“Whatever the government kept claiming, our income has not increased. Poverty has increased after the Covid pandemic. Yes, it is true that cheap food grains are still available from the government, but if you use up all the food, then you will not be able to pay the rent for the house, books for the children’s education and other expenses. We have to sell some of the cheap grains we get in the market to run our household. But we are unable to eat enough food in return” says Majju Bai, a tribal woman from Navegaon in Chhindwara, looking disheartened as she narrates this story
“ My son does not earn anything and I am not able to meet the needs of my granddaughter and grandson. Milk and milk products were neither available to my children earlier and now I am able to give to my granddaughters and grandchildren too. They have become more expensive after the Covid pandemic. We hardly get edible oil because it has become very expensive. Sometimes we grind onion, chilli, garlic with water on a stone and eat roti from it” she says.
According to her they managed to sell the Mahua crop they harvested from the forest and
paid off old loans. Now there is no work due to the heavy rains nor is the government providing any jobs. In the meanwhile the price of a litre of open cooking oil, available for Rs 70 to 90 till five years ago, has now become Rs.150. The price of good oil in the unopened packet is getting to be Rs.200. She tells us that the price of oil from the market of Chhindwara district headquarters is 15 to 20 rupees more expensive in the markets and shops around the village.
Majju Bai says her granddaughter is 15 months old, food is not available and her body is weak. Still she is not getting the food she needs. She is worried about the kind of future her granddaughter will have after marriage as she is so undernourished as a child. It will also affect her children, because it is well known that women who are weak give birth to children who suffer from some kind of disease.
Mittho Uike, who lives in Bhopal’s Kolar slum, tells Covid Response Watch that she has two daughters, whom she sends to a government school. She bears the expenses of both, because the husband is not getting any work since the Covid pandemic. He used to go to the clothes shop earlier but he was retrenched. Later, he started working as a labourer in the construction of houses but one day he fell while laying bricks and injured his leg.
“Now the situation is that the electricity bill has not been deposited for four months. Anytime the power company will disconnect the connection” says Mittho.
She says that she works as a cook in two houses. She earns Rs1800 a month from each house. She comes under the below poverty line category, so she gets 25 kg of wheat every month from the government ration shop. Out of which she sells about 10 kg every month. Sometimes it is sold at Rs 22 and sometimes Rs 25 per kg. This makes an income of around Rs 250, which helps her with the monthly expenses.
She says that one of her daughters is 12 years old and the other is 15 years old. Both are very weak. The eldest daughter is already having her periods. Whenever she gets her period, she falls ill. She thinks that she should feed the daughters good food, buy milk too but she is not able to afford all this, because a liter of milk in a packet has become Rs 58. If you buy milk for a month, it will cost around Rs 1680. Her household expenses will be unmanageable and she will be left with no option but to commit suicide.
These are just two stories depicting the effects of rising inflation in recent years on the very poor. There are countless more such stories in economically backward families. The middle class is also getting hurt by inflation and is reducing its consumption with far-reaching and serious consequences. In terms of compromises, spending on good food is the most prominent one.
As such, MP ranks among the worst Indian states when it comes to children suffering from malnourishment. The situation of female children in particular is worse because of gender discrimination. Daughters born in low-income families are not able to get adequate nutrition as the boys are favoured by parents in the distribution of scarce food available at home. Overall the numbers of severely malnourished children has been growing in recent years.
According to the data received from the nutrition rehabilitation centers of the state of MP, in the year 2006-07, 7182 severely malnourished children were identified and treated. Of these, 5 to 15 percent died. In the year 2016-17, 79458 such malnourished children were treated. In 2018-19, 71,404 malnourished children were provided treatment, but during the Covid epidemic in the year 2021-22, only 36000 malnourished children could be identified. The health department could not reach other children due to the pandemic. Now they are being brought under the ambit of investigation and treatment. Due to the delay in identifying these, thousands of children have died and many have had their growth affected.
Recently, in a report released by the Union Health Ministry, it was revealed that 14,749 newborn children died in the year 2019-20 in the state of MP, 13,486 in the year 2020-21 and 13,316 in the year 2021-22. All of them were admitted for treatment in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The biggest reason for his death was found to be congenital weakness. The report said that in the death of newborn children, MP ranks first in comparison to other states in India.
Ajay Shah, an expert in social and economic matters, says that Madhya Pradesh has a large tribal population which is very poor. The income of families living in the slums of rural and urban areas has also not increased. Due to the increasing family size and inflation, lakhs of families are unable to take a nutritious diet. Now inflation has made cereals, edible oils, milk and milk products etc. too expensive for many such families.
He admits that the government is helping, but it is a limited help. There is a big difference between the help from the government and economic prosperity. Many families have been poor for generations and this results in a vicious cycle of ill-health preventing them from earning more and poverty affecting their ability to get healthier through better nutrition.
He says that there will hardly be any cases of malnutrition in any affluent family in MP. All the cases that are coming up are related to the people belonging to the economically weaker section.
He says that no poor family can buy and eat a nutritious ingredient like ghee, which now sells at Rs.630 per kilogram. Even salt of good quality, which was available for Rs 5 a kilogram for some years, has gone up to Rs15 to 20. The price of domestic gas was around Rs 650 per cylinder in the year 2017, which has become more than Rs 1000. Many members of poor families believe that this is a period of economic crisis for them in which everything has gone haywire.
Some efforts are going on to improve the economic condition of poor families, but there seems to be no visible plan to stop inflation. If this situation continues, many more serious difficulties may have to be faced by the poor in the coming days ahead.
Pooja Yadav is a journalist based in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.