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Misery in monochrome

This is how photojournalist Sudharak Olwe chose to expose the poignancy of malnutrition – one picture at a time

Reed-thin arms, protruding ribs, distended tummies and eyes with absolute disinterest – the images will haunt you as you leave the gallery. And that’s exactly what photojournalist Sudharak Olwe aimed to do with his photographs.

Exposing the harsh realities of India’s malnutrition burden on children, Olwe’s exhibition at Bikaner earlier this month was an eye-opener to begin with. Titled ‘Endangered Species: Malnutrition Stalks India’s Children’, the exhibition brings to the fore the plight of various marginalised and poverty-stricken groups across Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Odisha.

The images are accompanied with some hard-hitting statistics that surely drive home the point. 8.82 lakh Indian children under the age of five died due to malnutrition in 2018. As per the Global Hunger Index 2019, around 90 per cent of children aged between six and 23 months in the country don’t even get the minimum required food.

Drawing our attention to the shocking state of the country’s future generation, Olwe investigates conditions at the grassroots level to present the whole picture. Over the last few weeks, Olwe along with his team traveled across the country to check if the Integrated Child Development Services’ (ICDS) outreach programmes via Anganwadi Centres actually work. The images follow the work of Nutritional Rehabilitation Centres (NRC) in several districts to better understand the challenges encountered by them, as well as to identify the shortcomings of the system.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare have set up 1,151 NRCs across the country to provide facility-based care for children with Severe Acute Malnutrition. Unfortunately, there are not enough centres and are usually ill-equipped with only 10-12 beds.

The distance to NRCs as well as time and effort to travel to these centres pose as roadblocks for the families. “Mostly farmers, they do not have enough money to take their children and stay at the centres. They also don’t want to loose their daily wage,” explains Olwe.

The unavailability of education, early marriage, multiple pregnancies, lack of nutrition in earlier generations add on to the problem. Featuring several tribal villages in his images, what stands out is the prevalence of superstitious beliefs and faith in dubious concoctions, that further leads to the deterioration of their conditions.

Perfectly capturing the essence of the entire exhibition, one of the photos at the Primary Health Centre at the village of Mokhada in Palghar district of Maharashtra, shows a visibly malnourished baby being weighed.

Shot in monotone, the empty faces from the indelible images stare back at you as if in anticipation of your intervention. Olwe points out that it is high time that people acknowledge the issue growing right under our noses. “These are fresh photographs that show what the country is right now. As citizens of this country, aren’t we responsible for these children?” he questions.

Agitated in the documentation process, Olwe recalls that he felt equally helpless. “We are all so narrowed down to our own lives. These areas are just 90 km away from Mumbai and we remain unaware. People point out that we keep seeing these photos of misery but my question is: If you see them, then why don’t you do something about it?”

He urges people to look beyond their immediate environment and make sure that the next generation starts to thrive rather than merely survive.

The exhibition closes with a heart-wrenching image of a mother wailing for her child whose body lies wrapped in a cloth ready to be taken away. One of the many lives claimed by malnutrition.