Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comparison of the tribal situation in Attappady with the human development indices of Somalia has brought back national attention to the tribal belt, official figures confirm that infant mortality and neonatal deaths are coming down in the region. Though half a dozen infant deaths have been reported since January this year, only two are confirmed as the result of malnutrition and poor health of the mother.
The area witnessed 58 malnutrition-related deaths in 2013. The figure came down to 30 in 2014 and further to 14 in 2015, as per the State Health Department. R. Prabhudas, nodal officer for tribal health in Attappady, said the multipronged approach of the Central and State governments since 2013 had brought down the infant mortality rate. The community kitchen scheme aimed at providing nutritious food to pregnant and lactating mothers, children, and the elderly had helped the cause.
“In 2013, as many as 299 tribal children in Attappady were found to have severe malnutrition. The number has reduced to 52 now. In 2013, the number of children with moderate acute malnutrition was 600. The figure is 296 now. Abortion cases came down to 34 in 2015 from 77 in 2013,” he said.
The average weight of newborn babies rose from 1.5 kg to 2.5 kg in these years. Apart from short-term measures like community kitchen and free ration, initiatives aimed at restoring alienated tribal land and helping them in farming are on.
“We are focusing more on livelihood restoration. Water is another priority,” said Seema Bhaskar of the National Rural Health Mission.
Experts say the grim situation in Attappady is a combined effect of poverty, lack of employment, land alienation, and loss of traditional agriculture and indigenous food. Ottappalam sub-collector P.B. Nooh has initiated a project to restore landholdings of tribespeople.
“Over the years, fertile tribal lands got alienated and traditional cultivation came to a standstill. Now most tribes are living on barren hillslopes,” points out tribal activist S. Palaniswamy of Attappady.
“Tribespeople who have land cultivate bananas, sugarcane, and other cash crops which they do not traditionally grow. The focus is now shifting to food crops, mainly millets and pulses,” said tribal women leader Mohana. The tribes are forced to depend on the rice supplied by the public distribution system (PDS). There is a suggestion to supply millets through ration shops in lieu of rice.