From Malnutrition to Unfulfilled Promises: A Ground Report on Tribal Welfare in Madhya Pradesh

Parties have promises for the tribal voter, but what has changed for the community? A reality check from four districts.
A tribal child sitting on the doorstep of his house
A tribal child sitting on the doorstep of his housePic- Ankit Pachauri, The Mooknayak

The tribals of Madhya Pradesh seem to find a voice in every assembly election campaign with a host of poll promises, 47 ST constituencies, a decisive tribal voter in many general segments, and tribal communities forming 21 percent of the state’s population.

This time too, the Congress and BJP are competing to garner tribal support ahead of elections on November 17 – though the BJP’s outreach to the community had started much earlier due to its poor performance in tribal segments in the previous assembly election. 

But while new schemes are promised, what’s been the status of other welfare programmes aimed at tribals across Madhya Pradesh? What of their education, nutrition, employment and forest rights?

The Mooknayak decided to do a reality check by visiting four districts with a substantial tribal population in the state, where the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government has been in power for 18 years, interrupted once by the 15-month tenure of the Kamal Nath government.

In the former ‘Ethiopia of India’

The Sahariya community, listed among the country’s particularly vulnerable tribal groups, forms the majority of the tribal population in Sheopur district, which not so long ago was termed by some as the “Ethiopia of India” due acute malnutrition. Even as officials from the state’s women and child development department point to a dip in malnutrition figures, locals say the problem persists in at least one member of each family in several villages.

But several schemes are in place across the state and in the district, whose two assembly segments Sheopur and Vijaypur are represented by Congress’s Babu Jandel and BJP’s Sitaram Adivasi, respectively.

The state’s WCD department was allotted Rs 73,06,088 for the supplemental nutrition assistance programme aimed at 22 lakh children in financial year 2022–23. This budget had seen an increase of over Rs 1 crore from the previous year. The Chief Minister Suposhan Yojana to provide meals, porridge, peanuts, laddoos, eggs, chikkis, etc. saw a budgetary allocation of Rs 61 lakh for 4,33,000 women and their children until the age of five years in 2022-23. This scheme was aimed at tackling malnutrition and anemia. 

The WCD department claimed there were 923 malnourished and 243 severely malnourished children in Sheopur in 2022, but locals told us the actual figure could be much higher. There were malnourished children in nearly each of the five villages we visited, and a few of the severely malnourished children had been receiving care at the Sheopur district hospital’s Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre – the NRC treats those children whose symptoms have turned too acute to be managed by the anganwadi system.

As part of the anganwadi system, the WCD department spends around Rs 8 per day on every child aged six and below. It distributes a 650 gram nutrition-rich food packet every Tuesday for children aged until three years while porridge, khichdi, besan halwa and nutritious food packets are given out each day at the anganwadis for children between three and six years of age.

Additionally, the Chouhan government had started the Aahar Anudan Yojana in 2017 to eradicate malnutrition by transferring Rs 1,000 per month to each family from extremely backward tribes. But this amount, several families alleged, had not been transferred for the last few months – the state government claims to have transferred a total of Rs 1,391 crore since the scheme’s inception.

Ahuti, a resident of Wardha village, claimed she had not received the amount despite visiting the bank several times, while Anarda from Kalarna village said she was told by officials in the district headquarter to wait longer for the amount. Both the villages are part of the Vijaypur assembly segment.

Jai Singh Jadaun of the tribal welfare outfit Ekta Parishad said the alleged delay in payments could exacerbate the problem of malnutrition in several areas.

However, Sanjeev Singh, the commissioner of Madhya Pradesh’s Tribal Welfare Department, denied such claims. “If there is any problem in any district of the state, you tell our department about it. We will investigate it and take action.”

Meanwhile, in Tiktoli, Morawan and other villages in the vicinity of the Kuno National Park, many tribals living in clay houses wait for their family members, who migrate to bordering Rajasthan for manual labour, to return home with earnings every few months.

Sartijo with her son's twin children in Sheopur Jaitwada. (Earlier these children were malnourished.)
Sartijo with her son's twin children in Sheopur Jaitwada. (Earlier these children were malnourished.)Pic- Ankit Pachauri, The Mooknayak

In Jetwada village of Vijaypur, Sartijo has been trying to look after her two daughters-in-law and grandchildren while waiting for her two sons who have left home to look for work. Months after the NRC helped her elder son’s twins regain health, now her younger son’s daughter is malnourished. 

“Malnourished children are found each month in the village. A girl child is now malnourished and we will admit her to the Sheopur NRC soon,” said anganwadi activist Baijanti Gurjar.

Sheopur NRC in-charge Dr Mangal said, “Most of the children (in the district) are malnourished at birth. The symptoms appear gradually, such as the thinning of children’s arms and legs, the protrusion of their belly, skin-related problems…stunted height is also a symptom. They are treated by the anganwadi at the start. When their condition is critical they are admitted to the NRC.”

At the NRC at the district hospital, 12 malnourished children are receiving treatment while a few others have been shifted to the ICU.

Asked about his MLA development fund, BJP MLA Sitaram Adivasi did not specify how much of it was spent to improve health indicators in his constituency.

Additionally, a CAG report had last year pointed to an irregularity in the distribution of 10,000 metric tonnes of food packets – costing around Rs 62 crore – distributed as part of the state’s supplementary nutrition scheme. Of this, food worth Rs 5 crore had been approved for distribution within eight months in two Sheopur blocks, but the probe did not find this in the stock register.

