(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
July 14, 2013
Kerala - Sharing a National Shame
M B Rajesh
KERALA is widely known for its spectacular achievement in human development which is even comparable to the most advanced capitalist countries. Low infant mortality is an important feature of this high human development. However it is disturbing to note that a reversal of this trend has already set in motion in the state. Continuing malnutrition deaths among tribal children in Attapady area of Palakkad district is an indication of changing trends.
With more than 40 percent ST population, Attapady is one of the important tribal belts in the state. The region has seen an alarming rise in the malnutrition deaths in the recent period. In the last three months alone, 21 infant deaths occurred in Attapady and in the last one and half years, 53 children died due to malnutrition. When malnutrition deaths were reported in the first week of April the state government dismissed those reports as a politically motivated attempt to defame them. When I raised this issue after visiting Attapady and wrote a letter to the chief minister seeking his urgent intervention, he even declined to respond. On the other hand, the District Medical Officer prepared a report which went to the extent that those infant deaths were not because of malnutrition but because of their inability to absorb nutrition! This callousness on the part of the government sparked widespread outrage and protests. When the government declined to intervene, the DYFI and the CPI(M) organised massive relief work to help tribal people in their distress situation. In a period of less than one week, the DYFI district committee collected 7500 Kg of rice and 1500 kg of pulses and distributed it to the affected people. Subsequently the CPI(M) district committee distributed 30 tonnes of rice and five tonnes of pulses in the region. By this time, the government was forced to accept the fact that high levels of malnutrition prevails in Attapady. Two ministers, including the one for ST welfare was sent to Attapady where they had to face the heat of people’s anger. The ministers went back and on the basis of their report, a package was announced which contained a plethora of promises. Thereafter, another package was announced by Jairam Ramesh, union minister for rural development who visited the region in the first week of June. However, despite the raining of promises by both the central and state governments, nothing was translated into action. As a result, deaths of children due to malnutrition continues to happen.
Various studies have found that an extremely grim situation is prevailing in Attapady. An expert group of eminent doctors led by former vice chancellor of Kerala University Dr B Iqbal has found that the average weight of children who died was between 600-800 grams! The report also says that out of 100 children they had examined, all were anemic and malnourished. The UNICEF investigation report has also arrived at similar findings. According to the report, anemia in pregnant women and inadequate nutrition are the main causes for the tragedy. UNICEF team, headed by health specialist Vandana P Bhatia, has pointed out that out of 39 cases of infant deaths, all had reported pre-term low birth weight. All these findings established beyond doubt that this area is under the clutches of extreme malnourishment.
The root of the problem lies at the dispossession of tribals from their land and the resultant loss of livelihood. When they were sowing a piece of land, they used to cultivate millets and pulses which helped them to attain minimum levels of nutrition. Thrown out of their land, the tribal population are now totally dependent on the public distribution system for their subsistence. The irony is that, the central government policy of reducing food subsidy and targeting of PDS has excluded almost one third of tribal population in Attapady from the BPL category. When I took up this issue with the CM, though the government had agreed to provide the BPL benefits to all tribal households in Attapady, that has not yet materialised. The government’s announcements still remain in paper and it has not yet allocated required quantity of food grains to ensure sufficient supply. Even those who are in the BPL list are getting only 28 kgs of food grains a month instead of 35 kgs which they were getting during the tenure of the LDF government. This shows the utter lack of concern the UDF has towards the tribals.
Thirdly the neglect and failure of the UDF government in the implementation of various schemes meant for the welfare of tribals is a major reason for the present fiasco. The breakdown of ICDS is evident from the pathetic condition of 172 anganwadis in the area. Even the basic minimum facilities are absent in these anganwadis. The norm of one supervisor for every 25 anganwadis was also not followed in Attapady. Steps in this regard were taken only recently. The UDF government was heartless to the extent that they even snatched away the nourishments given to small children through anganwadis, when they stopped the provision of milk, egg and bananas, implemented by the previous LDF government. As the reports of malnutrition deaths came, there was an uproar over the issue and the government assured that the scheme will be reinstated. What the government did was that to ask poor and underpaid anganwadi teachers to buy milk, egg etc, from their pocket and later get reimbursed from the government. Can anganwadi teachers, who are struggling to make two ends meet, pay for milk etc and make it available to tribal children? The present government even assigned the task of food supply for anganwadis to private contractors leading to large scale malpractices. This collapse of ICDS has also ruined the nutrition programme for pregnant women and adolescent girls. A nutrition programme called ‘Safala’ initiated by the LDF government was not implemented in Attapady by the UDF government. Further, this government reduced the quantity of nutrition kits distributed in the area by half.
weakening of public health care
system has denied the tribal population the much needed
medical care especially
for pregnant women and new born babies.
The UNICEF report has pointed out lack of medical
facilities and trained
medical personnel as a cause for a large number of infant
And lastly, the plight of tribals was further worsened with the MGNREGS coming to a standstill in Attapady due to unjustifiable delay in the payment of wages. The district vigilance and monitoring committee had estimated Rs 28 lakhs as dues in wages to the poor tribals of Attapady. The stopping of MGNREGS deprived the tribals of their only source of income and pushed them towards near starvation. The wage dues were settled only in May, after much hue and cry.
A careful analysis of the ground reality, a close look into the experiences, a detailed study of various reports and data will lead us to the conclusion that this devastation was caused by the flawed policies and failed promises. As described by Dr B Iqbal, what is happening in Attapady is a process of silent genocide of tribal people. Unless and until these devastating policies are defeated and reversed, this dangerous trend of mass infant deaths due to malnutrition cannot be arrested. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to confess a few months back that malnutrition deaths are a national shame. Kerala, a state always appreciated for showing the way for the whole country in social progress and human development, is now sharing the national shame of malnutrition deaths! This is the consequence of pursuance of same neo-liberal policies by both the central and state governments. The alternative policies of the former LDF government have now been replaced by the UDF policies at the cost of Kerala’s much acclaimed human development. There is no other option left but to unleash wider struggles against these ruinous policies.