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Melghat (Amravati): Two public interest litigations filed in the Bombay high court, over seven independent committee reports submitted, crores spent since the early nineties. And yet, the tribal patch of Melghat has remained an area of darkness in Maharashtra, recording an abysmal infant mortality rate (IMR) of 48 in 2010-11, considerably higher than the state average of 33.
Nestled in the north of Amravati district, Melghat is known for its lush forests and a tiger reserve. It is, regrettably, also infamous for its poor IMR and child mortality rate. For the 6,951 live births that took place in 2010-11, 335 infants died within a year, says recently released government figures.
• Melghat recorded an infant mortality rate (infant deaths/1,000 live births) of 48, way higher than the
state average of 33
• In 2010-11, 509 child deaths and 20 maternal deaths reported
• That is more than 1 child dying every day and nearly two women dying in childbirth every month Melghat child mortality rate worst in Maharashtra
During the same period, the belt, which is home to around 37,000 children below the age of six years, witnessed a shocking 509 child deaths and 20 maternal deaths. Simply put, that is over one child below six years dying every day and nearly two women dying in childbirth every month.
Melghat is made up of two tribal blocks—Dharni and Chikhaldara. It is mainly a forest area and has a population of around 2.85 lakh, mostly belonging to the Korku tribe. Recently lauded for its healthy tiger population, Melghat’s child and maternal mortality indicators have consistently stayed below the state’s average.
By the government’s own admission, 12,259 children below six years in the region are malnourished, though experts put the figure higher. “Our past studies in Maharashtra showed that child mortality as well as malnutrition was grossly underreported. It was nearly three to four times higher than government figures,” says Dr Abhay Bang, who was part of a court-appointed committee to study child deaths in Melghat in 2005.
Even going by state figures, the indicators have remained stubbornly bleak over the years, indicating a failure of development programmes.
Expectedly, government officials blame the appalling numbers on the hilly terrain and traditional tribal customs, but they fail to explain several ground realities. Amravati collector Richa Bagla admits, “The infant and maternal mortality rate is higher in Melghat than the rest of the state.” She, however, argues that complex socio-cultural traditions of the Korku tribe and the tough terrain made intervention difficult. “Women bear children at a young age without adequate time gap between them, giving birth to premature and underweight children which breeds a vicious cycle.”
Parmila Velle says her 18-month-old daugther Saraswati was refused food at an anganwadi in Hilda village because the child was not registered there from birth. Velle had moved to Hilda after being ostracized by her husband’s family because her three-month-old daughter died of “sukhi bimari” in January. She now worries for Saraswati, who lies in Churni rural hospital with diarrhoea.
Many miles away, in Khadimal village, anganwadi worker Sunanda Amolhe told TOI that she could give children khichdi only for two days in March since the anganwadi had not received the mandatory food ration despite her repeated complaints. “Even the court has repeatedly cracked down on the government machinery, but there is no will to change anything on the field,” says Bandya Sane of Melghatbased NGO Khoj.
A walk through the forest reveals the complexity of the situation. Across healthcare centres, brand-new incubators lie unplugged as premature babies die at their home. The National Rural Health Mission, which has a budget of over Rs 16 crore for Melghat, promotes institutional deliveries, but the Korkus believe in homebirths. Over 21 villages in Melghat lack basic water supply. A recent public hearing in Amravati documented how many sub healthcare centres like those in Yevta were non-functional, the two paediatricians were not easily available and welfare funds were under spent.
Even innovative schemes have often been rendered ineffective due to poverty and joblessness. The government proposed hospitalization of severely malnourished kids for 21 days so that they could be nurtured back to health. But many Korkus, who cannot stay away from work because of limited means, take the child home earlier. “Efforts like child development centres might get drowned in the overall scenario of poverty, underdevelopment and migration. Reduction in child deaths will happen only in tandem with overall development efforts,” says Shyam Ashtekar, a member of the court-appointed committee.