The danger next door malnutrition on mumbai's doorstep

Walking through the serene countryside of Maharashtra, India, it's hard to believe that just three hours drive away lies the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, where traffic and pollution choke a crowded city. Here, in the region of Palghar, rolling hills and thick vegetation line the landscape, as lakes quietly reflect the afternoon sky. Looking out at the cloudless horizon, the view is difficult to reconcile with the building at the end of the long, narrow lane.

This is the Palghar malnutrition camp. Quiet and resolute, the simple, two-storey building serves as a chilling reminder that life in rural India is far from peaceful. In 2016, this camp saved the lives of 265 children. It was not able to save approximately 600 others, who died from malnutrition in the region.

Malnourishment is a condition resulting from lack of a nutritious diet. Distinct from starvation, malnourishment is a slower and less conspicuous process which does not necessarily involve extreme hunger, but threatens lives all the same. It has been shown to increase susceptibility to serious illness, reduce children’s ability to learn and attend school, and decrease their productivity later in life.

In the world, a third of all stunted children are Indian. This includes more than 60 million children under five years old.*

Malnourishment in rural India is a quiet epidemic, often disproportionately affecting tribal or marginalised peoples. The children at Palghar's malnutrition camp are wide-eyed and lively, dressed in bright colours and playing contentedly beside their mothers. They are not yet aware of how much everyone around them is passionately defending their survival.

*According to Unicef statistics from 2013.

In Palghar, child and foetal deaths from malnutrition have been on the rise, with 565 deaths recorded in the financial year of 2014-2015 and 626 deaths in 2015-2016, according to government statistics.
The malnutrition camp was established in January 2016 by a movement called Shramajivi Sanghatana. Its success has been limited, as government funds and donations have been inconsistent over the course of the year.
The camp focuses on providing aid to extremely malnourished children, usually those who fit within the bracket defined by the World Health Organisation as Moderately Acute Malnourished (MAM) or Severe Acute Malnourished (SAM).
Children in this category may stay at the camp for three to six days, until they regain a normal weight. During their stay, they are fed a diet of vegetables, rice, dhal and curry.
The camp is sustained by donations of food, supplies and medicines. The donors are usually NGOs or generous community members.
During the Hindu festival of Pitru Paksha, 2000 multivitamin supplements are delivered to the camp. Tradition dictates that Hindus feed crows on this day to memorise the dead but the donor, a local community member, feeds the children instead, in memory of his late wife.
The malnutrition camp provides simple sleeping quarters for visitors. This is also where doctors - or more commonly, traditional Ayurvedic healers who are in less demand - examine children in need.
Some staff reside permanently at the camp. The caretaker ensures the property stays clean for the children and their families.
Asha, 23, lives and works at the camp, cooking for the children and organising logistics. "I came here for money but when I saw the condition of the children, I thought I had to do something," she says. "Now I stay here. I have been working for two years now.”
Vivek Pandit, the leader of Shramajivi Sanghatana and a well-known activist, runs the camp with help from donors, community members, and a charitable trust. He is never without his admirers.
The camp is just one of the many social welfare programs set up by Mr Pandit. “Welfare schemes used to be supported by the government of India, but Modi changed that and now children are dying," he says. "Malnourishment is not just the problem now; it is the problem for generations.”
Pravin has worked as Mr Pandit's assistant since he was in 12th grade. "I met him in a lecture at my college and I took inspiration from him," he says. "Mr Pandit is my icon. He's like a book. I can't explain it in words."
With children staying for only a few days at a time, the camp is a short-term measure. It aims, very simply, to save lives. Yet, in the face of the region's staggering death toll, it's a very small step toward solving the problem of malnutrition.

Subtle and pervasive, malnutrition has invaded Palghar without the world taking notice. Small initiatives like the malnutrition camp may not provide solutions, but every meal served or service provided is imbued with a steady optimism. When the funding, food, or publicity runs dry, the camp is sustained on hope.

This, thankfully, is proving to be an inexhaustible resource.

Created By
Anna Levy

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