Sitting in a remote corner of the bridge school for dropout tribal students at Attappady, run by the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in association with the Kudumbasree Mission, 16-year-old Manikandan (not his real name) says he would not draw caricatures any more. It is six months since he last drew a caricature. And paid a price for it, forcing him to give up his self-taught skill.
“Manikandan used to be a highly talented and academically brilliant student. Teachers at the primary school recommended him for admission to the Ashram Higher Secondary School of the State Scheduled Class/Scheduled Tribe Development Department at Malampuzha. Now he regrets having moved over to Malampuzha,” says NRLM regional coordinator Seema Bhaskar, who has been struggling hard to help the boy recover from the trauma he was subjected to by the teachers at the school.
Seven months ago, Manikandan drew caricatures of some of the teachers at the Malampuzha school incurring their wrath. He was locked in a room along with three of his close friends from Attappady, one of them a district-level sports champion. The police were summoned and a case of unnatural sex involving the boys was foisted on them. Apart from Section 377 of the IPC dealing with unnatural offences, provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act were invoked. “We had a tough time getting them out on bail. Now they are continuing their education at our bridge school. But the mental trauma they suffered at Malampuzha still haunts them. They are all talented, brilliant and well behaved. I believe that the case against them was a fabricated one,” says Dr. Seema.
Six months ago, a tribal girl Vineetha of an upper Agali settlement had sought readmission to Class 9 at the privately run Arogyamatha Higher Secondary School at Kottathra. She had dropped out of the school after Class 8 but wanted to continue her education a year later. Disregarding all applicable laws, the school had refused her admission. When The Hindu reported the incident, the Director of Public Instruction (DPI) issued an order directing the school authorities to grant her admission immediately. The school ignored the DPI’s order. As a result, Vineetha’s dreams still remain unfulfilled. In the case of Madhu, the Adivasi youth of Kadukumanna hamlet in Attappady who died following a brutal assault by a local gang on Thursday, the selfie taken by those who had beaten him to death had, in fact, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It touched the State’s collective conscience, but Kerala society is by and large insensitive towards the plight of people like Vineetha. The plains people are unbelievably intolerant of Dalits and tribes in the State. Vineetha’s is a classic example,” says P.E. Usha, director, Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society.
According to a survey conducted by the NRLM, the Attappady region comprising Agali, Sholayur and Pudur grama panchayats has 900 tribespeople, both male and female, suffering from various mental illnesses. “What the region requires immediately is a proper rehabilitation centre for the mentally challenged people. We spot at least one new mentally ill person every week in the region,” says Maruthi, leader of Thaikula Sanghom, a tribal women’s collective. On its part, the NRLM had arranged treatment for 120 mentally challenged and ill persons in hospitals in Thrissur and Kozhikode during the past two years. At the local Kudumbasree offices, three persons, one of them a B. Pharm degree holder, who have recovered fully have been provided with last-grade jobs as part of their rehabilitation. “We can ensure better treatment for them, but rehabilitation is the key issue. Without providing them jobs and economic support, we will not be able to resolve this issue,” says Dr Seema.
In spite of the Union and State governments pumping in several crores of rupees as part of various welfare schemes, starvation is a shocking reality in Attappady. Community kitchens have been set up in 75 different locations. They were originally set up to ensure at least a single nutritious meal a day for pregnant and lactating mothers. It was later extended to children, the elderly and adolescent girls. However, the kitchens are now in deep crisis as the government has not been releasing funds on time. According to Kudumbasree officials who manage the kitchens, bills for purchase of provisions costing ₹5 crore are yet to be paid to Maveli stores of the Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation. They had paid ₹2 crore due to local vegetable and pulses growers last week dipping into their own funds. If the government continues to delay release of funds, the Kudumbasree units would land in a serious crisis.
“The general perception among non-tribes in Attappady is that our people are getting too much of undeserved government funds. But look at the ground reality. The funds are getting diverted to the politician-bureaucrat-contractor mafia. Community kitchens are a temporary remedy. Real food security can be achieved only by restoring our alienated land and reviving our livelihood. Non-availability of safe drinking water is another matter of concern,” says tribal social activist K.A. Ramu. A close look would reveal that there is little basis for the plains people’s hostility towards the tribes as the real beneficiaries of all the welfare and infrastructure development projects are the settlers.
As far as tribes of Attappady are concerned, the hostility on the part of the settler community is nothing new. It was only a few weeks ago that the police initiated a criminal case against a Facebook group involving local people for posting indecent comments against a circle inspector attached to the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) who had detected acute discrimination against 267 tribal students at the Government Higher Secondary School at Agaly. Investigation by Circle Inspector K. Krishnankutty had revealed that the school was discriminating against the tribal children by creating exclusive divisions for them with only temporary teachers being made available to teach them. There was only a rudimentary syllabus for the tribal students and they were being tested through separate examination. Once Mr. Krishnankutty’s investigation report became public, the school authorities had to abandon the separate divisions for tribal children.
Tribal activists in the area are also perturbed by what they term mysterious deaths of tribespeople in Attappady and the absence of proper investigation in such cases. The police, they point out, are yet to crack murders of Vellingiri in Sholayur, Velli in Thavalam and Maruthi in Paloor, which have all happened in the past six months. “Successive governments have taken no interest in restoring our alienated lands. Land is the key issue in Attappady as sufficient agricultural land along with irrigation can solve all our problems. Land and livelihood restoration would help us become self-sufficient and lead dignified lives. Cosmetic relief can only ensure temporary results,” says Mr. Ramu.
Unlike other States with significant tribal population , Kerala lacks a policy on primitive and vulnerable tribal groups like the Kurumba and Kadars of Attappady. “Their problems call for our special attention. There must be steps to enhance their collective morale. The primitive tribes are often subjected to harassment by non-tribes. Madhu, incidentally, belongs to the Kurumba tribe,” points out Ms. Usha.