No food, no elections: MP villagers

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Satna, Sep 2: Malnutrition has led to 42 deaths in last three months in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh. People from 150 villages of Madhya Pradesh have decided to boycott elections if the women and children continue to suffer for want of food. A drive of Madhya Pradesh involving involving the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) and the World Food Programme (WFP) - against malnutrition among children notwithstanding, 42 child deaths have occurred in the past three months in Satna district. "It is symbolic of a deep-rooted problem afflicting over 80,000 underprivileged children in this state," Child Rights Activists say.

"Children in Satna district villages are dying of malnutrition but the authorities are reluctant to accept the fact and say that the deaths have been caused by various diseases," said Prashant Dubey of MP Right to Food campaign (MPRTFC).

The state has with the assistance of Unicef and the WFP unveiled several special schemes like the Bal Shakti Yojana, the Shaktimaan and the Bal Sanjeevani Abhiyan which seek to treat severely malnourished children including medical services necessary for such kids.

Still, there are 33,000 malnourished children in Madhya Pradesh in the 0-5 years age group, according to National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data. That is about 60 percent of the total child population in the state.

"The government claims to have made efforts to curb malnutrition for which it has spent millions of rupees in the past three years. But one can make out the level of nourishment provided to children from the state of Anganwadis (government-run creches) in the district. They lack even basic facilities like seats, drinking water, separate toilets or space to cook," said Dubey, who was a part of the investigating team which visited villages in Satna district affected by the malnutrition deaths.

The state's budget for the development of women and children went up to Rs.5.9 billion this year. Of this, Rs.3 billion was earmarked for providing nutritious food to undernourished women and children. This was Rs.1.9 billion more than the previous year.

"Anganwadis remain closed. Foodgrains are never available at fair price shops. How do we feed our children in such a case?" asked Bandelal Kol, a resident of one of the affected villages.

Residents of 150 villages participated in a meeting called by the Adivasi Adhikar Manch in Satna district which resolved to boycott the polls if the government fails to secure the health of their women and children.

"The main problem is that whatever the state provides under schemes to curb malnutrition can only be supplementary nutrition, whether it is through ICDS (the Integrated Child Development Scheme) or mid-day meals. It is hard to tackle malnutrition if non-availability of food and livelihood is the problem," says Director of Women and Child Welfare Department (WCD) Kalpana Shrivastava.

"The problem is aggravated when none of the material required to monitor the progress of malnourished children and medicines is available. And, above all, the district office of the state's WCD department was not even aware of the deaths of most kids," activists allege.

"However, the percentage of underweight children in Madhya Pradesh increased from 54 in 1998-99 to 60.3 now and the percentage of wasted (extremely malnourished) children has gone up from 20 to 33, according to NFHS, despite Unicef involvement", a WCD official told IANS on condition of anonymity.

The NFHS report says that only 14 percent children breastfeed within one hour of birth and 82.6 percent of children between the six and 35 months (the most critical period of life for mental and physical development) are anaemic.

On the other hand, on the basis of its own data, the Madhya Pradesh government has been claiming that the ratio of undernourishment has come down to somewhere around 49 percent.

But the schemes do not reach 52-62 percent of children and 46-59 percent of pregnant and lactating mothers, says a report of the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) of India.

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