Endangered Species: How malnutrition has plagued some of Assam's most vulnerable districts and communities

The first part of the docuseries, Endangered Species explores the issue of malnutrition in the tea garden labour population, one of the most marginalised communities in the country; the prevalence of Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM); lack of health workers and unequal distribution of services in some of the worst-hit parts of Assam especially the Muslim majority districts and the Bodoland territory.

Nirman Chowdhury March 13, 2020 16:50:59 IST
Endangered Species: How malnutrition has plagued some of Assam's most vulnerable districts and communities
  • The film dives into the issue of malnutrition in the tea garden labour community, one of the most marginalised communities in the country, who were brought to Assam as bonded labour by the British over two centuries ago.

  • From the Muslim majority district of Darrang to the Bodoland district of Udalgiri, Anganwadi workers struggle every day to feed the children one meal a day — a meal that is extremely important in poor communities.

  • While many workers are not equipped to collect data, some do not have any training at all and almost half the supervisors in the Integrated Child Development Scheme projects have not been paid salaries. NRC’s (Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres) in the state are also understaffed and not optimally equipped to sustain themselves.

Malnutrition is a looming threat over the lives of millions of Indian children in rural and tribal areas. Failure to tackle this menace has resulted in extremely vulnerable communities and has had a huge impact on local development and economy. Endangered Species includes an extensive photostory by the acclaimed photographer and Padma Shri awardee Sudharak Olwe and writer Priya Pathiyan and a two-part documentary series by filmmaker Nirman Chowdhury that documents the issue in some of the worst-affected states in India and features people and families fighting this battle.

*** 

With reed-thin arms, the swelling of oedema distorting their body, some with distended tummies, others wheezing with pneumonia, and most of them with disinterest in their eyes and lethargy in their limbs… this is the state of our country’s future generation. These children from sections of society that often go under the radar are at the receiving end of a long line of problems that stem from corruption, lack of opportunities to parents, social neglect or ostracisation due to poverty, religion or caste.

Recent statistics have shown that one in three Indian children are malnourished and two out of three deaths among children under the age of five are a result of the same. While they may not all be dying of starvation before our very eyes, millions of India’s children are at risk of having lifelong problems because their daily diet does not support their physical and cognitive development. It’s imperative that the issue is examined closely and rectified quickly.

Many organisations are working to address this huge problem besetting our next generation and its potential for productivity, but is the help reaching the right people? What exactly lies at the end of the chain? We decided that we must investigate the conditions at the grassroots to get answers that will present the true and whole picture.

Endangered Species How malnutrition has plagued some of Assams most vulnerable districts and communities

Still from Endangered Species. YouTube screengrab.

Not surprisingly, we found that the incidences of stunting, wasting and malnourishment were high in these populations, with a large number of children falling under the Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) category, which is the most extreme and visible form of undernutrition. We talked to the families of these children. We visited the district nutrition rehabilitation centres; we watched the women who have made it their life’s work to bring about change as they went about their daily duties just to understand where it’s all going wrong.

We found that apart from poverty — which is the most obvious — many other factors contribute to the dismal conditions in the homes of the tribal community and other marginalised sections of society. Unavailability of education, hygiene and access to medical treatment, early marriage, multiple pregnancies, lack of nutrition from earlier generations, superstitious beliefs and faith in dubious local healers instead of doctors, and many other reasons compounded the problem. The sheer lack of awareness amongst parents about what constitutes a nutritious meal was one of the most startling findings. In many cases, the failure of the system to provide aid to the beneficiaries as well as to the people who are working in the field also added an extra pall of gloom to the already dire realities.

The first part of the docuseries Endangered Species takes us to the state of Assam, famous for its tea gardens and the mighty Brahmaputra river. The film dives into the issue of malnutrition in the tea garden labour community, one of the most marginalised communities in the country, who were brought to Assam as bonded labour by the British over two centuries ago. The film touches upon their dark history and how they still continue to lead a very deprived life.

From the Muslim majority district of Darrang to the Bodoland district of Udalgiri, Anganwadi workers struggle every day to feed the children one meal a day — a meal that is extremely important in poor communities. Some centres have not received funds for weeks and even months. While many workers are not equipped to collect data, some do not have any training at all and almost half the supervisors in the Integrated Child Development Scheme projects have not been paid salaries. Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres (NRCs) in the state are also understaffed and not optimally equipped to sustain themselves.

With one of the highest infant mortality rates in India, Assam’s children are on a dangerous precipice. The film follows the stories of Anganwadi workers, doctors, mothers and children of Assam who are fighting this battle alone.

Watch the first part here:

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