Opinion » Lead

Updated: July 2, 2013 00:22 IST

Gruel, rice and tamarind water

Brinda Karat
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The Kerala government has not learnt anything from the Attappady tragedy. Nutrition levels of women and children, most of them tribals, continue to remain dismal in the area

At the Agali Community Health Centre in Attappady, Palakkad district, Kerala, Kavitha tends to her four-year-old child lying listlessly on the cot, critically ill. The doctor says the child is severely malnourished. He also says there are eight such infants and children, all suffering from malnutrition, admitted to the centre. This area in Kerala has seen 19 infant deaths in just two months, and 52 deaths of children due to malnourishment over the last year. These are children of tribal communities which make up 42 per cent of Attappady’s population.

Wise men coming here from the governments of Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram have declared that the women do not know how to feed their children properly, they must be educated about nutrition, exclusive breast feeding and weaning. The deaths are due to ignorance, they say.


The child’s mother looks puzzled when this is put across to her. But we do not have much choice in what we eat, she says, we eat what we can afford to buy. The current diet of a tribal woman in this area is a sort of rice gruel in the morning and rice and tamarind water at night. A locally grown green vegetable may be added, when available, to the night meal. Pulses are a rarity. Kavitha herself looks highly malnourished.

Health department officials say that a woman (given the average height of tribal women in this area) should weigh at least 48 kg before she can bear a child. But most women here weigh just 35 to 38 kg. The third National Family Health Survey in 2005-2006 showed that at the all-India level, 46.6 per cent of tribal women and 41.1 per cent of Dalit women have a body mass index that is below normal. Of these, an alarming 21 per cent of tribal women and 18.5 per cent of Dalit women are moderate/ severely thin. If Attappady is an indication, there has been little improvement.

Before Kavitha was born, her family owned land and grew millets and, sometimes, pulses which helped maintain a certain level of nutrition. As many health officials say, it is not a lack of knowledge but loss of land, which is an important factor behind poor nutrition. In Attappady, as in other parts of India, dispossession of tribals from their land by various methods of land grab has occurred. There is a consequent forced dependence of tribals on a now weakened public distribution system. In Attappady, once the child deaths became known and the UDF government was held accountable, it was announced that a minimum of 35 kg of foodgrains would be given to each family. But two months later, even those who hold a BPL card like Kavitha get only 25 to 28 kg of foodgrains a month. Two years ago, they used to get pulses, oil, salt at subsidised rates. Not any more. The mantra to cut subsidies implemented by the UDF government in the food, health and anganwadi sectors hits marginalised communities in a hard and cruel way.

Drastic cut

A woman bearing a child with such an elevated level of malnutrition is at high risk as is her baby. In Attappady, the majority of infants who died were pre-term babies or babies with a very low birth weight. Perhaps they could have been saved, in spite of this, had health facilities been available. But of the 1,200 pregnant women who registered in the area last year, only 25 had institutional deliveries. One of the reasons women do not go to health institutions is the drastic cut in the facilities in the last two years. There is a Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme (CHIS) for tribals, which is supposed to cover medicine and other expenses incurred by health institutions on tribal patients. For more than a year, not a single paisa has been released to the hospitals under CHIS. This not only reflects official callousness but also raises questions about the dependence on insurance schemes, instead of strengthening public health services. After the deaths, the State government promised the urgent release of Rs 10 lakh to the Agali CHC. This has not yet materialised. The consequences were being felt by Kavitha’s little boy. The doctors present said they were using samples of nutrition feeds for her child which they had been given free but the supply was running out. The only alternative before them was to spend their own money to buy the feed, they said.

State of anganwadis

A public interest litigation plea filed recently in the Kerala High Court paints a shocking picture of the state of anganwadis in Attappady. The food supply for anganwadis was handed over to private contractors by the present government, resulting in rampant corruption. Rotten, inedible food was supplied to children in most of the 172 anganwadis in the area. A Central government team found that the nutrition programme for pregnant women and adolescent girls was not implemented in the last two years. The State had also cut the nutritional requirements by half, cutting out eggs and fruit supplies to the anganwadis. It was only in April, after the furore over the deaths, that the responsibility for supplies was once again given to government agencies.

But it was too late for the children. Even now the situation on the ground in spite of all the announcements has not changed. The doctors fear more deaths. If this can happen in Kerala, what of those States where governments equally committed to neo-liberal policies do not even have a proper monitoring system?

