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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Malli’s tragedy: On death, loss and failed government schemes in Kerala’s only tribal block

With a string of malnutrition deaths and now a case of lynching, Attappadi has for long lived in Kerala’s shadows. Shaju Philip on why, despite government schemes and projects, little has changed in the state’s only tribal block.

Written by Shaju Philip | Updated: June 26, 2018 12:08:37 pm
kerala, kerala tribal lynchin, tribal man beaten death, kerala tribals, kerala violence, tribal govt scheme kerala, kerala lynching, malnutrition deaths, mentally challenged tribal man, indian express Madhu’s mother Malli at her home. (Photo: Anoop K Venu)

C Valli slumps onto the floor of her unplastered house at Pazhayoor colony in Attappadi’s Chindakki village, clutching a plastic bag half filled with rice. “There’s not a grain at home. I went around a few homes collecting cups of rice. I have a jobless husband and my in-laws to feed,” says Valli, hurt and angry.

The 28-kg free rice that Valli, a Muduga tribal, gets every month from the PDS shop at Mukkali, a junction on the Palakkad-Attappadi road, ran out a few days ago.

Hundred metres away, Malli, 56, sits on a mat, surrounded by other tribal women. Outside the single-storey house, a canopy has been set up as a steady stream of visitors, among them politicians and bureaucrats, file in and out, some bending down to console Malli. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was among those who visited her.

On February 22, Malli’s mentally ill son Madhu had been lynched to death by a mob which suspected him of stealing rice and curry powder from shops at Mukkali. Under the harsh lights of TV cameras, Malli tells the story of her loss, one other time.

“Madhu dropped out of school in Class 7 after his father Mallan’s death. He went to Palakkad to learn carpentry. It’s there that he developed mental problems,’’ says the Kurumba tribal woman.

kerala, kerala tribal lynchin, tribal man beaten death, kerala tribals, kerala violence, tribal govt scheme kerala, kerala lynching, malnutrition deaths, mentally challenged tribal man, indian express On February 22, Malli’s son Madhu had been killed by a mob which suspected him of stealing rice and curry powder from shops in Attappadi.

For the last nine years, Madhu had been living in a cave in the nearby forest, occasionally straying into the hamlet in search of rice. “He never stole any money from shops, only a few fistfuls of rice. And they killed him for that,” says Malli, staring hard at the mat on which she sits.

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The politicians leave, promising, among other things, a tarred road to the village. So far, the state government has announced a compensation of Rs 14 lakh, with Rs 10 lakh credited into Malli’s bank account, and a police constable’s job to Madhu’s sister Chandrika, who now works as an anganwadi worker. Malli’s younger daughter, Sarasu, is a daily wager.

 

Valli’s predicament and Malli’s tragedy are what make Attappadi, in Kerala’s Palakkad district, an unhappy outlier in the state’s famed story of inclusive development.

Attappadi, with 192 hamlets that fall under six revenue villages, lies on the state’s eastern border with Tamil Nadu. It’s Kerala’s only tribal block, with 44 per cent of the population belonging to Irula, Muduga and Kurumba tribes. In a state that flaunts its social and development report card, Attappadi is Kerala’s darkest corner.

 

Attappadi had hit headlines in 2013 when the region reported a series of infant deaths, allegedly due to malnutrition and related complications. According to data from Kerala’s Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP), 33 infants died that year, most of them born premature and with low birth weights — between 550 gm and 1.5 kg.

While the infant deaths dropped to 16 in 2015 and 10 in 2016, after the state and Central governments stepped in with a package of Rs 125 crore, the deaths were a blot on the state, where the infant mortality rate (IMR) of six deaths per 1,000 births is on a 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 in 2016.

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Along the Mukkali-Agali-Anakkatti road, the main lifeline of the region that slices through the deciduous forests of the Western Ghats, are temples, churches and mosques – markers of a gradual demographic change in a region that was once overwhelmingly tribal.

While tribals comprised 90.26 per cent of Attappadi’s population in 1951, their numbers had dropped to 42.21 per cent by 1971 as settlers from other districts of the state and from across the border in Tamil Nadu bought their land. The tribals usually wrote off the land to settle debts.

