Supriya Nag is the proud mother of Puja, a 4-year-old girl who lives in a company-run tea estate in Chabua, Assam. Puja’s weighed 1.6 kg when she was born but her weight diminished to 900 g in one week.
It’s a good time to think why we have malnourished mothers in this particular section of the workforce. The answer is early marriage. Young women are married off by the time they’re barely 16. During my research, I came across numerous such stories. One such story, as told to me by Ashok Oraon, a temporary worker at the tea estate, said, “when the father of a teenager sees his son lying idle, unemployed and drinking booze; he marries him off to a girl who too is a teenager and younger than him. Then he goes to the manager at the estate and seeks a job for his son. The teenage girl also conceives early.” Due to pregnancy in the teens there are instances where the baby is under-weight leading to less growth, thereby, resulting in malnutrition.
In Puja’s case, the reason behind her diminishing weight is because of irregularities in breastfeeding. Shivani Bharatiya, a medical student, says, “The breastfeeding has to be done 8-9 times a day. At times of sickness, the baby has to be fed more frequently as mother’s milk contains colostrum which contains antibodies that helps in boosting the immunity of the baby.” In tea estates, the women work in the field. So for a woman to feed her baby, a family member has to carry the baby all the way to the fields so the baby can drink mother’s milk. Due to the prevailing situation, there are times when the baby isn’t taken to the mother and irregularities in feeding arises.
But what about the health of the mother? The women do enormous work, from household chores to working in the fields from 7 AM to 3 PM. They live and work in terrible conditions with awful sanitation and hygiene. The life of a mother in such a place is even more challenging. The wages of a tea laborer is paid after 15 days. In the first few days, they get fish, meat, eggs from the makeshift Friday/Saturday market. After cooking food at home, when the whole family finish eating their meals, the mother gets to eat the leftover. Due to such acute intake of protein, it becomes difficult for the mother to produce breast milk.
The National Foundation for India commissioned a four month long research to explore the intensity of malnutrition among Adivasi children. Proshik Das, former secretary of Prastuti, a non governmental organisation working in the tea estate, says, “For the purpose of research, we formed two groups of mothers. We asked the mother to fill the bowl (with which they feed their baby) with water and then measured it in the cylinder. We also made a note of their behavior. We observed that they put food in it once and then fed their child in three installments.”
As per the statistics presented by the Ministry of Health, Assam is at the bottom with Maternal Mortality Ratio table at 300 against the national average of 167 and the fund spent under National Health Mission is 13.58% for the year 2017-18. Thus, the adversity of Assam’s poor MMR shows the impact on 22% population of Assam comprising of Adivasis.
(Sumantra Mukherjee is a National Media Fellow, and this article is a part of his work which is supported by National Foundation for India.)