The Bombay High Court on Monday took the Maharashtra government to task for the deaths of at least 73 children due to malnutrition in the state’s tribal belt of Melghat in Amravati district, reported Live Law. The division bench added that it will hold the state health secretary responsible if there are any more deaths.

“We are putting the health secretary on guard and notice,” said the court while hearing petitions seeking better healthcare facilities in the Melghat region. “If we come across that by the next hearing more deaths have taken place, we will take stern action.”

One of the petitions said 73 children, under six years of age, died due to malnutrition in Melghat in the last four months till July. From April 1, 2020, to July 31 this year, 330 toddlers died in the region and 168 stillbirths were recorded, the petitioner told the court.

The bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni was hearing a clutch of petitions seeking health specialists, proper nutrition and facilities for children and expectant mothers in the Melghat region. The petitioners included Dr Rajendra Burma and activist Bandu Sampatrao Sane.

The court directed that gynaecologists, pediatricians and radiologists from civil hospitals should be sent to these tribal areas across the state regularly.

Sane pointed out that there was only one hospital at the district headquarters for the tribals of Amravati. That too, he added, was inaccessible due to lack of road connectivity.

Advocate Jugal Kishore Gilda, who represented Dr Burma, said that the Covid-19 pandemic had worsened the situation. He warned that if effective steps were not taken immediately, at least 900 children may die.

He added that children and expecting mothers from 11 other tribal areas such as Nandurbar and Palghar were also suffering due to insufficient medical facilities.

The Maharashtra government’s counsel said the state machinery has been trying to mitigate the problem for decades. The state’s counsel, Neha Bhide, added that the central government was responsible for disbursing funds to the state under various schemes.

The bench then asked the state government to file an affidavit, detailing the current status of medical and other facilities in tribal areas. It also asked the Centre for details on the total amount disbursed for the upliftment of tribals and how it was monitoring the situation.

The petitioners were also asked to file an affidavit with the latest update on deaths due to malnutrition. All the stakeholders have to submit the details to the court by September 6.