Infant deaths are still stalking tribal hamlets in Kerala’s Attappadi region, where the community’s population has been falling alarmingly due to various factors. The recurring incidents of infant deaths have cast a shadow over the survival of tribals in Attappadi. A study had found that tribals formed 90 per cent of population in Attappadi in 1951, but the same was down to 42 per cent in 2001.
This year, 20 infants had died in the tribal-dominated region in Palakkad district, five of the deaths reported in the first 10 days of November itself. None of these infants survived beyond seven months. Six of the infants had died in their remote hamlets before medical aid reached their colonies. Besides, there were 33 miscarriages reported from the region this year.
The deaths have brought to focus the serious lapses in the government machinery despite the health department having modern software-enabled system to monitor the health parameters of the pregnant women in Attappadi.
Although the government has improved the infrastructure at the specialty hospital and other health centres, home delivery still prevails in the tribal community here. According to health department statistics, this year 29 home deliveries were reported, while hospital deliveries were 294. Despite home deliveries continuing, no incident of maternal death has been reported so far.
In 2012-13, Attappadi had come to the front burner of attention following 63 deaths of children. Those deaths were mainly due to malnutrition and poor health of mothers. Then, the Central and State Governments had announced a special package of Rs 400 crore for 192 tribal settlements.
As the tribal region is rattled by another round of infant deaths, Kerala rural minister K C Joseph on Tuesday said there were serious lapses in implementing the package, which included projects to bring tribals into agriculture.
The minister said the number of job days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme would be increased to 200 for Attappady. The arrears under the MGNREG would be released soon. All tribal hamlets would have community kitchens (facility for supplying common food).
Question mark over govt spending
Attappadi-based Centre for Tribal Education Development and Research (CTEDR) Chairman Rajendra Prasad said since the child deaths are still being reported from tribal families, the government should order for a detailed probe how the money had been spent in the region. A social audit of the projects should be held and local people should be involved in the monitoring of the schemes, he said.
He said many settlements are yet to get basic infrastructure even now despite huge money being pumped into the region for tribal welfare. Of 174 Integrated Child Development Centres (ICDC), 64 do not have even toilet facilities and 130 do not have drinking water facility.
In last year, a health department survey had identified 672 children suffering from malnutrition. Of them, 37 children were in the category of severe acute malnutrition. Despite the huge fund flow, malnutrition of children still persist. This shows that the nutrition schemes do not reach the children,” said Prasad.
Nodal officer for Attappadi Dr Prabhu Das said most of the infant deaths reported in this year could have been avoided. Four children died due to the carelessness of the mothers, who slept while feeding the babies. In some other cases, the health workers could not rush immediate support to the colonies which don’t have road connectivity.
Das said the community kitchen system was only a temporary step, which should not be promoted. It would only exhaust the government fund for tribal welfare. “The most important issue at Attappadi is absence of livelihood. Many men and women do not have any job. You will see tribal men idling away their time in Attappadi. Such persons fall easy victim for alcoholism, which again impact the health of already fragile population.”
Dr Das said tribals should be encouraged and facilitated for taking up cultivation of their traditional food stuff and vegetables. They are not used to the free rice being distributed through PDS network.
Several state and central government agencies, which probed the child death of 2013, had pointed out that the malady of Attappadi could be addressed only after nursing the tribals back to agriculture. The tribal reliance on agriculture for survival was reflected in the state economic review of 2012, which said 55 per cent of the state’s tribal population still depends on agriculture for livelihood compared to 20 of the non-tribals.
Over the years, thousands of hecters of agriculture land have been alienated from the tribals in Attappadi, where land sharks from Kerala and Tamil Nadu have taken the control. However, no effort has been taken to take back the illegally occupied agricultural land from outsiders.
In June, 2013, then Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh had asked the state government to solve the alienation of over 10,000 acres of tribal land. “This issue should be solved with a political will, otherwise no amount of development projects would succeed,” Ramesh had then told Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
“Curiously, the issues of alienated land and bringing back tribals into farming have been deliberately kept away from the debates on Attappadi. The decline of agriculture has led to the present tragedy. The government should devise an Attappadi development plan which envisages recover of the alienated tribal land,’’ said Prasad, whose CTEDR was first to bring out the child deaths in 2013.