Malnutrition in Odisha's Nagada Highlights the Continuing Discrimination Against Tribals

After 19 children died of malnutrition in Odisha's Jajpur district, the state machinery has finally kicked into action. But ground realities speak volumes on the standard of living of the Juang tribal people.

Young mothers with their children in Nagada. Source: Sarada Lahangir

Young mothers with their children in Nagada. Source: Sarada Lahangir

Bhubaneswar: Jamuna Pradhan, a 23-year-old resident of Nagada village, Jajpur district, Odisha, expressed her helplessness at her family’s poverty and constant struggle for survival, and their lack of access to basic services. She lost her son to malnutrition last month. “We don’t know who to complain to. It seems hunger and helplessness is our destiny. Our children are perhaps born to die like this,” she said, with both anger and grief.

“On that day my son was complaining of stomach pain and was running a fever. We tried to take him to the doctor, but the nearest hospital is about 18 km away and you have to cross hills. Still, both my husband and I were trying to take him to the hospital. It was raining heavily, so we had to walk slowly. Before we could reach the hospital he died on my lap,” Jamuna said with tears in her eyes.

Jamuna’s son was one among 19 children who died of malnutrition in the past three-four months in Jajpur district’s Nagada and Guhiasal villages.

This issue gained public attention after five-year-old Sania Pradhan, son of Kaintha Pradhan from Guhiasal village, died in a hospital run by a private steel company in Kaliapani.

Soon after news of the 19 children dying spread, chief minister Naveen Patnaik formed a task force to address the issue. Government machinery has gone on the war footing since then – health services are now taken care of, food security is being ensured, a survey is ongoing to pave the road to the village. The Odisha human rights commission has also intervened in the matter.

Though these interventions are now in place, ground reality speaks volumes on the discrimination still faced by the Juang, classified as a particularly vulnerable tribal group by the government.

Nagada is a revenue village surrounded by mountainous forests. It is 18 km from the Chungudipal gram panchayat office. There is no paved road connecting to the village. Rocky mountain paths are the only way for the tribal people to go from their village to the gram panchayat or elsewhere, a walk that takes hours. About 37 families live in the village, with a total population of 250. The population comprises solely of members of the Juang scheduled tribe.

Integrated child development services

In the village, it is clearly visible that everyone there is thin and short. Almost all children within the age group of three-four years are pale, weak and malnourished, with bloated stomachs and dry skin. They are all illiterate and cannot understand Odia. There is neither an anganwadi centre nor a primary school in the village. A Delhi based NGO is running a pre-primary school that opens occasionally.

Aspire, an NGO working out of Delhi, conducted a survey of children aged between 5 and 12 years of age in Nagada recently. Results showed that out of 83 kids, about a third were suffering from malnutrition, measured by their body mass index. Another 17% were just marginally within the ‘normal’ range.

“This is the first time that we have seen sarkari babus (government officials) and doctors in our village. Otherwise no government official except an anganawdi worker has visited this village in the last ten years,” said Hemu Pradhan.

Women with their children in Nagada. Source: Sarada Lahangir

Women with their children in Nagada. Source: Sarada Lahangir

An anganwadi worker is the lowest functionary of an anganwadi centre, which is incharge of the implementation of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) government scheme. ICDS is designed to check for malnutrition and provide nutritious food  to all children within the age group of six months to six years. It provides important services free of cost to children and pregnant and lactating woman – immunisation, supplementary nutritious food, health check-ups, referral services, etc.

While asking about the implementation of ICDS in Nagada, Anganwadi worker Satya Bhama Dehuri revealed, “I have been working as an anganwadi worker from 2007. There is no anganwadi centre in Nagada. An angawadi centre is running in Guhiashala, around 5 km from Nagada. There are 56 children (within the relevant age group) and 11 pregnant and lactating woman in Nagada. None of them get breakfast or an afternoon meal under the ICDS programme. Only in the Guhiashala village, children and pregnant and lactating woman used to get ‘take home ration’, about two packets chhatua and eight eggs per month. No immunisation programme has been conducted in the village. Nor has a ‘village health and nutrition day’ been organised in the village since my joining in 2007.”

“Due to the inaccessibility and hilly terrains, even I couldn’t go to Nagada village often, though I’m supposed to. But I definitely visit the village once or twice a month,” she said, sounding helpless. 

Health and sanitation

Interacting with the tribal women, I learnt that they never go to a hospital or for any kind of medical treatment. There is no government hospital near the village and the Tata mining medical clinic is about 18 kms away. Galei Padhan, holding her two-year-old baby, said, “I had five children. But one of them died two months ago. None of my children have been immunised.” She stared at me blankly when I asked her about the Mamta Yojana. All the women in the village are unaware of this scheme and none of them has received the Rs 5,000 they are eligible for. Everyone in the village gives birth at home. The chief district medical officer, Phanindra Panigrahi, said, “The village is situated on a hilltop and there is no road, as a result of which we are unable to reach the spot and give them medical aid.”

