In July 2016, 19 children died in Nagada in the Sukinda block of Jajpur district of Odisha. They died of acute malnutrition and co-morbidities. The scandal didn’t just wake up the National Human Rights Commission and the state administration, it also woke up the local and state-level media.
In the national media, the plight of ambulance/hearse services and the tribal Dana Manjhi trekking with his wife’s dead-body for over 12 kilometres was a bigger story.
While most states deny it and resort to victim-blaming (food habits), the tragedy did make the Odisha government admit acute malnutrition as the reason behind the child deaths. That these deaths happened among the Juang tribes, a primitive vulnerable tribal group, as classified in the government manual, was not the scandal, but the fact that they happened in a resource-rich mining district like Jajpur, where affluence lives cheek-by-jowl with deprivation, as captured by Asit Ranjan Mishra in this Livemint report, was a bigger scandal.
Adjoining Nagada is Kalinganagar in the Sukinda block, the latest industrial hub of Odisha housing Tata Steel, Jindal Steel, et al. It has also got approval from the central government as the National Investment and Manufacturing Zone.
The Nagada deaths were a wake-up call for the state government to identify such far-flung hamlets with marginalised populations where many Nagadas are waiting to happen. Road connectivity, healthcare facilities, creche and water sanitation became priority intervention.
Convergence of all food programmes, health and nutrition schemes have priority in this government agenda. The Mamata Scheme gives the mother additional cash transfer for nutrition during pregnancy and ensures registration and check-ups. Once the child is delivered, a set of interventions i.e. counselling for lactating mothers, the immunisation programme and creche care kicks in. Once the child turns three, the Anganwadi Centres take over, so on and so forth.
The financing comes from the District Mineral Fund set up under the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act. It has a component called the District Mineral Fund against malnutrition. The District Mineral Fund is drawn as a levy from the profits of mining companies (public and private) operating in the district. This is to offset the damages done by the extractive industries’ activities and contribute to development and quality of life of the people who pay a price for the resource curse.
Resource-allocation priority from the fund is managed by a trust/board comprising of the district collector, MLA, MP, the Panchayati Raj Institution and community members so that the priorities are responsive to local needs and not determined in some ivory tower of the state headquarter.
One such high priority block for intervention is Banspal (a mining block) in the adjoining mines-rich Keonjhar district. The Juang tribe is one of the dominant groups in the district demography in Keonjhar too. They are animists and worship nature and mother earth, believing that they have originated from the earth in Gonasika region where the Baitarani river has originated.
Banspal block has a freshly-minted public financed crèche too. One such creche this author visited in the week of April 16, 2018, was Luna Ghar creche in the Banspal block. It is the result of an MoU between Odisha, development partners like Tata Trusts, Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative and the district administration. Jharkhand-based NGO Ekjut is the technical partner.
Luna Ghar creche board.
While driving out of Keonjhar district headquarter, the road forks with a sign leading to Luna Ghar village. One can see this would have been off-road not so long ago. The road looks new, but not as new as the creche. The creche is running on the school campus which has the Anganwadi Centre and the primary school too.
In the post-budget episode of #ChildhoodMatters series, Dr Indranil had pointed out the imagination of such campus, where the child enters at six months, goes to the creche, then the Anganwadi Centre, the primary, middle and secondary school and leaves the campus at 18 years. Tripura is one such state which has been designing such campuses and they have come for high praise. Seems Keonjhar is also keen to design similar campuses.
Why Banspal and why Luna Ghar? Aparna, the senior project officer in the District Mineral Foundation team, explains: “The sites are self-selected, based on the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) survey, we picked up the most challenging locales with the worst nutrition indicators.”
These crèches are truly universal and invite the children of all in the community who are in the creche-going age group. In case of Luna Ghar, the parents of the children worked in the agricultural fields, the forests for minor forest produce, mine workers and brick-kiln workers. When the author visited, the creche had 18 children and one child was yet to enrol.
Children nap under the bed net.
Human resources in the crèches is a major priority. In case of Luna Ghar, the creche had two workers, both selected by the villagers and trained by the Ekjut project staff. One was Class 7 pass and the other a little less.
These crèches were full-day care centres, open for eight hours, where children from six months to three years got food three times as per the recipes (of adequate protein energy) laid down by the National Institute of Nutrition, received stimulation and played.
These children are a sight to behold, playing, sleeping, crawling and eating together. From clothing, footwear for the children to feeding and care instructions for the mothers, the creche imparted many things. The food was locally cooked and the care workers took turns in cooking and feeding the children. They also maintained the immunisation cards of each child.
Growth monitoring chart at the creche.
One-third of the children enrolled were malnourished in the red zone. The creche was just a month old when the author visited, there is hope these children will improve and go to the normal range. Caution seems to be the operating mantra, bed-nets were used when the children napped during the day, though Keonjhar has not had a malaria outbreak in the recent past.
Ashish Thakare, the district collector, is an impatient man and he has grand visions for the children of his district. He wants to roll out 30 creches in the first quarter, primarily in the mining blocks, then scale up to the entire district across all 13 blocks.
Going by the range of services imparted in the Luna Ghar creche and the motivation levels of the caregivers, it should not be a surprise if the district officials choose these crèches over the for-profit, private creche/play schools like Kidzee and Mom’s Joys of the world.
And that would be the litmus test of success of such intervention too, when the mine workers’ and the district magistrate’s children go to the same creche!
The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of ICFJ Washington DC in reporting this story.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org