Tribal communities want their land back, they want livelihood not charity. In the last year, in this area the average number of days of work provided under MGNREGS was only 63 days. The concerned Central Minister Jairam Ramesh who visited Attappady after the deaths made a grand statement of allocating Rs 120 crore for the area. It might have been more useful if the Minister had ensured that work, which has come to a standstill, had been provided and workers paid what was owed to them. According to the report of the District Vigilance and Monitoring Council, till the first week of April, delayed wage payments for unskilled workers were as high as Rs 28 lakh. But even those who have been paid subsequently have been denied a minimum wage. The same utterly insensitive mindset that blames a mother’s ignorance as the prime reason for her baby’s death also holds that it is because workers have become lazy that the stipulated wage rate is not earned.

With low levels of nutrition, women who comprise a large section of the MGNREGS workers in this area find it difficult to complete the tasks set for them. In this case, the piece rates are linked to a norm which requires a worker to dig or lift mud of around 1200 kg a day. Can a woman who herself weighs less than 40 kg, eating once a day, be expected to complete this task?

While the situation in Attappady is particularly bad, the continuing emphasis on earth work in MGNREGS projects across the country, with high and difficult-to-complete productivity norms, makes it virtually impossible for a malnourished labour force to earn a piece rate linked minimum wage. Although the Ministry of Rural Development in its operational guidelines for 2013 has specifically mentioned that in fixing SORs (schedule of rates), levels of nutrition should also be taken into account, this has not been translated into practice. On the contrary, in some States, for example in Andhra Pradesh, the Minister’s home State, the SORs were actually raised following the raise in the wage rate. This is a method of neutralising the increased wage rate, depriving the worker of the benefit and saving the government the additional money it would have had to pay.

India along with the sub Saharan Africa region is the only country in the world where the number of very poor people has registered an increase in the last 30 years. According to a recent World Bank study (The State of the Poor: Where are the Poor and where are the Poorest), India now accounts for one-third of the world’s poorest people — that is those earning around 87 cents, less than Rs 50 a day. In 1981, one-fifth of the world’s poorest people lived in India; in 2010, the numbers increased to one-third, around 400 million. Clearly, the government has to make drastic changes and reversals in its present policies to address the issues of deprivation. It should draw the right lessons from the Attappady tragedy because the deaths could have been prevented had the policies been different.

(Brinda Karat is Polit Bureau member, Communist Party of India-Marxist)

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Todays central goverment effort is well..if state goverment implimenting NHRM and food related schem properly and enhance community work.. is good to trible. I hope CM will take proper action bcs some day before he get UN award...coming food security bill if implimented properly then it will solve problem related hunger, malnutrition, under weight etc.

from:  Pradeep kumar Yadav
Posted on: Jul 4, 2013 at 23:22 IST

By writing this article Brinda Karat has brought the real face of Kerala's shining development. Kerala has became one of the top level consumerist state among all other Indian states. Gulf and overseas migrants are created every thing expensive, they bought almost all lands through the nexus of local business people, land mafia and misusing political power. Landless tribal and poor were subjected to continuous exploitation. Media expose the credit of Kerala for housing the biggest business mall at the same time Tribal women and children are struggling for life in government hospitals because of malnutrition and starvation. Once upon a time it was really a god's own country when there was a population of hardworking in the paddy fields, coir factories, beedi companies, weavers societies. Now it is consumer's own country having concrete buildings studded with Rajasthan marbles, streets having exclusive shopping malls and foreign currency exchange centres.

from:  Appade Rajeevan
Posted on: Jul 3, 2013 at 23:32 IST

Its again another policy implementation lacuna. Government plans very good schemes but fails to implement them. People should also be educated to ask for their right.

from:  Mayuri
Posted on: Jul 3, 2013 at 21:48 IST

The story of Attappady is shocking. Though Kerala is performing well in HDI when compared to other states in India, these facts especially about Tribals show that they are still vulnerable due to displacement during land acquisitions.

from:  Madhav
Posted on: Jul 3, 2013 at 11:03 IST

Well what was her communist government doing before Chandy took over
eh? See the holier than thou attitude that is in her article. I would
like incumbent government to immediately give back the tribal lands.
There should be autonomous elected tribal councils to govern tribal
lands so that the tribals can live off the land as they did with
certain hunting and foraging rights. We see in Discovery Channel how
Australians and Americans (Cajun people)capture and kill crocodiles
for their meat and skin. They even harvest them on a commercial scale.
What does the government want, only doctors, engineers, and clerks?
There should be a space for the hunter, the forager, the lumberjack
etc. But we are hypocrites and we have banned them so that rich
contractors and real estate guys can make a greedy living. Tribal
nations (reservations) like the Navajo should be set up in India and
they should be by the tribals.

from:  Joe
Posted on: Jul 3, 2013 at 10:31 IST

It is the result of the faith which believe that "Every thing is for me and my group, Even the almighty GOD". I think Brina karat is also belong to this group. I am saying this because the writer of this article "Brinda Karat" and and her Husband "Prakash Karat" both are communist mindid politician and sitting on important political post of India. I ask very simple question to Brinda Karat that when her Political Abition can be achieved through her husband political position then why shy is sitting on a political post. If you, Brinda Karat, are realy concerned about the people then leave this political post for other capable person and come up for work in real social field.

