Among the many times that I wonder about how the extremely marginalized cope with an empty stomach is when I hear the words "Mummy, I am hungry" on television. It is the ad jingle for a snack popular with children and youth since it entered India over twenty five years back. And it reminds me of the umpteen choices of ‘fast’ foods (usually unhealthy), available in urban areas. But, unlike the mum in the commercial, mothers of many children in this unenviable position cannot conjure up anything filling or tasty in two minutes!
Take the case of Vimala and her husband John, two barely literate street vendors in our neighbourhood (Benson Town in Bangalore Cantonment) who together earn an average of two hundred rupees daily. Bangalore’s increasingly unpredictable climate and Vimala’s shoulder spasms (from carrying heavy loads) forces them to stop work early on some days. Despite these challenges, they are educating their sharp and studious daughters Maya and Preeti, aged eleven and seven years in an English medium government aided school nearby. (Fortunately, a few local residents support the school expenses of the girls). Although, the children have been performing well consistently, Maya often returns home on an empty stomach. "She finds the nutritious hot meal provided in her school uninteresting", says Vimala. It is understandable that she prefers chips, cookies, samosas and puris over rice and vegetables, like her peers. Further, Maya sometimes considers it humiliating to eat ‘free’ lunch. But her erratic food habits result in episodes of gastritis and visits to the doctor eating into her parents’ precious time and meagre earnings. To minimize this, Vimala rises very early to cook and pack lunch for the girls, adding to their monthly household expenses and Vimala’s shoulder pain. Coaxing or admonition from her parents and teachers has not changed Maya much. Vimala shared, "It will be tough if Preeti starts adopting her older sister’s eating preferences".
This family is however better off than the five frail kids and their parents who have been living for over two years beside the busy railway track (part of the route originating at Bangalore Central) near our house. Braving the trains and rains, they forage garbage dumps for edibles or items that they can resell. It is not surprising that the one who cares for her siblings and helps her mother is an eight year old girl, the oldest among the children. Of course, even if she was younger, her fate may not have been very different. Interestingly, the kids of this family rarely take anything offered epitomizing the words "It is better to starve than to beg"… The only time they accepted money was when some of us in the locality contributed token amounts when a sixth child passed away last year. The untimely death occurred perhaps from hunger or disease or both!
Awareness of and access to family planning techniques could mitigate the second situation but that is a different discussion although relevant. Needless to add, maternal and child diet and health are strongly interlinked particularly in the case of infants. Those who wonder why such people do not work, hardly realize that it is tough for them to find even daily wage labour owing to stiff competition. And relocating to free shelters/homes as a single entity may be difficult considering the shortage and sometimes terrible conditions of those run by the government or charity groups.
Realities in a few government schools
And there are the kids from economically backward households in Pottery Town, Devarajeevanhalli and surrounding localities (in eastern Bangalore) who go to the seventy five year old Government Kannada Model Primary School (run by the Karnataka state government) on the famous and busy Pottery Road. It is obvious that the main incentive for the students is the freshly cooked and nourishing lunch commonly called the "midday meal". To some, it is their only wholesome meal and source of nutrients. The menu typically has steamed rice, vegetables and lentils (in the form of dhal or sambar) and includes a cup of yoghurt/curd or a fruit or an egg at least twice a week. On special occasions like Children’s Day and Independence Day, the children get sweets and savouries. Unfortunately, not all kids get their share as their teachers compel them to assist in serving the younger children and also in cleaning the huge and heavy vessels once they are empty. Amidst all these children, there are a few who collect some of the food for siblings at home (with or without eating themselves) as per the instructions of their parents or older guardians.
In addition to lunch, the government provides the children vitamin supplements through the school. And, they undergo dental, eye and general health checks periodically but the efficacy of these is debatable. Usually, inexperienced doctors, interns or paramedics perform the medical examinations. Further, they report their diagnosis in English which neither the students or their barely literate parents can read. And the teachers or the school administration hardly assist them in such matters. Encouragingly, there are a few BBMP and state government run schools in Bharati Nagar (near Shivaji Nagar) and Matadahalli (near R.T. Nagar) where the principals ensure that all students are well fed and healthy. The latter are a rare breed but welcome indeed!
Note: Some names and occupations were changed to protect identity.