The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Maharashtra recently became the first state to frame a comprehensive child development policy, seeking to address issues like child health, education, childcare, substance abuse and juvenile justice. The ostensible reason behind a new policy based on standards set by the United Nation’s convention of rights for children was the government’s insistence that the many existing laws fell far short of these standards.

The government says it has given a special focus to the tribal sector. A child protection office in each district will now coordinate with non-governmental organizations working with children. Expectant mothers will be issued a yellow card to ensure a nutritious diet and health benefits. After birth, there will be a birthday card to include facilities like birth certificate, immunization, “balsangopan yojna”, supplementary nutrition and other schemes. Anganwadi centres will now function as resource-cum-service centre for children upto two.

To keep a check on infant deaths in tribal areas, local tribal women will be trained as midwives and given a medical kit so that infants get proper medical attention. A specially designated child marriage prevention officer in every village block will see to the strict implementation of the Child Marriages Restraint Act.

Starved of facts

Through these initiatives, the government hopes to deflect criticism it has faced recently over tribal child deaths reported from Thane district. Last month, as with last year’s reports from Melghat, the government denied that starvation was the cause of the death of 22 tribal children in Thane’s Wada taluka. Recently, the Pune-based Tribal Research and Training Institute, however, found that 92 per cent of the children in the region were malnourished. The TRTI’s findings were rebutted; last April too, the government had accused social activists of tampering with child and infant mortality figures. Against the latter’s estimate of around two lakh child deaths every year due to malnutrition and related ailments, the government figures were 31, 987 in 2000-01 and 29, 252 in February 2002.

The government has always cited superstition, illiteracy, early marriages leading to motherhood under non-institutional conditions for such crises in the tribal dominated regions. But while it says that illnesses such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and worm infection are causes of the deaths, it is also true that medical help is largely absent or missing in these areas. At the time of the deaths in Thane, there were only three mobile medical teams in the area for a population of nearly 18 lakh.

Greater focus

After the Melghat deaths the state government had announced the Melghat pattern for planned development of the tribal areas in the east and northeast. This included the upgradation of medical facilities at primary health centres, pre-natal and post-natal care, maternity grant and mass education programmes. The new policy incorporates many of these suggestions but is silent on the decline in the sex-ratio reported in this year’s Maharashtra human development report — it declined from 934 in 1991 to 922 in 2001.

Under the policy, the current allocation of Rs 550 crore for different children’s schemes would be raised by 10 per cent each year. By 2007, it is to be increased to Rs 750 crore. Already 90 per cent of the Rs 550 crore is being spent on the integrated child development services scheme that has been operating in Maharashtra since 1975.

The ICDS focuses on the health, education and nutrition of children upto 6 years, pregnant women and lactating mothers. The anganwadi programme looks after immunization, nutrition and regular health services for children between one and three. Fifty-five thousand such centres already operate in 369 projects under this scheme covering 55 lakh beneficiaries. It has to be seen how the remaining 10 per cent would be used to finance the ambitious projects that are part of the new policy.

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