Umesh is three years old but weighs the same as a one-year-old. At 8 kg, he’s underweight by 4 kg or 33 per cent. And his height is 84 centimetres, or 6.6 per cent less than ideal. With no schools amid the coronavirus crisis, there are also no midday meals – the government’s food scheme – for his nine-year-old brother. Their mother, Pramila Bhambre, is stressed about feeding an extra mouth.
“Now we are four people. It becomes difficult to feed all of them. This younger one needs to be taken care of. He is underweight, so I’m worried about his health,” says Ms Bhambre.
The days have been severely stressful for Pramila and her husband Ashok Bhambre, who works as migrant workers in nearby Bhiwandi.
They live in a house 130 km from Mumbai in a hamlet called Taralpada in Palghar district. It has a tribal population and 90 per cent of them work as migrants in neighbouring Thane and Bhiwandi.
But since the coronavirus lockdown, all of them have been confined to their homes. Even after the government started its “unlock” plans, these tribes who belong to Katkari community are struggling to find jobs.
A few houses ahead is where Rupesh and Rupali stay. They are 13-month-old twins but their growth is stunted. Both are underweight and under-height. Weighing around 5 kg and height at near 60 cm, they are extremely undernourished for a one-year-old who ideally weighs around 9 kg and is 75 cm tall. The reason is they only get to eat dry rice. They fall under severe acute malnutrition category.
“We don’t have money, so cannot afford to feed them vegetables. When we get vegetables, we feed them,” says Jai Taral, their grandmother.
Jai Taral has eight members in her family, including her grandchildren. Her son used to work at a construction site, but now has no work since the lockdown began.
Her daughter, Juenka, who is in Class 7, attends a residential school away from Taralpada. At school she used to get rice, dal and vegetables. But now schools are closed.
“We, adults, even stay hungry one time so that these kids get to eat at least twice. Can’t keep them hungry even if we remain hungry,” says Ms Taral.
According to the Women and Child Development Department, stunted growth and underweight children are common case in Palghar – one of Maharashtra’s most backward areas.
But the coronavirus lockdown has caused malnutrition to rise by 2 per cent. According to the department, severe and moderate acute malnutrition cases went up from 2,399 in April to 2,459 in June in Palghar district, an increase of 2.5 per cent.
In Jawhar taluka, moderate acute malnutrition cases went up from 600 in April to 682 in just two months, which is a jump of 13 per cent.
“People came from different parts and hence there is a slight increase in the cases, but we are feeding all of them,” Women and Child Development Minister Yashomati Thakur told NDTV.
However, government sponsored ration schemes for people below the poverty line are not implemented properly on the ground, social activists working in the region say.
Villages also complained the 2 kg grains they get per person for a month is not enough. “How will that be sufficient for a two-time meal if that is all we eat?” said Jai Taral.