What is life like in a tribal village of Kerala’s Palakkad district, which has been in the news for malnutrition deaths?

In the tribal village of Thekke Kadambara, the air is thick with the odour of goat droppings. The animals are everywhere — inside the houses, in sheds just outside the houses (these sheds are hoisted on stilts), and on the roads between the houses, steeply inclined roads carved from the hills. The goats that aren’t here have been taken out to graze in the nearby forest. You’d think that, at some point, a few of them might end up in a cooking pot, given that the price of mutton at the local store is a kingly Rs. 350 — but that rarely happens. These animals are far too valuable alive. When properly fattened up, they can be sold at the weekly Saturday shandy for something like Rs. 7000. K. Rangasamy, the government’s representative in the village, says that this money, if rationed out sensibly, can sustain a family for a long time. It’s their only guaranteed income.

Till about ten years ago, these Irulas — the other tribals in the Attapady region, belonging to Palakkad district, are the Muduga and the Kurumba — had another source of income: agriculture. The main crops were corn and ragi, which people from bordering Tamil Nadu would buy at Rs. 300 per quintal. Rangan Marudhan, who’s 48 and claims to hold 22 acres of ancestral land in the forest, says that they had to stop because of wild animals — pigs and elephants. At night, the beasts visit the village too. This is why, he says, he’s had to become a daily-wage labourer, working at the plantations of settlers nearby or in works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or in construction projects in distant cities like Kannur. Contractors come in jeeps and trucks and take him and others like him to these job sites, where they will stay for months. Marudhan has just returned from one such project. He has two children. His daughter is married. His son, like him, is a labourer.

Marudhan is accompanied by Maari, who thinks he may be 45 and is the moopen (chief) of the village. (There are 187 tribal villages in Attapady.) I ask Maari what a moopen does, and he says he officiates at religious events and sometimes mediates disputes. He’s a labourer too, and when he’s away, the officiating and the mediating are left to the villagers themselves. He gets into something of a dispute himself when he says that the women of his village don’t work. Marudhan disagrees strongly. They finally come to the consensus that some women, not all, have ended up labourers like the men, though they are paid less — Rs. 250 a day. (The men make Rs. 300 a day.) I ask Marudhan about the satellite dishes resting on the roofs of a few houses. He says quite of few of them in this village of 90 houses and 120 families have colour TVs. This has not gone down well with the government officials, who say that the money given for living is being spent on lifestyle acquisitions.

Rangasamy joins them and takes us through the village, which comes under the Sholayur panchayat. He’s dressed in a red-checked shirt that says Lee Cooper and a saffron-coloured mundu. The houses with their characteristic sloped roofs were built in the late 1970s and they are now in a state of disrepair. For 10 days, he says, there’s been no drinking water, and the complaints to visiting ministers and MLAs have yielded no result. They have to climb down a well for water. The village used to get water from public taps every alternate day, but an elephant pulled out the main line and now they are waiting for a welding machine to fix the damage. The erratic irrigation is also a reason agriculture was abandoned. The goats, oblivious to these worries, have settled themselves into spots with shade. It is a very hot day.

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In front of one of these houses, Veeramma watches us make our way towards her. If she isn’t surprised at this invasion of visitors, it could be because she has had many people drop in at her doorstep asking about her six-month-old girl, Kaaliyamma, who died of malnutrition. The child weighed two kilos at birth and, when she died, she weighed 2.4 kilos, gaining a mere 400 grams in a half-year. Veeramma isn’t very responsive to questions today, and Pushpa NC, the health worker at the local anganwadi, becomes her self-appointed spokesperson. She gently chides Veeramma for not taking care of herself while pregnant. Veeramma ate what she wanted, whenever she wanted, and used to perform hard labour, at a brick kiln nearby, until the birth of the child. She did not know how to prepare for and care for a baby. By the side of the house is a shiny 100cc motorcycle, a TVS Sport. It belongs to Veeramma’s husband, Selvan, also a brick-kiln worker. I ask Maari how he was able to afford the bike. Instalments, he says.

