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Routine enough to preprint

April 12, 2003 19:06 IST

This is an account of a visit I made recently. There was nothing particularly startling, or alarming, or exciting, or upsetting, about what I saw. Just routine stuff. Which is why I'm telling you about it: because it is routine.

The anganwadi (creche) in the slum of Banspani, on the outskirts of Joda in Orissa's Keonjhar district, caters to the children of mine workers. Most of the residents of Banspani work in the mines. Most of them are Mundasahi tribals from Singhbhum district across the border in Jharkhand. They come here to work because the wages are decent. Each labourer can expect to earn about Rs 2,000 a month. If both man and wife work, as they usually do, that's Rs 4,000 a month. In no other kind of work in the area, whether in Singhbhum or in Keonjhar, can such tribals expect to earn such rupees.

Because both parents typically work, they need this anganwadi in Banspani. When I visited, about a dozen kids had turned up; a few more straggled in later. While they played, the young women taking care of the kids let me look through some of their several registers: records of treatment for pregnant women, of inoculations given to the kids, weight charts for the children and so on.

You can learn a lot from good data, and this data has been meticulously kept. I spend some time with the weight charts. They record each child's weight monthly, from birth to five years old. There are over a hundred such charts, one for each child who has been at the anganwadi over the previous five years. Any way you do the arithmetic, that's a lot of weighing and recording.

But while the record-keeping is impressive, it is hardly the striking thing about the charts. It's the tale they tell that is, and that tale gives you much to think about.

Start with what's preprinted on every chart: four curves, marked Grade 4 (the lowest) to Grade 1 (the highest). These are levels of malnutrition. So what I'm face to face with here, right off the bat, is the assumption that at this anganwadi, the kids who attend will be malnourished: which is why the charts come with the curves printed on them. By itself, such an assumption troubles me. I look at the children around me afresh.

Now Grade 1 ranges from a birth weight of 2.75 kg to a 5-year-old weight of 15 kg. Grade 2, from 2.5 to 13 kg. Grade 3, 2 to 11. And Grade 4 goes from 1.5 to 9 kg. (Want to compare? I did. When born, my son was 3.4 kg, at nearly four years old he is 19 kg).

Having noted these numbers, I flip through the charts again. I am dismayed, but not overly surprised, by what I find. Every single kid tracked has been well below grade 1; the majority hover between Grades 3 and 4; several have dipped below that Grade 4 curve at points in their five years. That is, every single kid who has ever come through this anganwadi has been
malnourished, most severely so. The heaviest five-year-old here clocks in at a full 5 kg less than my son -- by no means a fatty -- weighs at two months short of four. I look at the kids around me afresh.

That assumption the preprinting spoke of was well-founded.

But there's more.

Most of the growth curves start off essentially normal for the baby's first few months. In fact, a sizeable minority of the children were well above 3 kg at birth: by no means malnourished. Yet by the time they reach six months, even these babies have sunk into the territory bounded by the preprinted curves. Why? "Neglect", explain the young women. Desperate to work and earn, parents are forced out of their homes for long hours, thus neglecting their children almost from birth. That leads to malnutrition.

The mothers don't breastfeed. Babies are left in the hands of slightly older siblings, themselves painfully underweight. Sure enough, several of the tiniest kids around me have been brought here by larger sisters, though "larger" is a word that, when applied to these skinny little girls, makes no sense to me.

More perusal of the charts. Several show sharp weight drops from one month to the next: in some cases as much as two kg. Graphic evidence of diarrhoea attacks, or sometimes other illnesses like malaria. I check one of these one-month drops more closely, in the case of four year old Hemanta Lagri, a long-limbed cutie playing in front of me. It happened when he weighed just seven kg. I close my eyes and remember, of all things, widespread consternation over a stock market crash. "XYZ company's stock sank by 30 per cent in a day!" a friend told me in alarm. I try to imagine what it would be like to watch my child lose nearly 30 per cent of his weight in a month. That's what happened to Hemanta.

One last thing about the charts. In some, the recording of weights stops abruptly. The woman in charge waves her hand -- there are two simple explanations. One, the child and family may have gone back to their homes in Singhbhum. (Some return to the anganwadi when their parents come back for work months later, and their curves start up again). Two, whether due to neglect or malnutrition or diarrhoea or something else, the child has died.

"Many like that," says Padmabati, one of the anganwadi women.

I've had enough of these curves. We get up to wander through the slum. I find that these particular labourers don't actually work in the mines. They are railway siding workers, who load iron ore onto railway wagons that transport it out of Joda. Wagons turn up at any time and must be filled quickly. So the workers are expected to rush to their posts, whatever the hour, day or night, and are usually gone for long stretches.

Which explains the "neglect" I've been hearing about.

Contractors bring the tribals here. When they arrive, each family is assigned a room in a long mud hut divided by partitions. One room I poke my head into has a television and an elaborate dressing table; lying on the floor in front of the table is a tiny newborn, wailing and waving her fists. If dark, the rooms are at least clean and secure, better than the miserable huts you can see contracted construction labour in, in Bombay. So what nags you here? This: you wonder why a contractor who can give his workers such quarters, who pays them a salary reasonable for these parts, does not feel the need to provide them sanitation. "Oh, we go into those bushes at the foot of that hill," the newborn's mother tells me.

As we stand and talk, a two-year-old girl arrives at the nearby communal tap -- the only water source in the entire slum -- for a bath. She goes about it with a minimum of fuss. Strips off her clothes, bends to wet herself in the cool water, jumps a bit as it splashes on her skin. Quickly, she rubs herself down, then soaps herself. After rinsing off the soap, she drenches and scrubs her clothes, then a few metal utensils she has brought.
Gathers everything, walks home naked. She is shivering a bit in the slight morning chill, but is otherwise purposeful and matter-of-fact. Through her bath, she has paid not the slightest attention to us, standing there.

She looks two. It's only later that I remember the charts and realise she might have been five. Or more.

Just routine stuff, I said.

In a recent <A HREF="08guest.htm">article</A> here, Lalit Koul asked the prime minister how he could sleep at night when two year olds are slaughtered in Kashmir. I cannot agree more: I would like to see our prime minister answer that question.

I would also like to know how he sleeps at night when kids are assumed to be malnourished and are indeed severely so; when some of those kids die from that malnutrition; when underweight three-year-olds must look after their infant siblings; when migrant tribal workers are presumed not to need basic sanitation or more than a single tap for several hundred people.

How he sleeps at night, most of all, when all this -- Kashmir or Banspani -- is just routine stuff.

You can send me your comments directly at

Dilip D'Souza