Left in the lurch, malnourished child dies in Bangalore

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BANGALORE, July 19: The death of six-year-old Meghala, a malnourished and physically-challenged resident of Devarjeevanahalli here, has thrown light on the wretched state of affairs in one of the lowest socio-economic pockets of the city.

On Wednesday evening, in a quiet ceremony, her family — which includes her visually-impaired mother and 13-year-old sister — cremated her, after she succumbed to a week-long battle with pneumonia. Despite being identified by the Health Department as ‘malnourished’ and by her local anganwadi centre as ‘severely underweight’, this six-year-old who weighed around 11 kg, lived completely outside the State’s welfare net — barring the two eggs and twice-a-week milk she was given at her anganwadi.

Murugamma, her 37-year-old mother, says that her daughter’s “whole life has been a battle”. The three live in a 10×10 hutment, with tin roofs and walls and no floor, and every time it rains their house floods. The grieving mother starts talking about how her daughter was “doomed to malnourishment” as she was too weak to breastfeed her, but her sorrow turns to anger as she narrates the rest of her story. “I raised her on my own. With no income, no family support, no help from the government and no hope,” she says, matter-of-factly.

No pensions, BPL

Even Ms. Murugamma, who lost her sight at the age of nine, does not get disability pension. Her applications, over the years, have gone unanswered and two months ago she got a letter saying she was eligible; but she is yet to receive her pensions. “Had I had my pension and my BPL card, which I am entitled to given that I have no income except by way of charity, my child may have lived.” Her elder daughter, who is silent throughout the interaction, interrupts to point out that they are eligible to buy rice at Rs. 1 a kg at the local ration shop. Then she slips back into silence. Ruth (13) had once worked as an agarbathi worker for a week; her mother says she stopped sending her as her hands ached. Since then she helps out at the local anganwadi centre in exchange for some lunch.

Ms. Murugamma points out that her child’s pneumonia was not detected by the PHC, where they had sent her back with cough syrup. Even the neighbourhood health camp only gave her de-worming medicine and pills for cough, when she had been suffering from severe cough and stomach ache for many months now. “Every trip to the doctor is at least a few hundred rupees. They tell me I can get it cheap if I have a BPL card, but what do we do if the state refuses to give us a card?” Even this Monday, when she took her to the Ambedkar Medical College where she was initially treated, her bill was over Rs. 2,500. “To make things worse, when we initially tried to admit her, they turned us down, perhaps because they thought we didn’t have enough money,” she says.

Meghala’s anganwadi records and case file with the local public health centre, a copy of which was accessed by The Hindu, prove that she was 11.5 kg the last time she was weighed. Both children survived because of the midday meal served here. Visibly upset, the Roshannagar anganwadi officials, say that they did everything to help. “But we can only do whatever the government has planned,” she said. Their neighbour, Ratna, asks of what use it is to identify these children as nourished or malnourished if the State did not monitor their health, and step in when they were in trouble. “How does it make sense to give them one meal, but not give them at least subsidised healthcare when they fall sick,” asked a social worker, who lives here. At the Roshannagar anganwadi there are 17 children categorised as ‘severely underweight’.

Poor sanitation, infections aplenty

Other residents of Roshannagar point out that infections and pneumonia are common here. Clean drinking water can only be purchased (at Rs. 10 per pot, as Meghala’s family did) and open drains are the norm here. “Our children routinely fall sick. Ask any family here and they’ll tell you that their biggest expenditure is on medical bills,” says Sadiya, who lives a lane away from Meghala’s house. As for disability pensions, she points out that last year, in a special drive, many of those who were getting pensions had been axed from the list.

A Health and Family Welfare Department official visited Ms. Murugamma on Friday. He offered her training and support through an NGO. When asked what the government could do, he said: “The government will call for medical records from Baptist Hospital. But there is little we could have done here. Incidentally, the sanction order for her disability pensions has been passed and she should start receiving it soon.”

The Women and Child Development department’s statistics indicate that there are 1,615 children identified as ‘severely malnourished’ in Bangalore (Urban). Across Karnataka there are 48,822 children in anganwadis who are identified as ‘severely underweight’. In fact, The Hindu had reported last week that many anganwadis across Bangalore have stopped giving eggs to those identified as malnourished under the Integrated Child Development Services scheme due to lack of funds.

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