The dehumanising effects of an apathetic attitude are evident in their struggle.
Edavani ooru is one of the 19 hamlets of Attappady’s oldest primitive tribe of the Kurumba community. Here, if a child falls sick, it is the beginning of a long and hazardous trek.
The men cut a mula vadi (bamboo stick) to make a hammock. A team is formed; the fittest among them runs ahead, while the others take turns to carry the sick child. The journey from the ooru to the Pudur Primary Health Centre is 16 km. The men traverse the Edavani foothills where wild bears knock down rocks from the hillocks.
If it is night, they travel by instinct, guided by the distant hoots of the runner. If it rains and the Varagar river is overflowing, the ooru is trapped; the journey never starts.
If the child does manage to reach the primary health centre, chances are high that she/he may be referred to the Kottathara Tribal Specialty Hospital in Chanthakada, a further 9 km from the health centre. Buses are few and jeeps are expensive. The walk continues.
The Kurumba community is on the decline in Attappady. Elders at Edavani ooru say every baby is precious for the community. Statistics from the 2011-2012 Attappady Block Panchayat Annual Projects Review show that of 183 tribal hamlets in Attappady, only 19 belong to the Kurumba community.
Among the three grama panchayats in Attappady, there are no Kurumba families in Agali. Of the 1,740 tribal families in Pudur panchayat, only 553 are Kurumba, with 1,090 men and 992 women.
In Sholayur, there are only 13 Kurumba men and 11 women.
Edavani ooru, located in the Kurumba heartland and a hillock away from the inter-State border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, is home to 34 Kurumba families. There is no approach road, no electricity — broken solar light posts bear witness — and no drinking water.
Ten years ago, the local Pudur panchayat officials lugged some drinking water pipes up to the ooru and left them there, never to be used or reclaimed. Half-built brick houses stand testimony to the EMS Bhavana Nirmana Padathi. Of the 23 EMS houses sanctioned in the hamlet, only 10 have been completed. A health nurse from Pudur visits once a month to distribute “pani gulika (fever tablet)”. Childbirths are done in the ooru, every woman’s mother or a female relative is midwife.
Dead children are buried merely 10 metres away from the ooru’s anganwadi. A Rs. 4-lakh project to build terraced anganwadis for primitive tribes is yet to be realised in Edavani as there is no road access to the ooru, the local Scheduled Tribe Promoter said.
“Community rights” under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 still remain on paper, Rajendra Prasad, president, Thampu, a tribal activist group, said.
Here are the stories of people in Edavani ooru as they narrate:
“Vinod was eight months old when he died. He had fever. Nurayum pathayum vannu (he was frothing in the mouth). It was in July 2010. It was raining heavily, the Varagar was overflowing. He died in this house”. Bindu is now mother to a two-month-old baby girl. She refuses to take the baby out of her house, lest she may fall sick too.
Nagan and Meenakshi
They lost their child on April 28.
Nagan says: “On April 16, we went to Kottathara Hospital. She (Meenakshi) was seven months pregnant. They did not admit her in the hospital. We returned, on the way in the autorickshaw, she started screaming in pain. I took her back to the hospital. The same day she was delivered of a child. The baby was dead. Meenakshi was there for 13 days. On April 28, we asked the hospital staff to arrange a vehicle. Meenakshi could not walk. A nurse told us ‘find your own vehicle. You came here to get better, you did not. It’s your fault, now find your vehicle’”.
Nagan’s bank passbook, an account which he opened at the Palakkad District Co-operative Bank as part of the EMS housing project, shows his balance as Rs. 593.
Meenakshi, who now lives separately at Thazhe Bhudayur, a Kurumba hamlet 11 km walk away, refused to talk, covering her face with a cloth. “She was sick with her child, now she is sick with grief,” Nagan said.
His ration card (no: 1949070736) shows he is above poverty line and has electricity connection.
His monthly income as a ‘coolie’ is shown as Rs.200 though he has not worked for the past three months with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) stumbling to a stop in Attappady for reasons the panchayat officials cannot pinpoint. His EMS house is merely an outline of the foundation.
“I get only half a litre of kerosene because they say that I have electricity. But there is no electricity in the ooru, I tell them. But no one bothers to come to the ooru to see the truth,” Ayyappan said. So, this year, Ayyappan’s ration card entries do not show him getting any kerosene.
He says: “I saw a news report that Adivasis are not interested in going to hospitals? What is the reason for that? We go there, they give us fever tablets. If the medicine is not available in the Kottathara hospital, we have to go out to buy it…We are always referred to medical colleges. Finally, we come back exhausted. We are scared to go to hospitals.”
“Years ago, Edavani ooru had panja krishi. Then people came to cultivate ganja. The Forest officials destroyed ganja cultivation, they also destroyed our panja kadugal (five-crop forests). Now we are scared to cultivate in the forests. Forest officials say we brew liquor. But, give us another livelihood, give us a road, so we can take at least save our children.”
In 2012, Lingan’s wife was in her fifth month of pregnancy. The Kottathara hospital gave him a medical certificate for financial assistance for treatment. Their hospital expenditure was Rs.1,000. The ITDP was supposed to reimburse in full, instead they paid him Rs. 300.
Mannukaran ( man of the soil)
The elder, who is in charge of the ooru’s lands. He has to plant the first seed as per tradition. But Mannukaran — as he is officially called — is unwell. His skin has blisters all over. He is too weak to travel the 16 km to the health centre.
So, instead, the Kurumba flock to a local tribal hostel in nearby Swarnagadha. News has just come in that the Tribal Department is distributing 10 kg rice and 2 kg green grams for free.
The label on the sacks shows that the green grams are from China and the rice from Tamil Nadu.