Malnutrition and media advocacy in Madhya Pradesh

BY Sachin Kumar Jain| IN Media Practice | 13/09/2006
Instead of targeting media as a broad structure, a dialogue was initiated with the identified journalists sensitive to social issues.

Sachin Kumar Jain

The high level of child malnutrition has been a crucial  development challenge in  Madhya Pradesh, but one that development expenditure in the state has failed to tackle effectively. Though more than 50% children remained malnourished, the Integrated Child Development Services programme falls far short of need. There are only  50 thousand Anganwadis against the needed 1.26 lakh and the management of these is woefully inadequate. The state government has provided just one-fourth of the required budget for managing this service. Madhya Pradesh  also ranks high  in the list of states for its infant mortality rate (79/per thousand) and its child mortality rates but even then nutrition as an issue has never engaged the attention of the mainline media.

When the struggle for Right to Food began in Madhya Pradesh in 2001, the initial analyses clearly showed that food and nutrition insecurity were affecting the state¿s children most severely. The crisis could not be viewed generally; malnutrition in fact was playing a crucial role in ending children`s lives. They lost the immunity to fight common infections and diseases like diahorrea and cold. The sad part of this analysis is that the media was not playing any role in debate over right to nutrition.

The group working on public issues in Madhya Pradesh decided that the arsenal of media would prove useful in changing the indifferent attitude of the state and so it was decided that a dialogue be established with the media. Starvation deaths are always a political issue that government recognizes but never accepts. This is the reason that the issue of deaths due to malnutrition or hunger is strangulated in the net of debates and discussions and no significant change appears in the system. This principle was in vogue in politics that death due to malnutrition never occurs among children. The government had sold this principle to media and to change the same was the prime challenge of the media advocacy.

We believe that establishing proactive dialogue is more essential than publishing the news of an event. During 2001-2002 two articles and 270 news items appeared on the ICDS issue in MP; most of which were promotional items, with no policy implications. Then Vikas Samvad along with the grassroot civil society organizations began a process of need-based education and training of local media persons. In this process the discussions were initiated not on the allegations of malnutrition but on its scientific and social aspects.

Instead of targeting media as a broad structure, a dialogue was initiated with the identified journalists sensitive to social issues. Working on Right to food we felt it was more  important to prepare information packs with  analysis of ICDS and malnutrition than issuing political statements, so that we could  fulfill their information needs. Media has its own information needs; they need information that can be made into news items. All the information needs to be authentic, valid and legitimate; after all it¿s a matter of trustworthiness. Often the issues of starvation or malnutrition are made controversial on which allegations and counter allegations ensue but a healthy debate never happens.

In this situation the media has analyzed its role among   peoples` representatives and legislature. During 2004 and 2005 the study oft-occurred in media on the number of questions raised in Parliament on the issues related to women and children. After this even the peoples` representatives themselves began to assign importance to these issues of voluntary groups. In fact the media played a crucial role at not only making the voice loud but powerful.

In 2004 a study report on the serious problem of malnutrition among Sahariya tribal community children in Shivpuri district was issued strategically. After that a detailed analysis was done on the death due to malnutrition of 13 children in Patalgarh village of near by Sahariya dominated district Sheopur. Following similar cases in Ganjbasoda tehsil of Vidisha district in April- May 2005, Vikas Samvad and Right to Food Campaign Madhya Pradesh Support Group initiated a planned process. At the onset the representatives of five voluntary organizations under the Right to Food Campaign did fact-finding and compiled a detailed report. Then there was an option that this group could organize a Press Conference at Bhopal (capital of MP) and made public the report but that was not done.

Vikas Samvad instead discussed this report with a state and nationally reputed newspaper. Since the matter was serious and could cause problems for the state government the newspaper took a week to think over it. After a week it was decided that Dainik Jagran (the leading Hindi newspaper of India) will publish the Ganjbasoda incident but will also publish in a sequence the cases of malnutrition and ICDS in other parts of the state and Vikas Samvad will have to do the preparations as well. Thereafter Dainik Jagran began to publish materials on nutrition crisis and the role of government with a subtitle ?Jagran Abhiyan (Jagran Campaign)?.

This campaign had not only the information on children`s malnutrition and death but a budget analysis and the outline of the scheme as well.  The published material had news but articles, editorials and news analyses as well. The entire case was forwarded to the Hon. Supreme Court with report of the independent investigation team and the affidavits of the affected persons, and the Court acting promptly summoned the State Government. As a result the Vidisha Collector provided false information to the Supreme Court which too became headlines. Till date the Administration`s trend of denial continued. 