A local NGO health worker in Nagada. Source: Sarada Lahangir

A local NGO health worker in Nagada. Source: Sarada Lahangir

Early marriage and no birth control or family planning has meant that it is common to have many children in Nagada. Turi Pradhan, in her 20s, already has four daughters, the eldest of whom is about eight years old.

There are also no drinking water facilities in the village. The villagers have to use stream water that flows in the forest. This water is used not just for drinking, but also for everything else.

Food security 

The food security situation is as bad as the health facilities in the village. The Juang normally depend on the forest and step cultivation for food. They collect wild edible plants or hunt small fowls from the forest, while also growing paddy and vegetables on small plots. Since the village is located near a Tata mining area, occasionally a few of the adults and older Juanga children work as daily labourers in the nearby mines, working under contractors and earning about Rs 2,000-3,000 per month on average.

“During the monsoon season, it is difficult to get a wage. So during this time we have to manage with whatever is available, things that we have either preserved or manage to get from the forest,” said Sukru Pradhan. When I entered his house, I found there was no dal, pulses or vegetables.

A mother with her severely malnourished child. Source: Sarada Lahangir

A mother with her severely malnourished child. Source: Sarada Lahangir

Guri Pradhan, 40, was preparing forest chhatu (mushroom collected from the forest) to boil in hot water and eat. “We can feed our children only rice and salt. Sometimes rice is also not available, so we have to manage with forest roots and leaves,” she said.

According to the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and the Antodaya Anna Yojana, all ‘particularly vulnerable tribal groups’ including Juang are entitled to 35 kg of rice per month. But in this village, many families have been covered under ‘priority households’, as listed in the NFSA. The quantity of rice is then determined by the number of people in the household – five kg per person per month. So a four-member family is getting 20 kg of rice under, though they would have got 35 kg if they were covered by the Antodaya Anna Yojana. Faulty surveys conducted by the government in this village has deprived many families of more food grain. 

An 18 km walk to get Rs 300

When I left Nagada after spending an entire day there, it was raining heavily. I came across a group of elderly people who had gone to collect their pension from the panchayat office and were on their way back to the village. They looked tired. For Maguli Pradhan, 67, collecting his old age pension of Rs 300 is a big task. “The panchayat office from where we receive the pension is about 18 km from the village. So we walk about 36 km to and fro to the gram panchayat office, spending the entire to collect the pension money of Rs 300. We can’t go every month, because walking so far at this age is exhausting. Our health also does not permit us to do so. That’s why sometimes we have no choice except to skip our pension,” Maguli said.

“Nagada has opened everybody’s eyes to the true state of affairs in tribal areas. The death of children due to malnourishment has brought to light the falsity of claims made by chief minister Naveen Patnaik about the development taking place across the state in the past 16 years,” opposition leader Narasingha Mishra was quoted as saying in an IANS report.

“Even as the Sukinda Valley in Jajpur is known for its abundant minerals and large industries, the irony is that the people are deprived of all basic amenities, be it road connectivity, healthcare or food security,” added BJP MLA Pradeep Purohit, according to the report.

Odisha accounts for 98% of the chromite reserves in the country, more than 97% of which is from Sukinda. “Sukinda is a rich area with deposits of minerals like iron, manganese, chromite, etc. worth lakhs of crores of rupees. A number of companies like Tata Steel, IMFA, Jindal and Nilachal Ispat are operating here, extracting minerals and making a huge profit. But where are their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities for this area? This Nagada village is just 15 kms from the Tata mining area. Why didn’t their CSR wing focus on this village? And last but not the least, if these companies are violating norms by not utilising CSR funds in the local area, why is the government allowing them to operate and exploit natural resources?” asked Pradeep Pradhan, a Bhubaneswar-based human rights activist.

Sukinda MLA Pritiranjan Ghadei in Nagada. Source: Sarada Lahangir

Sukinda MLA Pritiranjan Ghadei in Nagada. Source: Sarada Lahangir

However, malnutrition in children is not limited to the Jajpur district. In Odisha, 45% of children under five years of age suffer from chronic undernutrition. This number amongst tribal children is even higher, with 57% of tribal children under five chronically undernourished, according to a UNICEF report. The situation among Odisha’s rural tribal children aged 18-23 months is even more serious, with the prevalence of stunting (low height for age) as high as 83%, said the report.

After 70 years of independence, if a child dies of malnutrition anywhere in the country, it not only puts a question mark on our system and policies but is a shame to the state and the nation.