A new documentary highlights the truth behind the deaths of children in Attappady.
Even today, distressing news filters in of malnutrition deaths of tribal children in Kerala. In two years, close to 100 child deaths were reported from Attappady, the only tribal block in Kerala. Despite numerous high-profile ministerial visits, scholarly investigations and commission examinations, little seems to change for the indigent tribal households inhabiting the depleting forests of the region.
In an intriguingly titled documentary, The Red Data Book: An Appendix, Sreemith and K.P. Pradeep explore the causes of this persisting humanitarian tragedy in the backwaters of a state otherwise renowned for the finest human development accomplishments in India. Sadly, their bleak but compassionate record encounters little cause for hope.
The film opens with grim images of gaunt, grieving parents burying their dead children, and the commentary describes these deaths as silent intruders in this abode of sadness. Before long, we see ministers arriving with long trails of officials and vehicles in this otherwise forgotten hinterland. Like other non-tribal observers, Rural Development Minister K.C. Joseph is convinced, like so many officials and non-tribal observers that the tribal people are responsible for their own plight. “Even pregnant women in Attappady drink liquor,” he declares. “How can the baby she is carrying be healthy?”
Anguished tribal women respond bitterly: “They say that our babies are dying because the women are drinking when they are pregnant. Whose child has died because she had a drink? I have a son. I have never touched a drop of liquor.”
Prabhudas, a local health officer, agrees. “It is not right to say that they are malnourished because women drink… I have never known any pregnant woman who has consumed liquor. More than 3,000 women have come to me for delivery.”
But prejudices persist. “Our children who have gone outside to study have to bear the brunt of this. They want to come back. They can’t put up with these insults anymore. Everyone mocks us: ‘Adivasis don’t use toilets, Adivasis are alcoholics, Adivasis are not grateful for the food given to them’.”
Then why are their children dying? A tribal woman, Ponnamma, explains: “There is no nutritious food when we are pregnant. We don’t have the money to buy vegetables. We get jobs only occasionally.” That poor nutrition among the Attappady tribals results substantially from chronic hunger is confirmed by a state government study, which found the monthly per capita household income was as little as Rs.14 a person a day of which only eight is spent on food. Not surprisingly, their food intake was far lower than minimum levels for healthy survival, and their bodies stunted and wasted.
With non-tribal settlers becoming more than half the population, tribal people lost most of their agricultural lands and were reduced to labourers. Their food deprivation was further aggravated by the precipitous decline of forests, from 82 per cent in 1959 to less than 20 per cent in 1996.
“We subsisted on the forest before; now we have nothing to eat,” said one woman. “We ate what we gathered in the forest; certain leaves, beans, raw banana, roots and tubers, and ragi (finger millet). Do we get these things today? Watching the yellow rice these children eat today, I wonder how they can ever be healthy.” Changing cultivation practices have also taken their toll. “We eat food that is grown with chemical fertiliser that causes many illnesses; we constantly run to the hospital.”
Old people also recalled lost traditions of sharing cultivation and food. “We were happy then. A kilo of ragi planted on an acre of land would yield a quintal of produce. We only used natural fertiliser like compost. No one was a labourer then; we cultivated together. We never stored rice, corn and millets in sacks. Six to seven quintals were stored for use in large bamboo baskets and the rest was lowered into a pit in the ground, smoothened with clay, in front of our house. We never sold it. Whenever someone was in need, we would open the baskets and give them what they needed. This was life. The haves shared with the have-nots.” Another person added: “If I have something, it belongs to me; there was no such concept in those times.”
Shamed by occasional reports of continuing deaths in Attappady, the government may announce schemes, but tribal people here believe that they have lost the battle for survival. “If you travel through the villages of Attappady you will see people sitting idle, lost in thought. We are the living dead. Our imagination and hope is dead. We are realising that it is too late to be able to do anything now.”