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Wailing songs of death pervade Attappady
(Photo caption: The Balance Sheet of Sufferings...Ranki of Kottamala with hospital records of her dead child.)

Author: Reji Joseph

(Agali, Nov 26, 2016, DG): Stillborn babies unable to cry, are sorrowfully held in the hands of those destined to weep. In Nellippetty of Sholayur, the tears in the eyes of Maruthi, a poor tribal woman who lost two children, one having been born stillborn and the other through miscarriage, never dry up.

She lamented as under: "I lost two babies. I hardly saw the face of my girl child born one and a half years ago, which weighed just a kilogram. As the Kottathara Government Hospital authorities told that the baby would not survive, we took her to Coimbatore Medical College, where the same verdict was pronounced. The second baby had to be aborted in my womb, in the sixth month of my pregnancy."

Her weary looks, tired voice, shrunken cheeks and dark complexion reflected her anaemic condition as well as the gross mental agony she was enduring. Her young daughter, Vichithra, stared at Maruthi's face, which depicted deep worry as well as anxiety, causing her to burst into tears. The body weight of this child, which grew up without breast milk or nourishing food, was just five kilograms.

There are ever so many anxious tribal women in hundreds, who are in the same predicament as Maruthi in the Attappady tribal villages, where an alarming number of child deaths are recorded. One can see the pitiful sight of tribal women with shrunk cheeks, swollen eyes and coppercoloured hair, all over the place.

In Attappady, which can now be termed as Somalia of India, the total number of child deaths in the past three years exceeds 120. The schemes proclaimed by the Government Health Welfare Department of free rice and food distribution have not been able to prevent infant and child deaths here as the benefit of the prescribed scheme funds did not reach these intended tribal beneficiaries. This is primarily because the funds and food distribution is being executed through various corrupt channels.

The tribesmen have only stories of woes to tell. "We get only poor quality rice as per ration card quotas. Even though we are prepared to work for our livelihood, we have no land of our own for undertaking cultivation.

The benefits of the Employment Guarantee Schemes have not been reaching us for several months now and moreover, to procure even a pot of drinking water, we have to cross two or three hills at a stretch. If a woman delivers a stillborn child as sometimes happens, even two feet ground isn't available to us to bury it. As we have no land of our own, we are forced to dispose such dead bodies in the Bhavani river.

The dark shaded hut of Ponnamma is situated just a few yards away from Maruthi's rundown singleroomed abode. The image of a weary weeping young woman holding the bodies of her dead twin children against her chest is reflected here. Ponnamma's baby twins died in March 2013. Soon after she gave birth, the male child died on the second day and on the eighth day, the girl also died.

This was her third delivery. The male child born in her second delivery had also died within two days of its birth. The female child born to the women through her first delivery, called Sandhya, is the lone surviving child and she studies in class two. Being Ponamma's only surviving child, Sandhya is deeply loved and cared for, but little food is available to feed her.

In the forest regions of Attappady, there are many people, especially women, on the verge of death due to being anaemic. Such tribal women having body weights above 40 kilogram are rare in the various villages around. It is considered as a wonder if babies are born with a body weight of more than a kilogram. Last year, it is recorded that a baby weighing hardly 600 grams was born in this Attappady village.

Attappady is a griefstricken hilly area of North Kerala, having acreage of 745 square kms, and is situated in Mannarkadu Taluk of Palakkad District in Kerala, close to the borders of Tamil Nadu. Attappady was once densely forested, but today it faces sharp ecological ruin.

The tribal communities in the region, mainly the Irulas, Mudugas and Kurumbas have become alienated from their natural habitats and natural sources of livelihood. Food and water is scarce in the region and malnutrition is prevalent, especially among the womenfolk and children. As a result of all this, tribal existence in the region has become severely endangered.
The village Panchayats of Agali, Puthur, Sholaur and Kottathara are located herein.

Three sides of Attappady are bordered by steep hills. The dry black soil of Attappady was once quite fertile with the inflow of the flood waters from the Siruvani and Bhavani rivers. When such flow of water from the rivers got cut off, the area got severely affected by water scarcity. Three sets of hill tribes, facing extension, are now living in the hills and valleys here, as colonies.

