Last week, when a doctor at the tribal speciality hospital in Attappady informed her that she was pregnant, Veeramma, 28, sat expressionless. The revelation only brought back haunting memories — of the death of her three children; one after the other in the last four years.
“I lost a daughter and two sons within a year of their births. I don’t know what happened to my children,’’ says Veeramma, who is now admitted to the hospital. It was the death of Kaliyamma, Veeramma’s eldest child, on April 12, 2013, that had brought the focus on infant deaths at Attappadi, a tribal block in the Western Ghats of Kerala’s Palakkad district, bordering Tamil Nadu.
Back then, as many as 38 children in these tribal hamlets had died of malnutrition and related complications. And last week, the state government finally announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh for the families of the 38 children, following orders from the state human rights commission.
Veeramma says she hasn’t heard about the compensation. “No one has told us about it. We anyway don’t know what to do with the money. My only wish is to have my next child saved,” says the tribal woman who lives with her husband, Selvan, at Kadambara colony, one of the remotest tribal settlements in Attappady. Their colony has no motorable road and one has to walk a kilometre to get a vehicle. “We have power at the house, but water has to be fetched from a well, half a kilometre away. Everybody from the colony jostles near the well, so we have to wait for our turn to even get a few buckets of water,’’ says Veeramma. There are 192 such tribal settlements spread over the three panchayats of Agali, Puthur and Sholayur here.
The couple though find themselves in a worrying situation again. While the infant deaths dropped to 16 and 10 in 2015 and 2016 respectively, after the state and the central governments stepped in with a package of Rs 125 crore, seven children have already died this year.
The numbers are a blot on the state, where the infant mortality rate of six deaths per 1000 births, is at par with the rate in the US. The national IMR figure is 40. As per official sources, the IMR in Attappadi was 38 in 2013 but fell to 11 last year.
Still, says Dr Prabhu Das, the nodal medical officer for Attappadi, more work is needed if the situation is to improve. “Now, we have a system to feed only pregnant women, which will not help solve the issue of malnutrition in Attappadi,” Das says, adding that the children too have to be given proper care and adequate food.
Das also says that children are born in Attappadi with genetic disorders, which he says could be due to the “alcoholism and drug addiction” prevalent among the men in the hamlets. “We have recommended an expert study. We are yet to establish a correlation between habits of the parents with the disorders of the children,” he says.
Veerama’s oldest child, Kaliyamma, died of heart problems and acute respiratory distress syndrome, say sources at the tribal hospital. She was born in 2012 but lived for only 14 months. “She weighed 1.8 kg at birth. It was a delivery at home,” says Veerama, who rears a calf while her husband Selvan is a daily wager. “The government had given us two calves but one died this summer for want of fodder and water. Now, I have only one calf to rear,” Veerama says.
Her second child, a boy, was born through a normal delivery in 2014 but he was underweight and died of complications within a few days. In 2015, Veeramma gave birth to her third child. Six months later, he was found dead in the cradle at their home. Doctors blamed the death on milk aspiration, a condition where milk enters the airways and lungs.