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A Diet Of Apathy

The Sahariyas could be staring at an abyss if the Vasundhararaje govt stops free ration

A Diet Of Apathy
Sanjay Rawat
A Diet Of Apathy

Fact And Counter Fact

The Scheme   The New Rajasthan Government

Till last month, the Sahariyas were being provided 35 kg wheat free of cost. It was one major step which ensured that no household went without food for days.   Has decided to do away with all free supply of ration. The Sahariyas too will have to pay Rs 2 per kg for the 35 kg wheat allotment each BPL family gets.
The five-kg kit of 2 kg dal and cooking oil and 1 kg of ghee may not sound huge, but for the Sahariya families, it is most often the only protein or oil in their daily food   Claims it has not discontinued the scheme. Its implementation, however, speaks volumes as distribution of January supplies has begun only now, towards the end of July
The average of five- to seven-member family means the ration, including dal and cooking oil per head, may be very negligible   Government mid-day meals have helped bring down malnutrition cases, officials claim. But it is still very high, with an average of 80 children requiring hospitalisation on any given day.


Two-and-a-half-year-old Prince Sahariya cries uncontrollably as his grandmother Shanti tries to make him stand but gives up as his weak and spindly legs refuse to cooperate. “Hamara Prince bahut kamzor hai,” the doting grandmother offers apologetically, having brought him to the community health centre in Shahabad block in Baran district, Rajasthan. Prince’s mother has abandoned him and gone to her mother’s house with her six-month-old daughter. She apparently did not want to be burdened with the responsibility of a child destined never to walk properly.

There are 18 other children with Prince in the 12-bed malnutrition ward, most exhibiting signs of severe malnutrition—from bloated stomachs to stunted growth. Without adequate medical staff, the health centre clearly has more than its fair share of young patients it can look after. Some children have even been accommodated in the entrance gallery, where they are being given nourishing food supplements to get them back on their feet.

It’s a scene that repeats itself across other health centres in the district, their malnourished children’s wards filled to capacity, and then some more. Somi Kumavat, part of the nursing staff at the Kelawada community health centre, admits that most children in her ward have various health issues because of malnutrition. Most don’t stay for the full course of treatment, and so end up making repeat hospital visits.

An average of 80 children require hospitalisation on a given day, according to district records. “As we get a lot of children in malnourished state or those who fall ill frequently because of poor health, we are building another malnutrition ward,” says M.L. Verma, the additional district magistrate of Shahabad block, who’s also in charge of the Sahariya Development Project. Verma says it is an uphill task trying to get the parents or guardians of the sick children to stay in the hospital till the child recovers. This despite caregivers being given Rs 200 a day to compensate for lost wages.

Talk to the officials, however, and they tell you the situation has improved vastly over the years. This is because children are being provided nourishing daliya and milk in anganwadis and mawadis. The Sahariyas, in particular, were being offered an additional five-kilo kit, which consisted of two kilos of green gram, two kg of refined soybean oil and one kg ghee. This was in the run-up to the assembly elections in the state in December last year, when the Congress government led by Ashok Gehlot launched the initiative. It had become a lifeline for the families, most of whom worked for a pittance as farm labourers or found employment under the national rural employment guarantee sch­eme. The entitlements seem to have made a difference, starvation see­med to have vanished.

Hear their pleas CM Vasundhararaje

However, after the Vasundhararaje government came to power, the supply was stopped for months together and has just been resumed last week. It’s not yet clear whether the backlog from January onwards would be given. Meanwhile, in the budget session in June, the government also decided that every bpl family getting subsidised wheat under the pds would have to pay Rs 2 per kg. This would inc­lude the Sahariyas, as Baran collector Lalit Kumar Gupta confirmed.

From 93 per cent children who were reported malnourished a decade back, the number has come down to 5,240 last year.

This erratic and fitful approach had led to speculation that the new BJP government actually has no int­ention of continuing the policy of using largesse to help the Saha­riyas out of extreme distress. Kishanganj BJP MLA scoffs at the suggestion. “As far as we know, there’s no plan to disconti­nue any of the schemes for the Sahariyas,” he says. “There has been a delay in the supply of the five-kg kits due to tendering problems with the dal supplies, as the dealer was seeking a price higher than the tendered amount. But it’s been resolved and we are ready to begin the distribution of the January ration.”  Distribution has indeed resumed, but no formal assurance exists on its regularity. Despite repeated atte­m­pts, Baran’s MP, Dushyant Singh Dholpur, who is also the son of chief minister Vasundhararaje, did not respond to Outlook’s requests.

Designated as a ‘primitive tribal group’, the Sahariyas are among India’s poorest people. The denudation of Aravalli’s rich forests has not only altered their livelihood and way of life but also their dietary pattern, says Moti Lal of Sankalp, a civil society organisation that has been working in Baran for over three decades.

In Baran district, the Sahariyas are concentrated in the Shahabad and Kishanganj blocks where wheat and soybean cultivation has replaced the earlier crop of nutritive coarse grains. “Thirty years back, one did not hear of malnourishment among the Sahariyas as the tribals had a rich diet of millets—jau and bajra—and access to forest produce. Till now, there was only the assurance of 35 kg of wheat,” says Moti Lal. That too shall cease to be free.

It will be a pity, for the plight of the Sahariyas has improved somewhat since the time the Supreme Court had to intervene to ensure the tribals right to food on account of starvation deaths among the Sahariyas in the drought of 2001. Currently, there are an estimated 25,000 families and their population has crossed a lakh, up from 79,372 in the 2002 survey. Hunger deaths have been reported in 2004, 2009 and even in 2011, but from the 93 per cent Sahariya children who were reported malnourished a decade back (15 per cent of them severely malnourished), the official record was 5,240 children last year, while 2,287 children have been reported malnourished in the first six months of this year.

“My study as the Supreme Court commissioner for right to food has shown that Sahariyas of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and Musahirs of UP and Bihar are the most dispossessed. There were very high levels of bondage and starvation among them when I first studied their case in 2002,” says social activist Harsh Mander.

Following a protracted struggle by the Sahariyas, the Rajasthan government had in 2011 stepped in to get many of them freed from bonded labour. Today many of the Sahariya families are undertaking cooperative farming on their newly returned or allocated plots of land. The assurance of 35 kg of foodgrain through pds, the special entitlement of 200 days of work under NREGA and incentivised education facilities has also helped to improve the lot of the Sahariyas.

As Purshottam Sahariya, the 23-year-old ward panch of Sunda village says, “The ration we get may not suffice for a big family, but in the case of a poor family, it helps to keep hunger at bay and put aside some money. For many, the 2 kg dal is the only nourishment as they cannot afford to buy it themselves.” Vijay Mehta of Sankalp narrates how children often opt to take home the meal provided in the anganwadi or mawadi home to be shared by all. This is one reason why the village schools have good attendance.

Many, however, allege that the Saha­riyas have become used to free handouts. In response, Mander says: “While I don’t expect the state to provide for the depri­ved adivasis forever, it should do so till their condition improves which will need to be for a long time.” Death due to malnutrition and in some cases hunger persist, as Mander discovered when a decade later, he traced his footsteps to the same families he had visited in 2002. In the light of this, withdrawing their entitlements could push the Sahariyas back to the brink it has taken the system almost a decade to pull them back from. Is the Rajasthan government listening?

By Lola Nayar in Baran district, Rajasthan

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