The other hill tribes, Irular, Mudugar and Kurumbar live in Agali, Puthoor and Sholayur areas. The Kurumbar belonging to the Prakrutha hill tribe family lived in the interior forest areas. Once they were producers of agricultural products like Thina, Bagra, Ragi and other cereals. These were their primary food items too. In the 183 sub villages of Attappady where they live, the total number of tribals has dwindled sharply in recent years and is now below 30,000. Lactating mothers do not have enough breast milk to feed their babies as they are compelled to eat very little food and that too food which is not necessarily nutritious.

In over 80 percent of such mothers, the haemoglobin level is below 10 percent, which is low. Their body weights are also much lower than the national average level prescribed. 80 percent of their children up to the age of one are crippled in growth. Due to lack of getting sufficient breast milk, many of them become mentally and intellectually retarded. These facts were revealed through expert studies conducted by the organization called THAMBU, an organisation working among the tribal people and many other organisations done under the humanitarian leadership of Dr B Iqbal.

Babies born here weigh only 500 grams

Attappady : With grief, a heavy heart and feeling of emptiness reflected on her face, Selvi of Kottathara Naikampadi had this to say about her pregnancy and delivery: "I've lost not just one, but both my twin babies. After giving birth to them, I did not even have a drop of breast milk to feed them.

Even the doctor treating me  was appalled at my condition wondered how I had been able to stand up properly despite my fragile health situation and moreover manage to give birth to twin children. In addition, the last few days of my pregnancy were spent in sheer starvation".

In the list of child deaths recorded in Attappady this year, the first such recorded death is that of the Selvi's twin babies. They died at the Coimbatore Medical College The first child, a female, died on 20th January. It weighed just 700 grams. Subsequently the male child, which weighed 1200 grams, also died. The body weight of the ill fated  32 year old mother was barely 35 kilograms.

The doctors attributed the cause of death as the anemic condition their mother, primarily due to the lack of nourishing food. Selvi's husband, Udayan is paid Rs 300 on days he works as a labourer and usually gets only two days employment per week.

Even though there is an Anganwadi near her place, Selvi did not receive any nourishing food from there during the period of her  pregnancy. The  health department did not care to attend to her either, which is typical here. Selvi has only miserable and pitiful stories of  suffering to tell of the period  of her pregnancy.

In the first week of November 2014 itself, two other babies died in Attappady.  The baby of Sindhu, hailing from Puthoor Cheerakadavu village, died at the Trichur Medical College. The child was born prematurely in the  sixth month of her pregnancy. On the previous day, another woman, Pushpa of Thekkuvatta village, also gave birth to a baby in the sixth  month of her pregnancy.

When it was seen that Pushpa's condition was worsening, the baby was extracted from her womb at the Mannarkattu hospital, but its life could not be saved. The doctors diagnosed the cause of death of the two babies as the anemic condition of the mother and lack of intake of nourishing food during the period of their pregnancy.

Mr. Rajendra Prasad, President of THUMP, an organization working for the overall welfare of tribals stated this:' The greatest challenge faced by the tribals of Attappady is starvation. Over and above the ration rice, no nutrient food is available for the mothers and the children.

To directly purchase milk and vegetables from the open market, they have no money available with them. One fifth of the cases of the child births take place crudely, in the houses of the tribal villages. No special care is being given to the women during their pregnancy period for the past several years. The free distribution of iron folic tablets to pregnant women has been discontinued.

Even though statements proclaiming free supply of eggs and milk to the tribals are made, in practice such distribution is not properly carried out.. The only food stuff available to these poor people is rice provided in limited quantities purchased through ration shops. This rice too, is not of good quality.

The findings of the medical camps sponsored by THUMP conducted in 40 selected tribal colonies, under the leadership of Dr.E.K Sathyarjee of Alleppey Medical College, should serve as an eyeopener to the Government of Kerala. All the children subjected to tests about their  health, displayed signs of deficiencies like mental weakness, retardation or having become crippled. This was  primarily due to the lack of nourishing food and  starvation.

It was confirmed that the majority of child deaths occurred  due to starvation of mothers during pregnancy and their anemic conditions, resulting in their poor health . Over and above deaths, it was recorded that four  percent of the children had sickle cell anemia  and one percent had mental retardation and lack of intelligence. Within a radius of four kms, 50 percent of the sub villages have no primary health centres. Moreover, the limited facilities of Kottathara Tribal Specialty Hospital are insufficient to serve the needs of the tribals there.