Children waiting for food in Jhandana
Children waiting for food in JhandanaPic- Ankit Pachauri, The Mooknayak

The change in ‘poorest’ district

After Sheopur, we landed in Alirajpur, which was deemed the worst across India on the ‘Multidimensional Poverty Index’ released by Niti Aayog in 2021. The literacy rate was at 36 percent, the percentage of extremely poor families at 71, and around 90 percent of the population were tribal in the district, according to the Aayog’s data.

About 30 kilometres from the district headquarters, there are several villages splattered across many small islands in the Narmada, with each such island, or faliya, housing anywhere between two and six families.

Lalita's family in Kakrana
Lalita's family in KakranaPic- Ankit Pachauri, The Mooknayak

In a faliya part of the Kakrana village, Lalita, who lives with her husband and her brother’s family in a small hut, says that she has only around three utensils in the house and the men folk are finding it difficult to be breadwinners due to a lack of jobs and the sinking of the family’s boat and farmland in floods this year.

“We are not getting any governmental help. Our farmland sank due to a flood, so did our boat. I pray to god each day so that no one falls sick. How will I take them to the hospital? There is no money for treatment.”

Lalita's house in Kakrana village on the banks of Narmada in Alirajpur.
Lalita's house in Kakrana village on the banks of Narmada in Alirajpur.Pic- Ankit Pachauri, The Mooknayak

Asked about issues faced by such families along the Narmada, Alirajpur Collector Abhay Arvind Bedekar said, “The administration is working towards alleviating their problems. People from the administration go there from time to time. Some Adivasis have been given leases for land elsewhere.” He refused to share more details citing the Model Code of Conduct.

‘No power’

After Alirajpur, we went to Gadhidadar village in Bodha gram panchayat part of the Pushpraj constituency in Anuppur. Poor families from the Baiga tribal community form the majority of Gadhidadar, which has a population of around 900. 

But without electricity since Independence, villagers have decided to boycott the elections this time. Despite a 30 percent increase in the budget of the state’s power department in the previous financial year, several tribal homes are still without power in Pushpraj, represented by Congress MLA Fundelal Marko, who claims the MLA fund is inadequate to tackle development challenges in the area. 

Meanwhile, in Baigantola village in the constituency, far from welfare schemes, locals lack even basic amenities and claim that no official has visited them in many years. This reporter walked a five-kilometre narrow path leading to the village with sarpanch Daduram Panadiya. “Baigantola has no road, no electricity and no appropriate arrangement for water. People here are completely deprived of these fundamental facilities,” said Panadiya.

The village has a population of around 200 which is primarily engaged in agriculture, but water is a problem, with villagers relying on water trickling down from a hill to fill up eight-foot-deep pits. They have dug up a furrow near this pit to store excess water, which is used for irrigation. 

But Daduram Panadiya said this water is polluted and villagers, when they fall sick, are often unable to receive timely treatment due to lack of accessible road infrastructure. 

The lack of accessible roads also impacts education, with children from Baigantola finding it difficult to walk the rough road to Guttipara village for secondary school.

Sarpanch Daduram said the benefits of welfare schemes are difficult to reach Baigantola due to the lack of a road and that the panchayat had sent many letters demanding the same to the state government.

It’s not like there are no government schemes in place to tackle such issues. It is for such villages that the Narendra Modi government had launched the ‘Har Ghar, Nal se Jal’ scheme for tap water, earmarking around Rs 60,000 crore in last year’s budget with an eye on nearly 3.8 crore families. However, this is yet to reach Baigantola. Just like the Chouhan government’s allocation of Rs 10,345 crore for primary schools – there was a defunct primary school building in the village.

The dwindling beneficiaries

In Balaghat district, where the majority of the tribal population is Gond, Baba Siyo has given up manual labour to take a small loan and run a tea stall in Pipartola village. But the profit isn’t enough for the family of six. Baba Siyo’s wife Lakshmi Siyo, who helps with the shop, said “we do not have any other means”.

But other means exist. The Madhya Pradesh Tribal Economic Welfare Commission, for example, is operating three loan schemes with amounts ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 crore, but many, including Baba Siyo, are unaware of such programmes.

It’s not just the lack of information. Not everyone who seeks benefits under such schemes gets them.

For example, only 185 applications have been approved of the total 4,632 that have been received in this financial year for the Tantya Mama Arthik Kalyan Yojana, which seeks to give loans ranging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 1 lakh to tribal youths. Only 1,715 applications of the total 8,533 last year were accepted.

Similarly, the Bhagwan Birsa Munda Swarozgar Yojana, which gives out loans ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 50 lakh for self-employment, granted help to only 1,299 individuals of the total 8,323 who applied last year, according to government figures.

Similar trends were seen under the Mukhyamantri Anusuchit Janjati Vishesh Pariyojana and the Vitt Poshan Yojana for youths from ST communities.

Anil Singh Dhurve, the president of the Gondwana Ganatantra Party Yuva Morcha, said there has been no major change in tribal regions despite crores of expenditure over decades after Independence. “[The government] is still busy making policies to benefit capitalists…power should be taken away…and given to pro-people leaders for holistic development.”

Tirumal Prem Shah Marawi, a social activist, said that governments “seem to be more responsible towards” the rich. “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. This is what is happening in our region.”

This report is published with the permission of Newslaundry.
It was executed in partnership with Mooknayak, and you can support ourr journalism here.
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