For the Saharia tribals in Madhya Pradesh, life seems to mean marginalisation, starvation, malnutrition and diseases. The Saharia tribe has been facing social, political and economical neglect right since Independence, but since the year 2001, the tribe has made headlines because of increasing starvation and diseases. A visit to any of the 1,159 Saharia villages in the state of Madhya Pradesh reveals recent tales of child and maternal deaths.

The identity of the Saharias is closely linked to the forests; in fact the name is also derived from 'sehera' or 'sair', which literally means forest. For generations, the Saharias have depended on the forest for survival – agriculture, gathering forest produce and hunting being their traditional means of earning their livelihood. Life has not been easy for the Saharias, especially since their eviction from the forests in the 1860s. Poverty, lack of livelihood resources, indifferent government policies and social exclusion have forced the Saharias to migrate in large number, which again leads to insecurity and further deprivation.

Children's health in disaster

Every child in the 48 families in the village Ghothra Kapura in Sheopur district has been afflicted with skin diseases, but nobody has received medication. The children have open wounds on almost every part of their bodies -- eyelids, scalp, arms, stomach, back, palms and soles. During the Supreme Court enquiry visit in October 2006 they were found with some white ointment on their wounds. An inquiry revealed that this white powder was from paracetamol tablets which had been distributed by the ANM (health worker) and the villagers had applied that in hope of relief.

Midday meals are being served only on the days the schools is open, and the schools are not open everyday.

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Pansuri Bai of the village narrates that the children are highly troubled by flies. In fact, small larvae have been found in the wounds. When the villagers asked the ANMs for medicines, they were told to wash the wounds with soap. Pansuri Bai asks that when they cannot afford to purchase food, how they can afford to buy soap. Therefore they decided to put the medicines meant for fever on the wounds so that at least the flies would stay away.

The disastrous effects of malnutrition are visible in this area. In Ranipura village, at least eight children have died between April-August '06 because of ailments arising out of malnutrition or under nutrition. When the anganwadi of this village does not have even a weighing machine, how can malnutrition be calculated? Since the anganwadi worker is only partially literate, no records of the children are maintained. The women and child development officer O P Pandey of the district says that many of the anganwadi workers have now been made supervisors so the system has been hit. But what they fail to mention is that during the last 12 months, nutritious food sufficient for only three and half to four and half months has reached the anganwadis. Health camps have not been regularly held in the area and thus blaming only the health workers is not justified at all.

Anganwadi worker Kapuri Bai of Gothra Kapura also cites the problems in maintaining records of the malnourished children and the fact that she does not get any assistance from the department in this respect. This village saw deaths of 13 children in the year 2006, but there is no record available of the children below the age of one year. Thus it becomes clear that in the Sheopur district there is no official information available about the deaths of children below one year. There are 40 deaths mentioned in the state government records between April and August 2006 for entire district whereas the local NGO workers have recorded at least 44 deaths in only seven villages including Jaddpura, Ranipura and Gothra Kapura. Some vaccination targets seem to have been completed in the villages, but there are no arrangements to deal with the emergency health situations or even regular diseases.

The mid-day meal scheme too requires 'intensive treatment'. There is only one teacher Gajraj Singh available for the 108 children enrolled in the Ranipura village. This teacher is also not a local person, but travels from Rikshipeda village, which is 30 kilometres away. Naturally the school does not open every day. Since the school opens only three to four days a month, the mid-day meal too is distributed for only these many days. Similarly there is only one teacher available for 180 children in the Sararikhurd village under the Gothra panchayat, who too travels from another village.

Inefficacy of government machinery

During the last 22 months, 29 children below the age of six years in Patalgarh village of Sheopur district have died. After a series of complaints of child deaths due to malnutrition, the Commissioners to the Supreme Court in the Right to Food litigation ordered a Joint Commission of Enquiry to investigate the situation and causes. This commission submitted its report in November 2006 to the apex court and the state government simultaneously. The report mentioned: "The undeniable fact, borne out by the data…… is that Sheopur is one of the malnutrition hotspots of the world, with conditions worse than the worst case scenarios prevalent anywhere."

The intensive joint efforts of the judiciary, media and people's action groups resulted in the opening of an anganwadi at Patalgarh village after 15 months of struggle. People started getting food grains under PDS and the opportunity for employment first time in four years. The midday meal, however, is erratic here. Earlier, the District Collector M S Bhilala suspended two teachers for failure in attending school. Now, there is no regular teacher at the school. One guruji (para teacher), with the help of an animator, is handling 150 pupils. The school does not open everyday, and naturally midday meals are served only on the days the school is open.

But this is the story of only one village. The improvement in Patalgarh does not mirror the situation in villages like Ghothra Kapura, Ranipura and Saraikhurd. With the employment scene being as worse as it is, getting two square meals a day is a rarity. Radheyshyam of Ghothra Kapura says that they are tired of asking for work from the government. He says that they approached the tehsil office in August 2006 for work but their applications were not taken. Later 40 persons applied for work through registered post but in vain. He mentioned that there is a provision of unemployment allowance if someone doesn't get work within 15 days, but even after the passage of two months since applying, they have neither got work, nor the allowance.

The Collector Bhilala has a different take on the children's healthcare situation; malnutrition conditions are grave, but whenever malnourished children are admitted to the hospitals, which are located anywhere between 10 to 90 kilometres from the villages, under Bal Shakti Yojana, their parents take them away, he says. However the collector does not consider the fact that no Saharia family can survive without work for 14 days (the period of admission of a child to hosptial under the Bal Shakti Yojana).

With little or no employment prospects, poor or no healthcare facilities, and irregular supply of healthy food, it is not known till when the Saharias of Ranipura and Gothra Kapura will be forced to live on an empty stomach, with ailing bodies and festering wounds.