These are setbacks and limitations being faced by these helpless and desolate. tribals When  the health department, utilising the service of Jathak Janani software, collected data about 5874 children by scrutinizing their photographs, body weight, height etc, it was revealed that 4500 children among them had  normal growth.  Event though a vivid scheme involving Rs. 400 crores  was proclaimed by the government to aid and improve the conditions of the tribals, there has been no relief with regard to infant deaths and abortions.

The earlier generations of tribals traditionally cultivated food items such as Ragi, Groundnuts, Chickpea, Maize, Millet and Beans varieties etc on their own plots and were thus self sufficient in food production for their personal needs. Moreover  they produced 69 varieties of new cereals and vegetables, besides  using  Munnai, Jagerry and Tao products, numbering 60 varieties as well as numerous green leaf preparations. They also ate forest fruits, tuber  varieties, wild  honey and fresh fresh caught from the Siruvani and Bhavani rivers. In short, the old  generations of tribals were quite healthy, produced and ate fully nourishing food.

The poor quality rice purchased from ration shops is not suitable to the tribals.  For the improvement of their health, 10 kg of Ragi was distributed to each family per week throughout the last  year.  This rice contained soil and tiny stones and people therefore refused to accept it. As there soon were no takers for this inferior quality rice, the scheme was  later dropped.

Three Primary Health Centres, one Community Health Centre and the Kottathara  Tribal Hospital  with 20 beds  have been functioning in Attappady for a number of years now. Besides these, there are 28 sub centres and three mobile hospital units. The service of 14  inspectors, 20 junior health inspectors and 28 female health nurses are also available. But there is still a shortage of  at least 20 doctors in them. These vacancies remain unfilled, adding further misery to the poor people of the region.

Dead body of the new born baby wrapped in a bag

Agali : The dead body of a just new born baby wrapped in a bag, had to be buried on the shore of a river when an unbearable foul smell began emanating from it. The tears of the heartbroken Ranki Maruthi couple of Kottamala village kept helplessly flowing as they were forced to carry the body of their newborn baby, which had died and travel with it in an autorikshaw from Coimbatore to Anakkatty.

When the decaying smell from the body became unbearable, they had to dispose of it on the shore of river Bhavani, before returning home.

The grave hardship faced by the tribal couple at their house in Kottamala at the time of birth of the child last October 28, are narrated by the wife Thanki as under: "The food taken by me during my pregnancy period was mostly rice given free by the Civil Supplies department.

I gave birth early in the ninth month of my pregnancy. When admitted to the Kottathara Tribal Hospital for delivery, I weighed only 38 kilograms. The baby, when born, had a weight of 1800 gram only, against the average of 2400 grams needed. After two days, the condition of the female infant became critical, and it was unable to get any milk from its mother's breast on account of her poor health condition.

The next day, the baby was taken to Coimbatore Medical College in the state of Tamil Nadu as its condition had worsened. Ranki and her aged mother, Muruthi, also went along together with authorized team members deputed for tribal welfare from the hospital who left immediately.

Soon after, the child breathed its last as doctors could not save it. Ranki and her mother who did not have a single paise left with them, sat on the verandah of the Medical College and cried for help. Filled with pain, anguish and grief, they wrapped the dead child in an old cloth.

They begged for help from strangers passing before them. Ranki also had no means of communicating with the Kottathara Hospital or her relatives at home. The phone number the Tribal Hospital given by the Health authorities was unresponsive when tried also. When Murukan, Ranki's husband, who is a daily worker, later heard about the tragic event, he somehow managed to obtain Rs 1000 from neighbours and rushed to Coimbatore Medical College.

There he found Ranki with her mother, lying on the hospital veranda in a weary condition. Beside her was the old cloth bundle in which the dead body of her child was wrapped. Not knowing the way to reach home, they wandered about in the intense sunlight of the Coimbatore streets for several hours, with the shaggily wrapped dead body of their child in their hands.

By that time Ranki's health had worsened due to bleeding and she became extremely weak. Murukan sought the help of an autorickshw driver to take them to the Kerala state border. The driver forcibly charged them Rs 800.

By that time, foul smell began to emanate from the bag in which the dead infant's body was wrapped. Murukan asked his wife Ranki and her mother to sit by the road side. He then took the bag with the dead body of the child in it and with a heart and mind filled with deep sorrow and anguish, buried it shallowly on the sandy shore of the Bhavani river, after digging a small hole there with his bare hands.

Later, having no money with them, they slowly crossed the border and returned on foot to their home in Kottamala.

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