 

With traditional agriculture making way for cash crops and coconut plantations owned by non-tribals, tribals, left mostly with non-agriculture land, now depend on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or work as daily wagers on the land they once owned.

Though tribal schools across the state have ensured that the younger generation of tribals has studied at least up to Class 10, with no access to modern communication facilities or coaching centres, many have no employment opportunities. The state government has a 2 per cent reservation for Scheduled Tribes in appointments.

K R Murugan is among the first engineering graduates from the Kurumba tribe of Attappadi. Murugan, who lives in the remote tribal hamlet of Kadukamanna, did his BTech in computer science eight years ago from Kothamangalam in Ernakulam.

Along the Mukkali-Agali-Anakkatti road, the main lifeline of the region that slices through the deciduous forests of the Western Ghats, are temples, churches and mosques – markers of a gradual demographic change in a region that was once overwhelmingly tribal.

While tribals comprised 90.26 per cent of Attappadi’s population in 1951, their numbers had dropped to 42.21 per cent by 1971 as settlers from other districts of the state and from across the border in Tamil Nadu bought their land. The tribals usually wrote off the land to settle debts.

With traditional agriculture making way for cash crops and coconut plantations owned by non-tribals, tribals, left mostly with non-agriculture land, now depend on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or work as daily wagers on the land they once owned.

Though tribal schools across the state have ensured that the younger generation of tribals has studied at least up to Class 10, with no access to modern communication facilities or coaching centres, many have no employment opportunities. The state government has a 2 per cent reservation for Scheduled Tribes in appointments.

kerala, kerala tribal lynchin, tribal man beaten death, kerala tribals, kerala violence, tribal govt scheme kerala, kerala lynching, malnutrition deaths, mentally challenged tribal man, indian express The anganwadi worker at the Chindakki centre is away to fetch water, leaving the children locked in. (Photo: Anoop K Venu)

K R Murugan is among the first engineering graduates from the Kurumba tribe of Attappadi. Murugan, who lives in the remote tribal hamlet of Kadukamanna, did his BTech in computer science eight years ago from Kothamangalam in Ernakulam.

He now works as a “temporary supporting engineer” with the ITDP in Attappadi. His wife Saraswathi, who has passed Class 12, is looking for a job.

“I am at 37 now. Over the years, I have sat for several competitive exams in the hope of finding a job. I am still waiting for a permanent job before I hit the age bar for entry into government jobs,’’ he says.

According to the latest ITDP data, Attappadi has 2,979 educated unemployed youth among those who have studied up to Class 12 or above. Of them, until January 31 this year, 1,594 had registered their names with the employment exchange under the state government. Those without jobs often depend on depleting forest resources, such as collecting honey and medicinal herbs, to make ends meet.

Though government schemes have ensured tribals have at least one acre each — last year, 1,198 acres were distributed to 1,359 families – most of it is non-agricultural land on which they have built homes.

Most tribals subsist on ration rice, supplied free of cost under the state’s public distribution system. The traditional tribal diet — of chama (millet), thuvara (red gram) and vegetables grown on their land — has gradually been replaced by the rice and dal that they get as monthly ration.

After the region reported infant deaths in 2013, the state government introduced community kitchens in 55 tribal hamlets in the block. Under this scheme, tribals were given free food twice a day.

Experts believe the project made tribals “lazy” and may have contributed to the further erosion of traditional food practices.

***

kerala, kerala tribal lynchin, tribal man beaten death, kerala tribals, kerala violence, tribal govt scheme kerala, kerala lynching, malnutrition deaths, mentally challenged tribal man, indian express The departure from their traditional menu of multi-grains has left several women in Attappadi anaemic.(Photo: Anoop K Venu)

V K Mohan Kumar, former director of the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies of SC/STs (KIRTADS), says, “Tribals were given no role in deciding their own development agenda. As a result, a society that once survived on agriculture and cattle-rearing now stands in line for free supply of cooked food.’’

The over 3-km journey from Mukkali to Chindakki village takes half an hour along a bumpy, untarred road. The village, which falls under Agali panchayat, has a population of 1,600.

