At the sun-baked village of Nallasinka in Attappady, a frail woman is desperately scanning a pipeline that takes water to a private estate, looking for a leak that was once there. “It is five days since water reached our colony. Last week, we survived by collecting water that leaked out of this pipeline. Now, the owner seemed to have sealed the leaks,” says Lakshmi Rangan. The pipeline unyielding, Lakshmi and other women in her colony will have to wait for a few buckets supplied by tankers from downtown Mannarkkad, 50 km away.
Tribal-populated Attappady region in Kerala’s Palakkad district, which had hit headlines for the death of malnourished babies in 2013, is reeling under drought this year.
According to the Met department, while rainfall was 34 per cent deficient in Kerala during the southwest monsoon last year, it was 66 per cent in Attappady. It led to drought for a second consecutive year in Attapady; the rainfall deficit had been over 60 in the 2015 monsoon too. Besides, Attappady is yet to get the summer showers that have brought relief elsewhere in Kerala.
The government-sponsored water supply system at tribal colonies depends on bore-wells and wells dug in riverbeds. The rivers Bhavani and Shiruvani, however, have almost dried up. And in the nearby Silent Valley National Park, the streams that were another source of water are now trickles.
Tilaka Nagaraj, a tribal woman at Keeripathi colony, says many families are borrowing from moneylenders to buy drinking water from private suppliers. “We get 40 to 50 litres for Rs 150. I have taken Rs 1,000 from a moneylender at an interest of Rs 250 per month. I have used up that money on drinking water over the last two weeks,’’ she says.
At Karara and Gudayoor colonies in Agali village, tribals pay Rs 250 for 500 litres. “Nobody is sure when water will be supplied, if at all the government sends tankers. At the colonies, elders are waiting to collect water in pots skipping their daily work. This will also push us to utter poverty,” says tribal activist K A Ramu.
According to sources at Tribal Specialty Hospital at Attappady, scarcity of drinking water has taken a toll on the health of pregnant women in remote colonies. Of the three intrauterine foetal deaths reported in the region this year, two resulted out of want of enough amniotic fluid, they say. “When we analysed an intrauterine foetal death last week, we found that the mother did not have enough water at her colony (Boothayar) to drink. She had to walk one kilometre to get water,’’ says an official.
The water crisis in the region has also affected the health of cattle and goats, which are the only assets of many tribal families. The animal husbandry department had warned against leaving cattle in open areas as that would expose the animals to dehydration. At least 16 heads of cattle have died in the region during the current drought.
Lakshmi Rankan at Kombara colony has lost three cows, her family’s only asset. “We have no water to share with our animals. When we planned to dispose of the cows, traders tried to exploit our situation and would not pay a decent price. I kept the cattle hoping they would survive the summer. But, one after the other, I lost three animals in a month,” she says.
K Ravi, a government-appointed tribal affairs promoter in charge of 85 families at Sholayur, says most families get 10 to 15 buckets of water a week. “Water sources in the forest have dried up and government supply is limited to once a week. Many families cannot afford to buy from private distributors. As streams and ponds in the forests have dried up, elephants are frequently raiding the settlements,’’ says Ravi.
Integrated Tribal Development Project officer C K Ajeesh says, “If we don’t get summer showers in the coming week, the water crisis will go out of control.”
Ajeesh says drinking water schemes in many colonies are not functioning. Pump sets under some of the schemes are faulty. There are allegations that these were damaged deliberately by individuals hoping to make money from repair. In many colonies, people had gone on an agitation demanding water, Ajeesh says.
Palakkad district collector P Marykutty visited the region last week. “Some village panchayats are reluctant to address the emergency saying they had implemented water supply schemes in the past,” the collector says. “But I have asked them to take steps to distribute water irrespective of the projects implemented so far. The tribal affairs department has been asked to report about the crisis in 192 tribal settlements in Attappady. Water kiosks would be erected in the region this week itself.”
While tribals are struggling for water, estate owners and farmers, who possess prime land in the region, have apparently been running their irrigation facilities even in the drought season. “The estates have wells in low-lying areas and river-based wells to fetch water for agriculture. However, they won’t give a bucket of water to us,’’ says tribal woman Nagamony Maruthan.
Although the government had implemented a Rs 219-crore eco-restoration and tribal empowerment programme in Attappady from 2000 to 2010, the hills of the region now look barren.
Says Rajendra Prasad, president of tribal welfare organisation Thambu, “The Japan-aided Attappady eco-restoration project was not sustainable. It had created some infrastructure in concrete. Had eco-restoration and water conservation projects been successful, Attappady would not have faced the current crisis.”
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