In the anganwadi, four-year-old Dinesh is asleep on a mat, under a heavy blanket to ward off flies, which are more intolerable, apparently, than the heat. Beside him is a solitary white pawn, although there isn’t a chessboard in sight. Pushpa shows us the kitchen beyond the hall, and further down, the storeroom with supplies. This kitchen isn’t used anymore because the smoke was suffocating the children. Now the food is prepared in a room that was built later, abutting the anganwadi. Earlier, when agriculture was practised, the tribals used to derive nutrition from their crops. She points to the red hand towel on Marudhan’s shoulder and says the grain was of that colour because it was so full of iron. Now, there’s nothing. There’s not much milk, either, despite the gift from the government, a year ago, of 90 cows. About half of them died because there wasn’t enough feed — milk from the rest is sold to a nearby cooperative. These are valuable animals, more valuable than goats. A good cow can fetch up to Rs. 15,000 at the weekly shandy.

Pushpa currently takes care of one nursing mother, three pregnant women and 10 children. These children, she says, are taught to count and told that they should keep quiet and not run about when they grow up and go to the local school, where a single teacher presides over Class I through Class IV. The walls of the anganwadi’s hall are decorated with pictures of birds (which the children cut out and pasted) and an instructive colour wheel. There’s also a schedule of the menu. Mornings: milk without sugar. 12:30 pm: kanji (rice gruel). 3:30 pm: wheat upma with carrots and onions. (Yesterday, it was green gram porridge with jaggery.) From Monday last, eggs have been added to the menu. For someone in charge of a health and nutrition programme, Pushpa’s teeth are stained brown. She says she started chewing tobacco with the tribals to alleviate a toothache, and the habit stuck. Recently, a team of doctors from a nearby medical college conducted a camp in the village. Their focus? The evils of tobacco use.

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PV Radhakrishnan, at the Integrated Tribal Development Programme (ITDP), agrees that the recent spate of malnutrition deaths has to do with the change in the traditional diet of the tribals. Only 12 per cent of them practise agriculture now, he says, and they are mostly from the older generation — the younger lot has opted for quick-paying opportunities brought about by development. When AHADS (Attapady Hills Area Development Society) was set up in 1997, small jobs with monthly salaries became available — the job of a watchman or a peon — and its civil-works schemes too provided regular employment. This caused a shift from agriculture, which is dependent on rains and where the money is seen only at the end of a season, during harvest. As long as the tribals raised crops, they ate healthily, preserving extra produce in holes dug in front of their homes for consumption in the non-farming months. The food was especially wholesome because of the organic farming methods used — the droppings of goats and cattle enriched the earth.

The tall, soft-spoken Radhakrishnan has had a rough initiation into his job. He assumed the post of Project Officer at the ITDP at the end of February. About a month later, on March 4, Matrubhoomi reported four infant deaths. P.K. Jayalakshmi, the Minister for Welfare of Backward Communities, asked Radhakrishnan for a report, and the next day, he submitted his findings on these four deaths, and added to the report another death he stumbled upon in his inquiries — the case of Veeramma’s child. How so many deaths went unnoticed for so long is a question with no immediate answers, but the reason for the tragedy includes the fact that medical kits (with iron and folic acid tablets) were not given to the grassroots-level health workers for two years, and in the same period, the supply of milk, eggs and fruit to the nutrition programmes for pregnant women and young children was also stopped.

After the media picked up the story, the Kerala government has swung into action with swift measures, as is evident from Pushpa’s comment that the anganwadi has begun serving eggs again. The newspapers have quoted a figure of 33 deaths in the past 16 months. Radhakrishnan says there have been 18 deaths since December 1. He feels that the long-term solution is to convince the tribals to return to agriculture, to their traditional diet, by providing funds to purchase bullocks (for use in ploughing), to buy seeds, and, most importantly, to erect battery-powered fences that will keep away wild beasts without killing them. For now, though, a survey has been conducted (between April 11 and 19) to identify tribals suffering from malnutrition and anaemia. The 536 so identified — of which 346 are adolescent girls, pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under five — have had their blood tested. The results are yet to arrive.