While the dialogue continued with the Supreme Court Commissioners, the media carried on publishing news and articles, and the people`s representatives facilitated a debate in the Legislative Assembly.  Widespread reactions were recorded. By now the legislature, judiciary and media had all taken cognisance of the issue. It became a mainstream issue and its roar was heard at the level of the Government of India. The Central government in August 2005 declared 6 villages of Ganjbasoda as special affected area with regard to malnutrition. Pressed on all sides the Commissioner of the Women & Child Development Department, Government of Madhya Pradesh, visited these villages and in a Press Conference at Vidisha, the District headquarters accepted that the situation of malnutrition is serious and the incidents of deaths cannot be denied. in those six villages the Jhoolaghars (cr裨es) would be started it was announced, where the children would receive nutritional supplements, hygiene and health facilities.

But what can be gained by declaring only six villages as specially effected when the situation is more or less similar across the state with every second child is malnourished? So in this context a Press Conference was organized at Bhopal on 18th August 2005 wherein the partners of the Right to Food secretariat and the other friends working elsewhere were also present. In this Press conference not only was the grave situation of malnutrition was presented but fungus-infested dalia that was distributed in the Khalwa block of Khandwa district was also displayed.

A report on the present situation in the state and the efforts being taken was compiled for this Press conference. After the Conference the Media admonished the government through news and situational report articles. The news channel ?Aaj Tak? visited the villages with Campaign partners and highlighted the news in their telecast.

When one newspaper was raising this issue with all seriousness the other media groups were forced to involve in the debate on this issue. As the issue of malnutrition appeared continuously in the press the ongoing Legislative Assembly session could not ignore it and an extensive debate took place on the news related to Ganjbasoda issue. This was the time when Women & Child Development Department became a primary department of the government and for the first time the department tried to view the issue of malnutrition beyond the government perspective and began to pay attention to aspects of monitoring and evaluation along with increasing the budget. During 2004 to 2006 most (seven) projects and schemes related to women and child health and nutrition were implemented. The Commissioner W&CD due to the media alertness accepted for first time those deaths due to malnutrition have occurred. Star News, through telecasting an investigative report on serious situation of infant mortality rate gave a national importance to the issue.

Once again serious cases of malnutrition recurred in Patalgarh (Sheopur). Now the media highlighted the accountability and responsibility of the state because despite death due to malnutrition of 13 children and the Supreme Court Commissioners` directives, the ICDS status there had not improved and resulted in more cases of deaths of children. Now the question posed was -why is the government not accountable? Here the experience of association with media appeared in a new fashion. The Patalgarh report (2006) was first shared with the local media but no one gave it a space. When NDTV raised this issue the national English dailies like Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Statesman, and Pioneer followed.  

When local dailies realized that the issue ahs become prominent they were forced to pick up the same. It has been experienced that whenever information in a proper format reaches, Tehelka always covers it with high intensity, though that may have been their commercial compulsion. In Madhya Pradesh whenever the micro cases of deaths due to malnutrition were raised the care was taken to refer to the facts related to the broader issues, budget and structures. Whenever the policy issues were raised the situation of villages like Patalgarh and Sahaba were cited to prove that the issue is not mere principle. Today the groups in Madhya Pradesh do not have to debate with media over whether the deaths occur due to malnutrition, and whenever the government makes any effort it is subjected to media analysis.

After this advocacy hardly a day has passed when the issues of food insecurity, nutrition-malnutrition or government policies related to children has not occurred in media. It is not important that the number of published items totals more than 2771 but more important is the fact that now media does not merely highlights the figures but analyses the same on a regular basis. It is worth mentioning that now most of the regional and district bureaus of the daily newspapers have identified issues on nutrition as an issue for routine coverage.  In Madhya Pradesh we have the media in support of government, as well as media influenced by the different political ideologies. The debate over the issue needs to be made so strong and broad-based that media on any side cannot ignore it.

In this entire process our only contribution was to underscore what  it means when out of every 1000 live births 79 infants succumb to death? If during 2005-06, 17 lakh children were born in the state then it means that 1.32 lakh children below one year did not live and 2.40 lakh children witnessed, at the most, five birthdays. Then we ask the question: is not the situation grim? 

To carry on the process of media dialogue the reliable sources to get the information, data and facts were identified. Usually the voluntary agencies generate their own facts but in case of ICDS and children`s food security the Madhya Pradesh group relied on government and authorized agency sources. The microanalysis was done of the websites of MP government`s Women & Child Development, Health, Education and Finance Departments. Learning was had from the evaluation and annual reports of these departments.  Importantly, the figures and performance analysis in annual report of Comptroller & Auditor General, reports of the Parliamentary Committee, minutes of the National Advisory Council meetings and reports of the various bilateral agencies continued to authenticate the process of advocacy.

Presently it is also true that the voluntary agencies working on the Right to Food issue in the state have undertaken successful efforts at revealing the real situation through extensive field level studies. These were the sources that always existed but were hidden from the media. Right to Information has been an important source to collect information for media. In the advent of consumerism the priorities of media have changed but their social responsibilities have not. Media advocates are trying to utilize whatever space is available. 

Vikas Samvad, E-7/226, First Floor, Arera Colony, opp. Dhanvantri Complex, Shahpura, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. sachinwrites@gmail.com                  

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