There is no bus that operates in Chindakki, only a private jeep service, for which people pay Rs 25 each way. “Though there are 400-odd families in Chindakki, 317 those of tribals, we have to go to Mukkali to collect our ration. The ration is free, but to get to the ration shop, even a poor tribal has to spend at least Rs 50 on travel. Since 90 per cent of the villagers are tribals, no one is bothered about making this road better. After Madhu’s murder, everyone has been promising to get the road tarred. Let’s see what happens,’’ says Kakki Barman, a Muduga tribal.

Since the village has no drinking water supply, residents depend on the Bhavani river, 500 meters away, and carry the water back on their heads. Of Attappadi’s 192 tribal hamlets, 35 have chronic drinking water shortage.

Though the Bhavani and Siruvani rivers flow through Attappadi, this region falls in a rain shadow area. Over the years, unsustainable agricultural practices on non-tribal land such as borewells and clearing of the forests for timber have worsened the situation. According to the Met department, while the state of Kerala recorded ‘normal’ rainfall in 2017, Attappadi registered 40 per cent deficienct rainfall.

ITDP officer Herald John says a “major intervention” is required to ensure water supply to Attappadi. “The region has the potential to meet the entire state’s requirement of vegetables. One of the doable measures could be building checkdams on the rivers,” he says.

kerala, kerala tribal lynchin, tribal man beaten death, kerala tribals, kerala violence, tribal govt scheme kerala, kerala lynching, malnutrition deaths, mentally challenged tribal man, indian express Almost all the 45 houses in Pazhayoor have toilets which have fallen into disuse. (Photo: Anoop K Venu)

Without water supply and with no means to invest in irrigation, Baran says tribals have long given up agriculture. “Among tribals, we Mudugars have some land, usually between one and three acres, which needs to be irrigated for cultivating vegetables or fruits. But, where is the money to buy a pump set? Banks don’t give us loans because they fear tribals won’t repay. Officials ask us to bring two government employees to stand surety for our loans. Do you think we tribals will get someone to stand surety?’’ asks Barman.

“Last year, the village panchayat sanctioned Rs 25,000 for constructing a toilet. With the first instalment of Rs 10,000, I could construct only the walls. We get the remaining amount only after we show that the work has been completed. I don’t have a single paisa with me to spend on the toilet,’’ says D Abhilash, a 25-year-old daily labourer, standing outside his ‘toilet’ that’s littered with dried coconut fronds and leaves.

Kumar, the former director of KIRTADS, blames Attappadi’s problems on misplaced government priorities. “Over the years, 70 per cent of government funding in Attappadi has gone into construction activities. The AHADS project employed tribals for construction activities as daily workers. Though this ensured the tribals had a steady cash supply, when the Rs 219-crore AHADS project wound up in 2010, the tribals were left with no money,” he says.

***

Rajendra Prasad, president of the Centre for Tribal Education, Development and Research (THAMPU), a voluntary organisation that works among the tribals of Attappadi, says one of the reasons why the region got left out of Kerala’s development story was because tribals were kept away from the decision-making process. “Tribals have a strong ooru koottam (grassroots community), which plays a role as important as the gram sabhas in the panchayati raj institutions. Panchayats should have consulted these ooru koottam before taking up developmental projects in the region,’’ he says, adding that Attappadi’s poverty can be addressed only by taking tribals back to farming and cattle rearing.

Though the state of Kerala was declared open defecation free two years ago, residents of the tribal colony of Pazhayoor in Chindakki village still go to the nearby forest for defecation.

kerala, kerala tribal lynchin, tribal man beaten death, kerala tribals, kerala violence, tribal govt scheme kerala, kerala lynching, malnutrition deaths, mentally challenged tribal man, indian express Last year, 1,198 acres were distributed to 1,359 families, most of it non-agricultural land, on which they built homes. (Photo: Anoop K Venu)

Though almost all of the 45 houses in Pazhayoor, built by the Attappadi Hill Area Development Society (AHADS) — a body set up by the state government in 1995 for tribal empowerment and environmental conservation — have space earmarked for toilets, in the absence of water supply and even doors, these toilets have long fallen into disuse.

