Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh): It was when Dabhia resident Rajnibai's husband Punamchand migrated from their village in Khandwa district to Telangana for work that her 4-year-old daughter Sehanti was diagnosed as malnourished. Since her husband was away, Rajnibai had to spend 14 days at the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) in Roshni with her sick child, and the entire responsibility of running the household fell on her adolescent daughter Radha.
Rajnibai's is a common plight faced by women-headed households in this region of Madhya Pradesh. They face such hardship in the absence of their husbands who would have normally shared parental responsibilities.
But even when women accompany their husbands when they migrate, it is not easy. After a long day of back-breaking work, they have to return home and attend to household chores and cook meals for the family. Too tired for the task, their meals are confined to steamed rice eaten with salt and chillies. Proteins like dal are rarely consumed. This is unlike in the village where they receive dry mixtures of rice and dal from anganwadis for the whole family.
When they are at work, children are kept under the supervision of an older child in the group.
At times, migrating parents also leave their children behind with their grandparents. For instance, Sushilabai left her 1-year-old with her mother-in-law, Ranaibai Hiralal, when she migrated from Dabhia village with her husband Shyamlal to work in Maharashtra. In fact, children not taken away from the only home they know are a lot safer and secure since employers of migrant labour do not care for either their health or well-being.
The bane of malnutrition
Dabhia village in Khalwa block has always been plagued by the need for migration. People migrate in groups of at least 40 each and eventually find arduous work. Sushilabai's mother-in-law Ranaibai told 101Reporters of how her son and pregnant daughter-in-law migrated to Maharashtra to work in sugarcane fields.
"They had to work for 15 hours a day. At times, the contractor would arrange meals for them, either khichdi or plain rice. They quench their thirst from the borewell in the farm," she said.
The contractor would often move them from one village to another for work, so they never get to know their location. All that they knew for certain was that they were somewhere near Pandharpur in Maharashtra. Sushilabai delivered her daughter upon her return to the village after three months of work. The newborn was extremely weak and underwent treatment at the local anganwadi for a long time.
According to anganwadi worker Babita Saichar, Sushilabai herself was anaemic and malnourished; her legs were swollen when she returned home. Her daughter had to be hospitalised for a fortnight at Roshni NRC for treatment.
"Both mother and daughter were treated for quite long. But on completion of treatment, she migrated again for work," Saichar added.
Sunita Kajale too had travelled to Maharashtra to harvest sugarcane with her husband Sonu and their five-month-old baby. Although they were provided food there, her infant daughter had stopped eating. Being very weak, she had to be admitted to the local government hospital. When treatments there failed to produce any results, Kajale rushed back to her village. Her daughter is a year old now, but remains anaemic and severely malnourished. She weighs only 1.8 kg, as against the desired over 2 kg expected of a child her age. She's under treatment now at the local anganwadi for anaemia and severe malnutrition.
Migration and Child Health
According to Chabutara anganwadi worker Sugana Kasade, there are two waves of migration from Khandwa every year. The worst effects of migration are reflected in the health of children below five years of age. Often, these children need treatment for severe malnutrition on return. Being unaware, parents fail to realise that being malnourished for long periods of time can have serious repercussions in future.
At the moment, there are 116 children at the Chabutara anganwadi. Of these, 23 are partially malnourished, while six are severely malnourished. Most malnourished children are those who migrated along with their families, she told 101Reporters.
When families migrate, it is difficult for anganwadis or government agencies to keep track of them, since they do not inform the authorities prior to leaving the village. Once out of the village, these children cannot avail of government schemes aimed to benefit them nutritionally and hence, fall off the health radar.
This is regretful since the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) found that every third child in Khandwa district is malnourished. Of these, 35 per cent were found mentally deficient, 49 per cent underweight, and 28 per cent suffering from rickets.
High prevalence of anaemia among women and children
Furthermore, 86.8 per cent of children in the 6-5 months age group were found to be anaemic under NFHS-5, as against 77 per cent under NFHS-4, indicating a 9.8 per cent increase in the intervening period.
Among non-pregnant women in the 15-49 age group, 66.9 per cent were found to be anaemic, as against 58.3 per cent under NFHS-4, indicating a rise of 8.6 per cent.
Although there's no mention of the prevalence of anaemia among pregnant women in the 15-49 age group in the latest report, 68.9 per cent women in the 15-19 age group were found to be anaemic, as against 63.9 per cent earlier.
Physical and sexual exploitation of migrant women
Sugandhi Vishwakarma, a social worker associated with Spandan Samajseva Samiti, outlined for 101Reporters how pregnant women are made to work 8 to 10 hours on construction sites, farms and factories, and yet survive on meagre meals of plain rice or rotis, since there's no money for either dal or vegetables. Children, too, are deprived of both education and nutrition.
However, more alarming than these direct effects on physical health are the allegations of sexual exploitation of these women that emerged. Babu Mangal, a 50-year old migrant worker from Dabhia, who had migrated to Pandharpur last year for work, recounted how two young women who were part of his labour group were sexually exploited by the owner of the sugarcane farm they were working on.
"During the daytime, these young women would be working with us. But at night, the employer would confine them in his room. This went on for a month. One of them was found to be pregnant when she returned home; she later aborted the baby," he told 101Reporters.
Although 101Reporters could not trace these women in Dabhia, the allegations and accounts of ill-treatment meted out to these labourers shed light on the plight of the families who are forced to migrate out of Khandwa for work.
(The author is a Khandwa-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)