THE killer that stalked Melghat and put it on the malnutrition map of the country is alive and kicking. In the feeble protests of two-year-old Amul Ramsu Jambekar, only son, and one among four children. With a low-grade fever for the past few months. And the threat of a young life ebbing away. Amul is but one among the faceless statistics that pile up in village registers in the talukas of Dharni and Chikaldhara in Maharashtra's Amravati district. An oasis of deprivation.
Where classifying the various types of malnutrition is a full-time job. At the bottom of the heap is 15-month-old Sandeep Sunderlal Javarkar of Titamba village, Dharni taluka. Helpless, the child's grandmother says, "The child does not get enough milk. To earn Rs 25 a day, his mother leaves home early to work in other people's fields and returns very late." All of 4 kg, he is a grade IV child—the malnutrition may at any point turn fatal. At last count, i.e. from April-August 1998, 0.6 per cent of all children in the region belonged to this category.
The story is replicated in at least two homes in each of Melghat's 318 Korku-dominated villages. For although the IMR (infant mortality rate) has seen a significant drop from 82.50 per cent to 50.20 per cent for Chikaldhara and 71.50 per cent to 54 per cent for Dharni between '96 and '97, the fact is that food is still a scarce commodity for a vast number of Korku homes. The prey: children. The death toll: going up each year. From 926 in '93-94 to 870 in '94-95 to 931 in '95-96 to 1,050 in '96-97 to 706 in '97-98 to 288 up to April-August '98.
"All tribal sub-plan areas suffer from the spectre of malnutrition and Melghat is one of them. But if you observe their child rearing methods, you will know that the government is not responsible for these deaths," is the justifica-tion provided by G.P. Garad, tribal project officer, Dharni.
But make no mistake about it. It is abject poverty compounded by government policies which have brought the Korkus down on their knees. Deprived of their traditional methods of survival by the Forest Conservation Act and Project Tiger, the Korkus have had to turn to agriculture for sustenance. "Out of an area of 4,000 sq km, over 3,000 sq km is non-cultivable and forest land," says Shrikant Jichkar, former Rajya Sabha MP from the area, "which means there are roughly 40,000 families sharing 70,000 hectares. And that just does not provide enough food." With just a handful of earth to live off, food has become a near-luxury.