But I am sorry this is not going to happened so the article is useless for society. Sorry to Brinda karat and society as well.

from:  tamater
Posted on: Jul 3, 2013 at 09:47 IST

Malnutrition is one of the major problem being faced by country because of the lack of any law which directs hold the accountability of money flowing from government to tribal. There should be a proper law which checks the money spend by government authorities or any private player.

from:  Qasim
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 23:45 IST

Why Indian government very apathetic to tribal people who are facing malnutrition and incurable diseases. government should take steps on war-footing to solve the issue.

from:  Chaitanyanistala
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 23:17 IST

Can we change the situtation

from:  Dinesh
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 23:01 IST

Comrade.Brinda Karat has every right to raise the causes of tribal people.At the same time , the mainstream left in India has forget to raise such issues very recently. The lapses on the part of the left is not a pardonable one. If we settle down the issue of land, all other issues to be solved gradually. One tribal leader said that " no adivasi will die of hunger if they got their alienated land back". Land issue is the real issue,so that everybody try to solve it.

from:  gopinathanpillai.G
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 22:26 IST

Mrs. Brinda Karat did a great study it seems with her brilliant
article. The core of her thought-provoking essay is land grabbing
going on in rocket speed all across the State of Kerala. The Gulf
rich returnees grab the hill side farm lands along the flow of
the many rivers crisscrossing all Kerala. The poor native people
are subjected to thuggery by rich businessmen running resorts and
hotels in the remote jungles where people like Kavita were
tilling and harvesting in their might and living happily once to
become now malnourished mothers to deliver babies to die in the
absence of post natal treatments expected of the government to
give to its subjects. But, Kerala's CM is busy self-decorating
him with the UN-necessary awards to his delight. We only wish
Mrs. Brinda Karat brings out the ill she observes in many other
facets of our social structure in days to come. With articles
like that of Surya P Sethi and Brinda Karat, the Hindu is doing
yeomen service to this nation, for sure.

from:  C. Sachidananda Narayanan
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 22:12 IST

@Rajan Shete Sir, what Brinda Karat wrote is correct. Kerala tops the
HDI is true. Beneath the high HDI, there are sections who have not come
up namely Adivasis and dalits. Adivasis constitute 1.14 % of the
population, but are far behind in all fields.

from:  Roopesh P Raj
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 19:26 IST

Part 1 : Although Kerala model of development places people first
above profit, it is a fact that the socio economic development of
adivasis and dalits is trailing behind the rest of the population. It
is also a fact that the social development indices of adivasis and
dalits are way ahead in Kerala when compared with other Indian states.
This backwardness is historical, and political parties including the
Communists cannot run away from owning responsibility. Adivasis in
Kerala is an exploited lot, heart wrenching stories of hundreds of
adivasi unmarried mothers and adivasis in general being made to work
in Ginger farms in Karnataka for pittiable salary should make anyone
wonder whether adivasis are part of Kerala, where wage on unskilled
workers is the highest in India (a land tiller gets Rs. 500/- per
day). Land of the Adivasis has been snached away by willy settlers and
the communists and the congress joined hands to protect the interest
of settlers is a historical fact. Given this, the fact that the communist led Govts were more
sincere in dealing with the problems of Adivasis is to be acknowledged.
Food is the most basic necessity of a human being and the current UDF
Govt is showing criminal neglect in not providing food at affordable
rate for the adivasis. Before jumping into conclusions we need to think
why there were no mass deaths during the left rule? Deaths did not
happen for the simple reason that the left strenghtens PDS and Public
Health System rather than throwing the poor into the mercy of the rich.

from:  Roopesh P Raj
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 19:18 IST

It is nice to see politicians expressing their concern via a reputed platform. Educating people about the problems of poor is very important and if this comes from our ruling class, then it is quite good.
I wish if she could raise the same concern in the Parliament first and then ask for the actions taken by the Govt via a platform like this.
Any ways, one solution what I think is not to distribute the food grains but to distribute processed food items which have added vitamins, calcium and iron. Processed food like (corn/rice) flakes along with pulses will be quite a good solution for malnutrition and this will gurantee their quality and reduce the corruption.

