Kerala's tribal children pay for official neglect
Rising infant mortalities show basic needs are not being met
A tribal woman who lost three infants during delivery, with her husband in Vellakulam
Rain mixed with tears on the face of 29-year-old Ponnamma as she returned home from the grave of her prematurely born twins, who died shortly after delivery on March 25.
“Why did God take them? He could have spared them. They were very cute,” she murmured as she stood in the rain outside her government-built house.
As neighbors gathered to offer consolation to Ponnamma, who visits her children’s graves every day, she walked slowly into her home and locked the door.
The twins were among 28 infants who have died in the tribal hamlet of Attapadi in Vellakulam, Kerala, since January – many of them after premature birth – because of poor maternal nutrition.
Some 187 tribal villages dot the lush, wooded landscape of the Attapadi Hills in Kerala’s Palakkad district – a 745 sq km area that is home to 30,000 people.
The tribal communities exist with few resources and a chronic lack of basic health amenities. They say they are victims of systemic government inaction and corruption.
“Most of the tribal villages have no transport. The high rate of illiteracy among women makes things worse,” said Dr Prabhudas, who has worked in the region for the last 15 years.
He and others say the deaths this year contradict claims by the Kerala government that the standard of healthcare in the area remains high compared to other parts of the country and even to developed countries.
Other claims by the Kerala government include a birth rate of 14 per 1,000 females (the national average is 25 and the United States average is 16), an adult literacy rate of 94.59 percent (the US is 99 percent) and a life expectancy of 75 years (the US is 77).
Dr Prabhudas notes, however, that in Attapadi chronically undernourished women are delivering underweight babies of between 600 and 900 grams, many of whom die in a matter of days.
One such mother, identified only as Chelli, said that she was not aware that normal newborns should weigh about 3,300 grams and that pregnant women require extra nutrients in their diets.
The medical report on the death of Chelli’s newborn cited malnutrition as the cause.
Dr Prabhudas further noted that 28 infants in the villages died last year, and that the same number died in the first five months of this year, effectively doubling the deatrh toll. This puts the infant mortality rate in the tribal areas higher than Kerala as a whole, which is 12 per thousand live births, but still below the national average of 44 per 1,000 live births.
Some villages are even experiencing negative growth.
In three villages last year – Agali, Pudur and Sholayur – there were more deaths (776) than births (519), Dr Prabhudas said.
“It is certainly an alarming situation. But there is no easy solution,” he said.
“The situation was much better in the 1990s when I began to work here. During those days, tribal people were actively involved in farming. A change in lifestyle has led to a rise in the infant mortality rate across the region.”
Tribal activist VA Ramu says that tribal communities used to cultivate calcium-rich crops such as millet and Ragi, and lived a much healthier lifestyle. But that has changed with government development projects that have disenfranchised tribal communities and in many cases driven them off arable land.
Rajendra Prasad, who runs an NGO that works with tribal communities in the region, says there is also a link between infant mortality in tribal hamlets and poor living standards and a lack of proper hygiene.
“A majority of tribal villages face acute water shortages that lead to unhygienic practices,” he said.
Most tribal people have "only poor quality rice distributed by the government to eat, and that has almost no nutrients," he added.
Meanwhile, the government has said it invested eight million rupees (about US$136,000) over the last decade for road development, housing, water supplies and income generating schemes including horticulture and farming.
PN Unnikrishnan, former director of the Attapadi Hill Area Development Society, says such programs have offered no benefits to poor tribal communities.
“These schemes only benefitted government officials and middle men who minted money from the projects,” he said.
In contrast, Unnikrishnan noted, the society – set up in 1995 for environmental conservation and wasteland development with support from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation – spent $39 million over the same period.
“It is a colossal waste of government money because no qualitative improvements have been achieved,” he said.
Moreover, the 50 km stretch of highway built in the last five years by the government has created new problems for the tribal communities.
“We were very happy to travel, but the roads also brought outsiders that have settled in our villages. They encroach on our lands, forge land records, purchase land at cut-rate prices from our uneducated people. We lost most of our agricultural land to settlers who cheated us,” said Vadugan, 70, a tribal who lost his land in Kottathara village.
Non-tribal communities who have moved into the area from Kerala and bordering Tamil Nadu state now have coconut and rubber plantations on lands where tribal people once cultivated millet.
Every year Kerala state’s tribal department spends about 500 million rupees on development projects in the area. Various other departments also spend money.
“But infant deaths indicate that poor tribal people are not eating proper food even once a day,” said Unnikrishnan.
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