be able to learn now? Plus my mother is blind. Who will look after my mother? If I go to school, I can only come back by 4 pm. She will be alone. How will she manage?”

Blindness, or any form of disability, does not fit into the scheme of things of community-based programmes like the anganwadis. The Deputy Director of the Women and Child Welfare Department, who was the first ever government official to visit Murugamma, told her, “We need community support too.”

Whose responsibility was it to notice what was happening to Meghala? The imaginary community support system, the anganwadi staff, or the dozens of other schemes that are supposed to nurture her in India today?

*****

In May 2011 in Karnataka, a local Kannada news channel broke the story of starvation deaths in Raichur – home to India’s only gold mine, arsenic-spiked groundwater and a thermal power plant that supplies electricity to half the state. Raichur-based Vimochana Sangha wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of Karnataka leading to a public interest litigation and the creation of a Core Committee to deal with malnutrition.

The committee’s reports state that every government body – from the Panchayati Raj to the ICDS to the municipal corporations to the Horticulture Department to the Women and Child Development Department – has a role to play in preventing malnutrition. Yet these departments just blame each other when swollen bellies start showing up on television screens.

If, for instance, there is no obvious space for an anganwadi, the Karnataka Slum Development Board has to help ensure there is. If the supply of food to anganwadi centres is broken, the supervisors have to ensure that anganwadi workers don’t have to buy eggs and milk out of their own pocket.

ASHA workers are supposed to work with pregnant mothers to ensure that mothers don’t suffer from anaemia and give birth to fragile little children who barely live for a few months or years.

Once a severely malnourished child is sent to the Nutrition Health Centre, the government is supposed to ensure there is provision for the mother or guardian to stay with the child. The government is also supposed to provide minimum wage under the MNREGA to the mother or the guardian, since they will lose work during their stay in the hospital. The Department of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj are supposed to conduct Gram Sabhas to empower communities in dealing with malnutrition. The Department of Horticulture in Karnataka is supposed to plant fruit bearing saplings – guava, chikku (sapota), papaya, pomegranate – and local seasonal fruit bearing saplings – anjeer (fig),sitaphal (custard apple) – in the backyards of anganawadi centres.

Yet these are only a few recommendations from the 89-page report that covers every crumb and corner of the State’s embrace of malnutrition and its salvation.

Meanwhile, the Food Security Bill has no grievance redressal system, no provisions like old age pension for senior citizens, the homeless or the destitute, and only provides for cereals and not basic food necessities. It provides up to 5 kg per person per month, thus ensuring only 166 gm of cereal per person per day – which is barely enough for two rotis a day, according to the Right to Food Campaign.

In Murugamma’s case, even that is not going to reach her. This new Food Security Bill again opts for a targeted Public Distribution System. Murugamma has no BPL card. How is the State going to find her? It has already lost Meghala.

Javed Iqbal is a freelance journalist and photographer. Follow him at https://twitter.com/DynamiteTheMoon

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