The presence of the State is felt across Chindakki — in its lower primary school, anganwadi and a sub-centre of the health department. Yet, like elsewhere in Attappadi, these interventions fall short.

N Shamsudheen of the Indian Union Muslim League, who represents Attappadi in the Assembly, says successive governments had introduced various schemes for the development of tribals in Attappadi, “but with no proper follow-up. For instance, it’s the government’s failure that it couldn’t identify mental problems in Attappadi that led to tribal youth Madhu being murdered.”

The tribal government lower primary school, which began in 1978, has 34 students and four teachers, three of them tribals. One is a part-time teacher, who travels 45 km every morning. Teachers from outside Attappadi are reluctant to work here, says headmaster Vijayaraghavan. “We don’t have phones or Internet, but we have three computers, on which children learn basic operations and play games,’’ says Vijayaraghavan, who travels 35 km to get to school.

Considering the remoteness of the region, the government had constructed quarters for teachers, but these now lie dilapidated. With no water supply, a pipe from the river brings water to the school.

Over a hundred metres away is the anganwadi run by the Social Welfare Department. The only teacher is away to an official meeting in Palakkad and the ‘helper’, N Devayani, has to fetch water from half a kilometre away, locking the gates to the compound. The children stand behind the locked iron grill, waiting for Devayani to return.

She soon comes, hauling a bucket of water. “This anganwadi was established in 1991 and we have eight children on our rolls. Since then, we have been asking for water supply. Every year, officials make promises, but I haven’t seen a drop of water so far. So I have to fetch water from a pipe nearby, and if the teacher isn’t around, I have to lock in the children,’’ says Devayani, 55, who hails from Chindakki.

kerala, kerala tribal lynchin, tribal man beaten death, kerala tribals, kerala violence, tribal govt scheme kerala, kerala lynching, malnutrition deaths, mentally challenged tribal man, indian express The 3-km journey from Mukkali to Chindakki village takes half an hour along a bumpy, untarred road. (Photo: Anoop K Venu)

Under the Integrated Child Development Services, anganawadis such as this one are meant to provide supplementary nutrition to children, pregnant women, lactating mothers and adolescent girls, but experts say there are gaps and the food doesn’t cater to the specific needs of tribals.

“The departure from their traditional menu of multi-grains has taken a toll on tribal women. Many women here face health issues for want of nutritional food. They have only rice to eat. We had asked several women with fertility problems to take iron and folic acid tablets. We have also asked them to include leaves and vegetables in their menu,’’ says A Ashwathi, a junior public health nurse at the sub-centre in Chindakki run by the Health Department.

Besides Ashwathi, the centre, which only offers first aid, has another junior public health nurse and a junior health inspector on its rolls. A doctor from the public health centre at Agali, the block headquarters 23 km away, comes to the sub-centre once a month “only for vaccination”. For everything else, villagers have to travel to the government community health centre at Agali or the Tribal Speciality Hospital at Kottathara in Attappadi.

One of the infant deaths reported in Attappadi in 2013 was from Chindakki, one of the nine tribal hamlets that fall under the sub-centre. Last year, another infant death was reported from Chindakki.

The sub-centre is one of the 28 that come under the 100-bedded Tribal Speciality Hospital in Attappadi. While talking of Madhu and the lynching, doctors here point to the “alarming rise” in mental illnesses in Attappadi.

“While some of it could be hereditary, depression is a major factor that has gone undetected. This has led to more serious mental illnesses and even alcohol addiction among tribals. With little awareness, most cases go untreated,” says Dr R Prabhu Das, superintendent at the tribal hospital, who has worked in Attappadi for over two decades. He says a screening conducted last year among tribals of the block had revealed that about 500 had mental illnesses, 350 of whom were categorised as “psychiatric patients”.

Madhu’s condition too went largely untreated, says a health worker familiar with his case. “He had been treated at the mental hospital in Kozhikode nine years ago. We don’t know the exact reason for his illness. After a month’s treatment, he was taken back home to Chindakki. But, one day he left his home and went to the forest. The family never brought him back for treatment,’’ says a ‘tribal promoter’ (a government appointee) in Chindakki.

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