As many as 6,582 child deaths occurred over three years from 2019-20 to 2021-22 in 16 tribal districts due to malnutrition, out of which 601 cases involved parents who were victims of child marriages and the mothers minors, according to a report submitted by Maharashtra government before the Bombay High Court on Monday.
Out of the total number of children who died due to malnutrition in the last three years, 5,031 belonged to the Scheduled Tribe (ST) group. Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni for the state government claimed that it has successfully prevented nearly 1,541 child marriages from taking place in the last three years.
On being informed about the 6,582 child deaths in the last three years, the court called the numbers “mind boggling” and asked the state government to take steps to sensitise older people in tribal communities to prevent such deaths and malnutrition.
A three-member committee was constituted in consultation with Advocate General and state Chief Secretary to survey child marriages in 16 districts in Maharashtra with tribal population. The report also noted that nearly 15,253 cases of malnutrition in children, which included Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) and Moderate Acute Malnutrition (MAM), had taken place where the mother was a minor.
The state also submitted that a survey was completed by district programme officers and district health officers of Zilla Parishad, adding that 26, 059 cases of SAM were reported in the last three years, out of which 20,293 cases belonged to the ST Community. Besides, 11,0674 cases of MAM were reported, out of which 79,310 belonged to ST Community. In 3,000 cases of SAM, the mothers of the children were minor. In cases of MAM, the number stood at 11,652.
Other places from where malnutrition cases were reported included Nandurbar, Amravati and Gadchiroli.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice V G Bisht was hearing a bunch of PILs, including those filed by Dr Rajendra Burma and activist Bandu Sampatrao Sane, on malnutrition among children in Melghat.
The HC, on March 14, had asked the Maharashtra government to undertake innovative measures to sensitise citizens from tribal areas on the minimum age of marriage for girls after it was told that girls as young as 12-13 years of age were being married off and made to bear children soon after, which was one of the main reasons for deaths of children due to malnutrition in those areas.
The bench on Monday observed: “It is indeed required for the government with regard to the high number of child marriages prevalent in tribal community to sensitise elders in such communities and to make them aware of the ill effects of the child marriages as well as violation of rights of children as enumerated in multiple legislations…”
It added, “We hope and trust that the government would not leave any stone unturned to appropriately implement the provisions of the legislation which have been used for benefits of children, more particularly girl children among tribal communities.”
The court asked the petitioners to respond to government reports and give suggestions and posted further hearing to June 20.