Hunger and deprivation go hand in hand in the Meleponangayam tribal colony in the district
When Balakrishnan died of tuberculosis four months ago — no one in the Meleponangayam tribal colony knows the exact date — the body lay in the open for two days.
There was no money to bury the “yellowing corpse,” says Lalitha Biju, a 28-year-old resident of the colony, located in the remote, winding Kodakkattupara hills in the Thiruvambady grama panchayat limits.
“Nobody from the Tribal Welfare Department came to help. Finally, we buried him near here. The money I had saved from gathering areca nuts was used for the burial. I remember we were too weak to dig his grave. Even to dig a grave, you need food in your belly,” Ms. Biju, a class 7 dropout, says, before she breaks down.
The colony is home to 31 families belonging to the Paniya community, the largest in the State. Hunger is their constant companion. In the monsoon, when work is scarce, the situation in the colony gets desperate.
During the rains, the only occupation that saves the colony from slipping into full-blown starvation is the practice of gathering rotten areca nuts from the plantations owned by private landowners nearby.
“We get about Rs.15 a kg from selling the nuts we scavenge. At times, we don’t get anything, especially when it rains,” says her husband, Biju.
The government’s food support programme to provide free ration to tribal families below the poverty line has not reached them.
“We still pay Rs.15 for 10 kg of rice. But we have no means to spend so much now. Most of us are too weak to work the whole day, so the estate owners do not call us. Earlier, the Tribal department used to send a vehicle here during the monsoon with provisions; now, nobody comes,” says Binu, a colony resident.
At the colony’s anganwadi, 22-year-old Manju slowly weaves her way in. As most women in the colony, she weighs about 30 kg.
“Manju was a smart girl. She was in Bangalore working as a maid in a house there. Then she came back and got married. She comes here when hunger becomes unbearable for her,” says Nisha George, the colony’s anganwadi worker whom everyone there calls ‘teacher.’
“I have worked in Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore, and Naduvannur. In some houses, I had to leave because their behaviour towards me was bad. But at least there, I would eat and get Rs.3,000 a month,” Ms. Manju says.
She informs Ms. George that there is no food in the house. Her brother-in-law Nikhil rummages inside their house and brings out a stained, crumpled BPL ration card. The card is valid only till 2012. Nikhil has not renewed it. Local primary health centre officials say his wife, Maya, 24, was in a critical condition two days ago. She was diagnosed with liver abscess.
“We rushed her to the Government Medical College, Kozhikode. The doctors have asked us to come back on July 26. But there is no money to call a vehicle and go to the hospital,” says Ms. Manju.
Anganwadi records show that Maya’s two-year-old boy, Nidhul, weighs hardly 6 kg. His birth weight was 900 g. The register reveals that children are grossly underweight. For example, the birth weight of Anu’s baby, born in August 2011, was 1.9 kg. The baby is now just about 7 kg. Sreeja’s baby, born in January 2012, is dead. Ms. George says the anganwadi serves rice and sambar thrice a week, and has rice and thoran for the next three days. Upma or wheat porridge is servedat 3 p.m. daily. Queries about supplies of eggs and vegetables make the colony residents laugh. Even the toddlers join in.