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Nourishing India’s tribal children

Children at Narasingpur village who do not use toilets :(

Children at Narasingpur village who do not use toilets 😦

I was at a two day conclave on Nourishing India’s tribal children, at Bhubaneswar last week. It was jointly organised by Union Tribal Affairs Ministry, Odisha Government and UNICEF.

I am no expert on the topic. In fact, I know very little. So it was an interesting experience for me to learn of different perspectives. Everybody had their own way of looking at it – the government, the NGOs, UNICEF, the media and the frontline workers working directly with these people.

The statistics on malnutrition in tribal children were quite shocking! Every second child is stunted, and the bulk of them are severely stunted.

There were many NGOs talking about the efforts they were making in providing supplementary nutrition through nutrition rehab centers, running crèches for children of working mothers, one-full-meal schemes etc.—all very successful in significantly reducing the malnutrition rates in these regions.

What caught my attention were some sane minds who spoke about understanding why these children were malnourished rather than just feeding them with nutrition supplements.

It is naïve for us to think that these people don’t know how to take care of their nutrition needs. These are people who traditionally lived on forest produce and indigenous crops that they grew. Now we’ve taken away their rights to the same forests and also taught them to grow crops that would fetch them money, but not nutrition. They do not realise that their food now no longer has any nutrition.

Even if some of them are indeed consuming nutritious food, but are living in poor sanitation conditions, what goes in is what comes out – as is. Poor hygiene behaviour causes diarrhoea and other water borne diseases making sure no nutrition is absorbed by the body. Ensuring proper water and sanitation becomes more important, rather than providing nutrition supplements in such cases.

What surprised us the most were many voices saying tribal people are difficult to work with. On the contrary, from what Gram Vikas has experienced , they are one of the most cohesive societies and easy to engage with. The problem is that nobody is even reaching them to work with them (apart from a few NGOs here and there).

Accessibility IS a big issue.

These regions have poor health and sanitation facilities, little or no education facilities –only because they are not easily accessible. We have teachers and doctors appointed to these villages drawing government salaries and sitting comfortably at home or engaging in private practices because they do not want to go to these remote regions. I don’t think we can blame them either. What would be the motivating factor for someone to go serve in these regions that are almost totally cut off? Solving the accessibility issue is of prime importance and an urgent need.

I also learnt that budget is not a constraint. There are hundreds of crores of Rupees allocated to Tribal Development that get spent somewhere else or don’t get spent at all (!) finally, because even those who supposedly want to do ‘development’ do not even want to go to these remote regions.

The much mentioned word at the conclave was ‘convergence’- of the different ministries, of the different stakeholders, NGOs etc. Malnutrition as an issue cannot be tackled in isolation. Issues of accessibility, forest rights, health, food security, livelihood, water and sanitation have to be addressed too.

There were many passionate panel discussions, talks, conclusions and recommendations coming out of the conclave. Everybody agreed that there is undoubtedly much to be done.
I am not sure such conclaves lead to anything more than recommendations, which may or may not be looked at.

All I can say is that I came out of the conclave with a better understanding of the plight of the tribal child, who is playing far away in the hills, completely oblivious of the fact that he is being discussed so passionately by thousands of minds.

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