They came dressed in their Sunday best even though it was a Saturday. The Warli women of Dapcheri village in Thane district, a few hours away from Mumbai, had been summoned to meet some "important" people. They gathered under a small shamiana erected in front of their Panchayat office.
The "important" people were four Members of Parliament cutting across party lines. Sachin Pilot of the Congress, Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party, Jay Panda of the Biju Janata Dal and Shahnawaz Khan of the Bharatiya Janata Party, young MPs who are part of a Citizens Alliance Against Malnutrition.
Does it ever change?
Why malnutrition? Because, in a country where the stock market has crossed 19,000 points, where inflation is under control, where the economic growth rate is climbing, almost one in every two children under three years of age is hungry. This is the invisible half of our population, people who disappear from our consciousness until they die in large numbers. Then, the media wakes up and takes note, the incident becomes "breaking news", the government squirms when tough questions are asked, some remedial measures are put into place, and soon life reverts to "normal", or, should we say, abnormal.
I am not sure the women really understood why these "important" people had come. They only knew that this would be a chance for them to say something. And in the predictable style of visits by "dignitaries" to poor villages, the women sat on the ground while the visitors stood. One woman was asked to speak for the rest. Instead of saying anything about lack of food, she said, "Give us work".
Despite such poverty, the village has 12 "bachat gaths" (self-help groups) where the women save between Rs. 20 to 50 a month. Each group has 11 women. One woman a year is entitled to a loan. Most often this money, around Rs. 10,000, is used for daily expenses. A few are prepared to be adventurous and invest in livestock, a goat perhaps. Some of the women suggested that such risks are a mistake. The last time someone bought goats, all died from a disease. Only the debt remained.
A basic meal
The anganwadi, where young children get a meal, is sub-contracted to one of these self-help groups in the belief that it will ensure that the children get good quality food. In Maharashtra, this system appears to have worked. But it still hasnt dealt with malnutrition that is as high as almost 40 per cent in children under three. The children get a good dose of carbohydrate at lunchtime, a mixture of broken wheat, oil and jaggery. But there is no guarantee that the rest of the essential nutrients that they need for growth, such as vitamins and proteins, will be present in the meal they eat at home. That is, if they get something to eat at home.
So, despite genuine efforts to deal with hunger in young children, malnourishment is "normal" in a village like Dapcheri. The majority of the children fell into the mild to moderate grade of malnourishment. Only a small percentage of the children were "normal" weight for age in accordance with government norms. In other words, the majority of the children were already on the slippery slope of malnutrition. Only a small push, such as a bad bout of diarrhoea, would push them down to a more acute stage.
Such hunger and poverty in the shadow of a metropolis like Mumbai with plenty is an obscenity. Equally disturbing is the fact that most of the women and many of the young girls were completely unlettered. A girl of around 18 said she had never been to school. Her mother too could not read. While the women were proud of their savings groups, they also admitted that their illiteracy made them open to exploitation. One woman told us how her groups savings of Rs. 50,000 over seven years disappeared because they could not read the paper on which they gave their thumb impressions. They have no idea who withdrew the money from the bank. But it was gone. As a result, they wound up their group. What was the point, she asked?
What indeed? This is the real dilemma, the contradictions that now exist in so many villages. Government programmes, such as the creation of self-help groups, have mobilised women. They are supposed to empower them. Yet, in most places, the hierarchies remain untouched, the women still sit on the ground; the government stands and sometimes listens. This mai-baap relationship of dependence, of patronage, runs counter to any concept of empowerment in the true sense of the word.
As a result, though the women in Dapcheri knew they were getting paid less than the minimum wages, they did not know that they could do something about this. There was no anger, only resignation. They hope "something" will be done if "important" people take note. But they also know from their experience, that much remains the same.
So the visit of the MPs exposed what is already known, that charts in most anganwadis are "optimistic", to put it kindly, when it comes to the weight of the children attending them. Yet the fundamental issue of the crisis in the rural economy, of which undernourished children are a symptom, remains unaddressed.