17-23 March 2017 #850

The face of hunger

A debt-ridden Dalit couple is on the verge of losing their daughter to malnutrition
Om Astha Rai

ALIVE SO FAR: Chuna Devi Biswakarma, a brick kiln worker on the southern outskirts of Kathmandu, tries to console her crying daughter suffering from severe malnourishment. She holds her daughter's palm, wrinkled with malnutrition (below).

Buddhi Maya turned two this March. But she cannot sit upright, lies inert and limp on a hammock in the family hut. Her emaciated body weighs half of what it should at her age.

Her 60-year-old father, Nawaraj Biswakarma, moulds clay outside. The Dalit family moved from Dang to work a brick kiln in Lalitpur this winter. Nawaraj’s wife Chuna Devi had four daughters one after another, and the couple was still trying for a son when Buddhi Maya was born.

At 43 Chuna Devi looks much older, she was anemic and was too frail to give birth to a healthy daughter. Buddhi Maya was underweight when born, and Nawaraj admits he was disappointed it wasn’t a son.

One does not have to go far from the capital to see the face of hunger in Nepal today. Just 5 km from the city centre here in Badikhel, there are children literally starving and families who do not have enough to eat.

Nawaraj used to work seasonally in India before Buddhi Maya was born. He had taken a loan of Rs 18,000 from the Poverty Alleviation Fund to buy two goats. He paid back Rs 7,000 last year but needs to pay the next instalment next month and clear the remaining amount by November. He came to Kathmandu to earn enough to finish paying back the loan.

Pics: Om Astha Rai

“I thought I would be able to feed my children well after buying the goats,” he says. “But things got worse.”

He earns Rs 1 for each brick he moulds, but he has no savings after working for four months in Kathmandu. “Whatever I earn goes to feeding the children, I cannot sleep at night out of worry,” he says.

If he cannot pay back the loan, Nawaraj says he will be evicted from his dwelling in Dang, and he is not allowed to sell the goats. “They are government goats. If I sell them, or feed my children, I go to jail.”

An outreach worker of an NGO running a tuition class for the children of brick kiln workers spotted Buddhi Maya recently and sent her to a Nutrition Rehabilitation Home in Lalitpur. In two months Buddhi Maya gained some weight but not enough, indicating that she has other medical issues as well.

Says Sunita Rimal at the Home: “Her parents are too poor to buy more nutritious food, let alone getting a proper medical checkup.”

Chuna Devi was advised to keep her baby at the Home but she returned recently to her family at the brick kiln. Buddhi Maya now weighs just 4.3 kg instead of the 9.1 kg for someone her age. She is severely wasted and stunted, the skin on her face and limbs are wrinkled, ribs protrude from her emaciated body.

On a cloudy afternoon after rains this week, Chuna Devi was feeding her baby milk with a spoon. “I know she will die. She is here on Earth only for a short time.”

Read also:

‘Thought for food’, Marty Logan

‘Hunger for change’, Editorial

Having enough to eat is not enough, Mallika Aryal

Faulty feeding, Suman Pradhan

Tha Karnali’s children

Underfed and underfunded, Naresh Newar