Nagpur, (WFS) - Reports of infant deaths due to malnutrition in the tribal-dominated Melghat area of Maharashtra make front page news almost every year. This year (2004) too, the deaths were extensively reported in the local and national media. According to the state government, 59 infants died of malnutrition. However, local NGOs claim that the figure heavily under-represents the number of actual deaths, and that the actual figure may be closer to 1,000 deaths this summer. NGOs say that the government attributes these deaths to other causes - diseases, snake-bites, even road accidents. And after a few heart-rending pictures and stories, and visits by a few high-profile politicians, the news has been more or less forgotten.

Why do malnutrition deaths continue to occur in a place like Melghat, where millions have been pumped in the last decade - both by the government and NGOs - in health programmes and welfare schemes to avoid such deaths?

The Melghat forest area in Amravati district is dominated by the Korku tribals. Between 1992 and 1997, an estimated 5,000 children died due to malnutrition in the region. Most of these children are in the 0-6 age group. The government attributes several deaths to low birth-weight, but local activists say that malnutrition in mothers is responsible for low birth-weight. Several programmes were announced at that time to prevent further deaths. But recent deaths indicate that the programmes have not been able to achieve much.

After a few heart-rending pictures and stories, and visits by a few high-profile politicians, the news has been more or less forgotten.
Government officials have standard replies - poverty, ignorance and obstinacy (of the tribals) has led to this situation. They argue that the Korkus have too many children; eat 'unhealthy' food; spend their money on drinking and trust traditional healers more than doctors. The Korkus, spread in about 200 villages, are painted as self-destructive maniacs who cannot be rescued. Government doctors, forest officials and anganwadi (child care centre) workers - all sing the same tune - the Korkus will never change and thus, it is impossible to end their misery.

Most of the NGOs - there are more than 300 here - repeat the government rhetoric. Dr Ashish Satav of Mahan, an NGO working on health care for tribals, says that the Korkus don't have any nutritional 'sense'. They sell their nutritious food, tur and gram, for cash.

But local people have another story to tell. Rama Maraskule, panchayat member of Khamda village in Melghat, where Mahan works, asks, "Do you think we don't like to eat lentils? We sell them because we have to pay back loans taken from the landlord. We have to pay back the loan (mostly for food and seeds for sowing), whether we eat or not."

Maraskule talks about the 'intellectual aggression' of some of the NGOs. He went to a 'training camp', jointly organised by Mahan and the government, where his community's traditional practices were questioned. "After delivery our women eat forest greens and drink savarya (a local crop) water. I was told this is a wrong custom. The women should be drinking tomato water." Further, "We give decoction of the 'meeri' (a plant) to children suffering from diarrhoea. But we were told that they should be given Oral Rehydration Solution."

Forest laws have also played their part in destroying the Korku's indigenous nutrition and livelihood structure. In her book, Our children Are Gone, human rights activist Sheela Barse mentions how forest laws have worked against the Korkus. Once Melghat was declared a reserved forest under the Indian Forest Act 1927, the Maharashtra government prohibited the Korku's access to natural nutritional and medicinal plants. The Forest Working Plan for Melghat (1993-2003) required that all creepers and so-called 'inferior species' were to be destroyed in the forest. This instruction, the book says, was given despite previous information from officials in Melghat that a number of the creepers were of 'ethno-medical importance' and were used by the Korkus in treating a variety of ailments.

While the authorities dispense harsh punishment to Korkus found 'stealing' forest produce, they completely ignore the illegal felling of trees which goes on in the forest.

In 1974, Melghat was declared part of the Project Tiger Scheme. Dr Ravi Kolhe, an independent researcher who has worked extensively in the forests of Amravati district for the past 20 years, says, "There is a deep connection between the tribal economy and minor forest produce. Access to products like mahua (butter tree), tendu leaf and edible gum (dink) is a matter of life and death to the tribals. Since the tiger project began, the government has been methodically snapping the lifeline of the tribals. Today, they can't collect forest produce in large quantities to sell. They can't hunt or fish without bribing the forest officials. This is a direct attack on their self-reliance. The problem has precipitated in the last two years because the forest department banned tendu leaf collection in the 47 villages coming under Project Tiger in 2003".

The introduction of cash crops in recent years has further disrupted the tribal economy. Crops like soybean and cotton have taken over from local crops like kodo, kutki and savarya, which once formed the basis of the tribals' year-long food security. It is believed that both the government and non-tribal outsiders used the lure of money to encourage tribals to shift to cash crops.

This shift from nutritional self-dependence to cash crop-dependence has important ramifications. Says Purnima Upadhyaya, Coordinator, Amnesty International, "The Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) is supposed to procure agricultural produce from the tribals, but this mostly does not happen. Because of the poverty of the tribals and the complexity involved in the ITDP procedures, they are forced to sell their produce to local landlords at abysmal rates. The corrupt ITDP officials also do not hesitate to exploit the tribals who do get to them." The tribals are paid lower rates. When they are really hard up, the tribals barter off their soyabean for food or even sell off standing crops, which the buyer harvests later.

While the authorities dispense harsh punishment to Korkus found 'stealing' forest produce, they completely ignore the illegal felling of trees which goes on in the forest.
The government has also not shown any interest in agricultural reforms in the area. Says Madhukar Mane of Melghat Mitra, an NGO, "Agriculture here is wholly rainfed and water and soil conservation measures are desperately needed to improve it."

Today, pitted against a system that is out to destroy them, the Korkus are isolated, frightened and afraid to voice their demands. Khanu Godu, an elderly resident of village Chichati, chooses his words carefully while articulating this plea, "I am not saying that we want any rights. All we want is to live. If we could collect a little mohua or dink and sell it, or fish and hunt a little, it would have helped in filling our stomachs. But no, we are not saying that we want rights."