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Melghat (Amravati): In the hilly terrain of tribal Melghat, the word ‘kuposhan’ (malnutrition) is casually used in nearly every thatched hut, as though it is normal for children to have distended stomachs and scrawny limbs. “Forget malnutrition. I am worried because he has a skin infection and uncontrollable diarrhoea,” says Sumitra Mavaskar of her 21-month-old son Hanees.
For Sumitra, a resident of Churni village, the state-defined categories of severe acute malnutrition or Grade IV malnutrition mean little; rashes, to her, are a bigger worry.
Weighing a mere six kilos, Hanees is grossly underweight for his age. It has left him susceptible to common infections. “He started walking, but his legs have no strength to stand. He doesn’t eat anything and only tolerates mother’s milk,” says the mother.
At 22, Sumitra is a young mother with deep scars. She lost a son just a few months ago. And her seven hours of physical labour on the family’s wheat fields has left her too weak to breastfeed Hanees anymore. The village volunteer implored the Mavaskars to take Hanees to a government healthcare centre, but in vain. “We lost our older grandchild at the hospital. What is the guarantee that they will be able to help Hanees?” says the child’s grandfather Byayjee.
The scene being played out, unfortunately, is a common one. Themagnitude of the crises unfolds as you trek through Melghat’s villages that are nestled deep in the thick forests and speak to the Korkus, the indigenous people of the area.
The government says there are 2,391 Korku children below the age of six who, like Hanees, are severely malnourished, though child experts fear the real figure is much bigger. There are many young mothers like Sumitra who have lost their young children; and then there are women who died in childbirth. According to officials, low-birth weight, pneumonia and premature births are to blame for most child deaths.
Maternal and child deaths have afflicted many Korku families for generations. Anil Bethekar lost his 23-year-old wife Rukhma just a day before TOI met him last week. Five months pregnant, she succumbed after fighting spells of dizziness through the night. The couple had suffered the trauma of a stillbirth last year.
Doctors at the Katkumbh primary healthcare centre, where Rukhma was registered for antenatal care, said family members refused to take her to the hospital after she took ill. “We were married for three years. I didn’t think the situation would get so bad,” is all Anil managed to say. In the end, Rukhma went down in government registers as yet another maternal death and a Korku village mourned another demise.