Palghar district in Maharashtra is once again in the news for malnutrition-induced deaths of Adivasi children. The state government is in a flurry – with the governor having taken up the matter – and will likely focus on better delivery of its nutrition and health schemes. But in the nitty-gritty of implementing these schemes, the wider issues that contribute to the problem of malnutrition are being forgotten.

Rather than just handing out supplementary foods to Adivasis, a more holistic approach is needed if there is to be any long-term solution to the problem. A political blame game will lead nowhere if these issues are not addressed. There is a serious need to re-examine state policy with respect to the areas inhabited by such communities.

A once-proud people have been reduced to becoming beneficiaries of state largesse. Pregnant women of a community that gathered its own food (including tubers, fruits and forest vegetables) and planted its own crops have to visit a state-run anganwadi to eat a free meal. Children who never went hungry because they collected dhamna, alva, jambhul and other fruits from the forests are to be given “seasonal fruits” in an anganwadi.

Supplementary feeding by definition cannot replace the primary source of nutrition. And while the state cannot and must not provide primary nutrition, it must definitely create the conditions to ensure the proud Adivasi is able to provide two square meals for himself.

Making them self-reliant

The state must ensure such villages are self-reliant. While the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, which provides for self-governing villages, holds out tremendous possibilities, it is pertinent to note that not a single village in Palghar has been declared self-governing under this law. The Act is no magic wand. But if its spirit is properly imbibed, it is the key to sustainable development in such areas.

The Adivasis must stand on their own feet. Free meals for expectant mothers and supplementary food for infants in anganwadis, while serving a purpose in the present situation, cannot be a permanent solution for underweight babies. The state must ensure the enrichment of the Adivasi economy, and take steps to provide and protect its resource base.

The Forest Rights Act, the preamble of which states that the Act seeks to “ensure the livelihood and food security” of forest-dwelling tribes, had the potential to do precisely that. But its implementation across the country tells a different story. Only 16.84 lakh claims for land rights out of a total of 40.72 lakh claims filed till date have been approved. This means around half of them were rejected.

Mokhada taluka in Palghar is no exception. The average size of a plot of land approved here is barely an acre. Some 19.4% of claims approved are for less than five gunthas (40 gunthas make an acre).

Forest rights

According to the findings of a sample survey conducted by the Tribal Research Training Institute in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district some years ago, 72% of the 148 families in which malnutrition-induced deaths occurred owned less than three acres of land. Of this, 40% owned less than an acre or were landless. The administration needs to seriously review the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

The takeover of forests by the state in the 1800s led to the destruction of the symbiotic relationship between Adivasis and forests. The barren hillsides of Mokhada taluka are testament to this tragedy. The concept of “Community Forest Rights under the Forest Rights Act has the potential to re-establish this relationship. Even after being degraded, forest resources today are rich with produce that can feed and heal Adivasi communities, thus eliminating malnutrition and ill-health”.

In Maharashtra, these rights are recognised across only 12% of its total forest area. In Palghar district, only 30 villages in Jawhar taluka and six in Mokhada taluka have been granted these rights. The total area covered is just about 1,743 hectares.

The administration has recently opened up to the possibility of income generation for Adivasis from the sale of wild forest vegetables. However, the focus must not only be on the earning of a livelihood from forest produce but also on ensuring the nutritious forest food resources are accessed and consumed by the communities themselves. The market works in insidious ways. Care must be taken to ensure there isn’t a repeat of the White Revolution experience – when the sale of milk brought cash to families in and around Anand in Gujarat but led to a spike in malnutrition as the milk, curd and butter milk that were earlier given to children were diverted to the market.

Nutrition deficit

There is also a foodgrain tragedy in the areas inhabited by Adivasi communities and it would not be incorrect to say the state is responsible for it. Hundreds of traditional rice varieties have been replaced by a handful of state-sponsored varieties that give increased yield but lower nutrition. The benefits of brown rice and red rice are well documented. Yet, most families consume the polished white rice they receive at ration shops.

The state has also made no effort to implement the clauses in the Food Security Act that mandate the provision of nutritious millets through the Public Distribution System. Millets were once grown and consumed extensively in these areas. But while the area under paddy cultivation has gone up 31% across the country between 1955 and 2005, that of millets has gone down 42% in the same period.

The production and consumption of nagli (a variety of millet also known as nachni) in the Jawhar–Mokhada area is steadily decreasing. The agricultural department, through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, is guilty of converting nagli-producing hill slopes into levelled terraces for paddy cultivation. There has been no state effort to promote research on increasing nagli yield or on pest control for a better crop. Neither has any attempt been made to include nagli products in the food provided by anganwadis. Why are nagli bhakris (unleavened bread) not fed to Adivasi children in ashramshalas?

Migration factor

The migration of Adivasi families for work, which continues unabated, has also contributed to the malnutrition crisis. The sporadic and untimely nature of work under MNREGA ensures families migrate in search of better opportunities. Those who stay behind are denied timely wages.

Efforts at redressing these problems have been largely ineffective. Little or no action has been taken on the findings of social audits conducted by the government itself. One such exercise in Jawhar taluka a year and a half ago revealed large-scale corruption, siphoning of funds and non-completion of work. But those responsible for siphoning funds meant for the development of the village and denying the labourers their wages are yet to face action.

All over India, millions of Adivasis leave their homes seasonally and make their way to construction sites, salt pans, brick kilns, sugarcane and vegetable fields, silicon and stone quarries. Malnutrition is particularly high among these migrating families.

There is no mechanism to improve poor work conditions, ensure clean drinking water and access to proper health care, especially for pregnant women working as labourers. What is worse is that the state has failed to ensure the workers are paid even their earned wages. At the end of the season, many thousands of these workers return home empty-handed, cheated by their contractors.

Redressal mechanisms are ineffective. Twenty-one workers from a village in Jawhar taluka, who had worked at a salt pan on Mira Road in Thane district from December last year till March this year, are still to get their wages, despite complaints to the collector and the labour department. If workers are denied their pay, it is but natural that their children will be under-fed.

Vegetarian shift

In the past two decades, the spread of religious sects that promote vegetarianism has compounded the issue. A diet that included fish, dried fish and, occasionally, meat has suddenly become bereft of animal protein. Unfortunately, no replacements for this loss of protein have found their way on to the Adivasi’s plate. Curd is rarely consumed. Instead, starch-filled potatoes are a regular feature of their diet.

It would be foolish to hold the administration directly responsible for this. But there is nothing that stops it from taking remedial steps and fulfilling its duty to ensure its nutrition-related schemes and health facilities deliver. The government must focus on better implementation of existing schemes like the Amrut Aahar Yojana, fill vacant health posts, especially of specialists, and ensure proper functioning of its Village Child Development Centres. Special additional food must be given to malnourished children even after they are discharged from these centres to ensure they don’t slip back into a malnourished state. Perhaps a couple of new schemes should be started too.

The implementation of a recently announced scheme to provide eggs, bananas and seasonal fruits to Adivasi children between the ages of seven months and six years will be useful. Efforts at greater coordination between the tribal, health, and women and child development departments is essential. All this will lead to some improvement in the situation. But experience tells us that the annual outcry will take place once again year after year. The government needs to look at the situation through a different lens.

The writer is an activist with the Kashtakari Sanghatana, who has worked with the Adivasis of Maharashtra for 30 years, and is also an Expert Member of the Rest of Maharashtra Development Board.