Girls die of hunger in Mandawali, Delhi—a tragedy waiting to happen

The starvation deaths of the three girls in Mandawali, Delhi points at an increasingly downward spiral in the lives of the urban poor, especially those who are migrating to cities in search of work

PTI Photo
PTI Photo
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Mrinal Pande

A country being aggressively deified as Bharat Mata and dreaming of becoming a superpower, figures that the Prime Minister should personally launch and promote Poshan Abhiyan, or National Nutrition Mission (NNM), an attractively titled scheme for providing nutrition, education and healthcare on International Women’s Day. Then there are the much-touted 'Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao’ and ‘Janani Suraksha’ schemes aiming at better health and well-being of mothers, and in particular female infants. Yet on July 24, in the nation’s capital, three girls below the age of 8 died of starvation. Two subsequent autopsies have confirmed that all three were severely anemic, their stomachs, bladders and bowels totally empty of food or water, clearly signifying a long history of starvation.

Malnutrition among children, especially young girls, is rampant in India. According to National Family Health Survey figures, continual malnutrition such as this results in 50.9 % children growing up stunted, both physically and mentally. It is also found by multiple agencies that the intense monitoring and convergence between various welfare programmes for girls and women, envisaged under the NNM, are still largely missing, particularly in backward states like Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. In one of the most neglected districts, Chitrakoot in UP, reports research portal IndiaSpend, half the children under five were found to be severely stunted and 14.7% are ‘severely wasted’, like the three dead sisters in Mandawali, Delhi. Of these about 18% of the children are born underweight (below 2.5 kg), which makes them extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases of any kind. Access to subsidised food and rations or Anganwadi- or school-provided hot meals is limited, mostly as families of poor migrants do not have ration cards, Aadhar cards, Pan or ATM cards.

The oldest among the Mandawali sisters, who was eight, had been going to school whenever she could and the teachers told reporters that government money for children from poor families had been demitted in her bank account, but for lack of various documents and access, the ₹1,800 lies unspent while its owner lies dead.

It is hard to explain the real tragedy of the deaths in Mandawali born of a poverty of the Biblical ages, that makes a human being’s mind impervious to anything except an animal desire for survival, food and freedom from physical pain

When a British weekly recently published a cover story ‘India is failing its women’, there were many red faces back home and our media was soon flooded with the usual reports bemoaning Western media bias against a rising Asian superpower. But even UNICEF has been regularly publishing reports confirming malnutrition as the leading cause of death among India’s children below the age of five, while the government asserts that most children do not die of starvation but diarrhea or pneumonia. Yes, perhaps the ultimately blow is struck on wasted bodies by some water- or air-borne disease. But most of these are preventable and curable . Born often prematurely, to young mothers who are anaemic and malnourished and barely out of their teens, according to experts, India’s newborns start life with a huge disadvantage. They have a low birth weight, and their lungs, vascular and digestive systems remain highly vulnerable. Add to that the congested living conditions (the five-member Mandawali family was living off a kind friend in a room the size of a car), the lack of access to clean air (the family we learn did not step out for fear of being noticed by neighbours, who would alert the landlord about their unauthorised occupation of the friend’s room), safe drinking water and sanitation and you have a tragedy waiting to happen.

Generally, whenever news of anyone dying of starvation surfaces, the state governments are quick to recede into denial. No, no, no, they say so-and-so died of chronic illness, or by his (or her) own hand. So last year when an 11-year-old girl died of hunger in Jharkhand, the grieving mother told the media that there were no grains in the house because her family did not have the mandatory Aadhar card for accessing subsidised rations. The state government of Jharkhand quickly denied it and pointed out that the deceased had been attending school, so she could not have died of starvation but of some illness. And now once again another 58-year-old woman has died in the same state and according to fellow villagers, she too died of starvation as she had been denied a ration card since 2012. Once again the government is trotting out the same excuses, claiming that she died of an illness, not hunger.

Last year when an 11-year-old girl died of hunger in Jharkhand, the grieving mother told the media that there were no grains in the house because her family did not have the mandatory Aadhar card for accessing subsidised rations. The state government of Jharkhand quickly denied it and pointed out that the deceased had been attending school so could not have died of starvation but of some illness

The facts that have come to light following the death of the three girls in Mandawali points at an increasingly downward spiral in the lives of the urban poor, especially those who are migrating to cities in ever larger numbers due to lack of agriculture related work there. The father first took up a job most illiterate unskilled migrants do. He hired a rickshaw. Some goondas beat him up and took away his rickshaw. He then took to doing odd jobs when he could get them. Then the drinking and frequent long absences from home began. The ailing wife and three daughters foraged around for food and occasionally kind neighbours, who were also almost as poor, would feed the girls. Then the landlord threw them out and a kind friend took the family of five in, on the condition that since it was not part of the arrangement with his own landlord, they should not be visible to the neighbours. The father then went looking for a job, but has not surfaced yet. The mother, who has been hospitalised, is mentally unstable, does not recall having any family and is only asking for food.

To a generation of educated urban millennials, with 24x7 access to the Internet and social media, where the poor are often ridiculed for shafting themselves with constant borrowing of loans and breeding like rabbits, it is hard to explain the real tragedy of the deaths in Mandawali born of a poverty of the Biblical ages, that makes a human being’s mind impervious to anything except an animal desire for survival, food and freedom from physical pain.

The author is Senior Group Editorial Advisor at National Herald, Navjivan and Qaumi Awaz

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