from:  shekhar
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 18:46 IST

The article is true and can be taken at face value. It happens in background which the 'developed' kerala wants to ignore. But Mrs.Karat has no right to speak about it since before the current UDF government, Kerala was ruled by her Party. This is not an over-the-night situation, neither the fault lies only with UDF. True they are culprits, but so is the CPIM.
What did they do to these people other than use them as votebank?
How did the CPIM ruin the PDS system in Kerala where every communist supporter became a BPL card holder?
There are a number of questions which the CPIM will find it difficult to answer about kerala. UDF has a share too but they openly say 'we dont care' but the communists pretend!
Will she explain this first, then try to act a champion of human cause.

from:  Nik
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 17:23 IST

Today hitherto in a developing country like India , the adverse
effects of malnutrition will be witnessed by future generations. The
percentage of skilled lab-our gets decreased and will pay costly prize
for it. So, where is so called social justice, economic equality..?
Coming to the condition of tribal people , it is deeply moving. The
schemes,special packs and the special privileges provided by our
constitution and just letters. The govt. has used land grabbing
technique successfully and kept in the hands of Richie-Rich . Yes, we
all know there is lot of corruption in all fields , but please don't
take way the food which is righteously theirs. Govt. should
directly supply food and should not entertain private contractors. All
the money allotted to them should be spent on them rather en routing
the to other projects.

from:  Dheeraj
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 15:35 IST

After reading all these, when I saw who wrote it was "Brinda Karat is Polit Bureau member, Communist Party of India-Marxist". I am not sure why Hindu is publishing articles from Polit Bureau Members. We do not have a single opposition party who gives constructive criticism for government; does not matter which party they belong to.

Attapadi adivasis have to be protected. And all focus should be on them to help them to recover. It does not matter which party or govt. It was communist who was ruling before Congress. What did they do anyways? It is unfortunate that no party, not even a single one exists in India (except the new parties like Lok Satta and AAP) who are not involved in this land politics.

I am not a congress supporter. But, I should not deny that, I am from kerala and I have seen clear progress in my part of kerala with efforts of UPA govt job schemes. There were poor people in my village till few years back. Now, we have to literally think who is poor. Isnt it good?

from:  Sheeja
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 14:31 IST

The euphoria of celebrated high human development index value of Kerala
still marginalized while taking the account of tribal health scenario.
Apparent paperers of data of tribal studies vouch this malaise. Ongoing
undernourishment of mothers and high rates of infant moralities
undergoing among tribal cannot blamed for sole mindless attention of
tribal in fulfilling relevant food needs.

from:  Basheer KK
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 13:16 IST

The account of condition of poor in Attappady given by the writer is
heart breaking. Undernourishment coupled with poverty has become
life threatening to young ones. Further the indifferent government
policies both by Central and state has aggravated the situation at
the ground.
The PPP initiative in nutrition and health sector has not only
proved ineffective but they also have joined the corruption brigade.
PPP should be limited to infrastructure sector that too within a
suitable policy framework.
The solution to current problem in Attappady or any where in India
lies in people sensitive policies prepared in consultation with
local people and thorough implementation of them without any flaw.

Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 10:56 IST

CPI-M don't have moral right to comment as it has ruled the state many times. Above all, senior CPIM senior leader Achtu became CM after creating sensation on small ditch of water flowing to Tamilnadu at this place.CPI-M leaders are smart to raise issues against Tamilnadu, rather than solving tribal issues.To raise issues, Achtu visited Attapady and won popularity. Did he vist after becoming CM?

from:  D.Anandaraj
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 10:23 IST

A very poignant state; speak of irony, Mr.Chandy just got the award from UN.

from:  Robin Francis
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 10:21 IST

Soon after in dependance, the forest land became a national property and the tribal were left orphaned. At the same time wise men who owned hectors of plantation managed to get their booty in possession, thanks to the religious advantage they had and still having. From the early days of our republic, various governments had promised a lot for the upliftment of the "Girijan" but in vain. None were particularly interested in the well being of our tribal as they do not contribute much in a democracy in obtaining power.It is indeed cruel to loot the money allocated to them. As far as the political elite are concerned, it is equally cruel to witness this outrage in deliberate silence too..

from:  Viswanath Pillai
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 08:47 IST

I think mme. Karat is confused about the geographical location of Attapady. She claims it's in Kerala; but, as we all know, Kerala has The highest HDI in the country!?!
The plight she's highlighting, and the 'reality' just don't gell!
I think she should be more careful, and do better research before castigating a state like Kerala.

from:  Rajan Shete
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 08:13 IST

The cases of malnutrition and high rates of disease tolls in several parts of Kerala shows a humongous need for health care centers nearby to the tribal area and the government should look into the tribal uprooting from their own land regarding the acquisition of government Property

from:  Fijo Joseph
Posted on: Jul 2, 2013 at 01:13 IST
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