The tribal tragedy has unleashed a major debate on the Kerala model of development, P.A. Vasudevan, economist, says.

The death spiral of malnourished children in Attappady is a result of the ecological destruction of a land once known for its rich biodiversity, experts say. Since January, 40 tribal infants died in this heartland of the tribes.

Implementation of special packages by the governments could not save the children. That it happens in a State like Kerala, known for its high health and education standards, is shocking news for the country. Many could not believe this dark face of the State, some even calling it a “virtual genocide” of the tribal population.

The tribal tragedy has unleashed a major debate on the Kerala model of development, P.A. Vasudevan, economist, says.

The stretch of verdant hillock, as big as Alappuzha district, amid perennial streams and fertile agricultural lands, is inhabited by the particularly vulnerable Kurumba, Muduga and Irula tribal communities.

These tribal communities had been living in harmony with nature, pursuing their traditional farming practices and indigenous culture. Prior to the 1950s, the Attappady hills, adjoining the rainforests of the Silent Valley National Park, had 80 per cent forest cover, providing the indigenous population a continuous supply of forest produce for a living.

Tragedy struck them with the entry of settlers in the 1950s into the highly promising terrain, searching for greener pastures. The migrants from the southern parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu flourished, but the hills, endowed with limited natural reserves, went off-balance, says P.R.G. Mathur, anthropologist and former Director of KIRTADS (Kerala Institute for Research Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes).

They destroyed the natural wealth by indiscriminate cutting of trees, reckless grazing and unscientific land use, leading to desertification.

Dr. Mathur says the eastern Attappady, sloping east and hence in a rain shadow region during the southwest monsoon, has been the worst affected. The migrant farmers from Tamil Nadu tried the farming practices of the plains, resulting in heavy soil erosion. This triggered a series of adverse reactions, which, coupled with an average annual rainfall of just 600 mm to 1,000 mm, resulted in drought and crop failure.

The fast depletion of groundwater has forced the farmers to the narrow strips on the banks of the rivers of Bhavani, Siruvani and Kodungarapallam.

By the late 1960s, poverty, deprivation, land alienation, losing of traditional agriculture and malnutrition gradually set in and marginalised the tribal population, Dr. Mathur says.

A study by the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management says, “[The] principal problem of the Attappady region is scarcity of water for drinking and irrigation. The main victims of eco-degeneration have been the tribal people. The transition of the tribal society from self-reliance to dependence has been a direct result of the environmental decline of the region. The change was accelerated in the 1950s. The tribal people then lived in thick forests which fulfilled all their needs.”

A study by the Kerala Forest Research Institute in 1991 said that if one were to go by their per capita income, the tribal people in Attappady were living below the poverty line.

Thus Attappady is classical example of how the destruction of environment and ecology can result in the wiping out of a community as a whole, Dr. Mathur says.

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