Where grieving mothers struggle to find answers

The Hindu begins a series on life in the tribal hamlets of Attappady where malnutrition has claimed the lives of many babies.

May 03, 2013 02:14 am | Updated 02:14 am IST - Attappady:

A mother knows the pain: From left: Chithra, Ponnamma and Maruthi, mothers who lost their babies to malnutrition at Nellipathy hamlet in Attapady.  Photo : Thulasi Kakkat

A mother knows the pain: From left: Chithra, Ponnamma and Maruthi, mothers who lost their babies to malnutrition at Nellipathy hamlet in Attapady. Photo : Thulasi Kakkat

Ponnamma, 29, lost three babies in four years. The first was in 2010. A boy who lived for five days after birth at the Community Health Centre, Agali, before he turned blue and died. He weighed about 600 grams.

Ms. Ponnamma says the doctors told her husband, Maruthan, to sign the child death register at the centre and leave.

0n March 23 this year, she was delivered of twins at the same health centre during the sixth month of pregnancy. The mother and the babies, a boy who weighed 800 grams and a girl who weighed 500 grams, were referred to the Tribal Specialty Hospital, Kottathara, at Chanthakada in Attappady. The boy died the same day. The girl put up a brave fight for eight days, before she gave up.

Again the couple was asked to leave the hospital the same day. No reason was offered for the deaths.

On the anaemia or malnutrition toll list with the Integrated Tribal Development Programme (ITDP) office in the Agali grama panchayat, Ms. Ponnamma’s tragedy is a few blurred words among those of 18 young mothers whose babies died within hours to less than 2.5 months of their birth. The list records deaths from December 2012.

Her “medical certificate for applying for financial assistance for treatment,” procured a month later on April 30 by a local tribal activist group, Thampu, from the Kottathara hospital, is signed by an assistant surgeon.

For one, the certificate has Ms. Ponnamma’s age wrong — 20, it shows. The description of her loss is a one-page affair. Her outpatient number, 922/2313, is given. The “description of her disease” is “premature labour.” The cost of medicines and other expenditure incurred is shown as Rs. 1,800.

Ms. Ponnamma’s ration card (no: 1949100652) shows she earns Rs. 1,803 a month, that she is Above Poverty Line (APL) — courtesy this, she pays Rs. 8.46 for a kilogram of rice at the Civil Supplies shop instead of the Re. 1 for Irula tribe families who are marked below poverty line. A few hours after the visit of Pinarayi Vijayan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to their Nellipathy hamlet on Wednesday, Ms. Ponnamma and Mr. Maruthan are cooking a small pot of green-gram curry for their 10-year-old daughter, Sandhya. She has passed to Class 3. Maruthan bought two onions specially to put in the curry to celebrate the occasion.

“Can I say everything without holding back?” asks Ms. Ponnamma, with her husband beside her, as she settles down outside her one-room house, one of the 81 built in the hamlet by the now-defunct Attappady Hills Area Development Scheme in August 2011.

Mr. Maruthan gets up and tells a group of boys beating drums nearby to stop. “Ponnamma is talking about her children,” he tells them.

It is pin-drop silence. The blue-tinted Nilgiri hills, a constant backdrop to Attappady and the boundary line between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, seem to draw closer to hear the mother better.

Chitra, aged 21, Maruthi, 25, young mothers from the same hamlet who also lost their babies within days and months of birth, quietly approach. “The boy in 2010 was my second pregnancy. He died quietly. I asked the doctors how he died, but they would not tell me. We don’t know the reason still,” Ms. Ponnamma said.

“This time, we wanted the children to live. We saved some money and went to a private hospital in Tamil Nadu during my fourth month. They told me I had twins. That I had blood deficiency. We called up the hamlet and two people came from here and gave me blood. The doctors there gave me some tonic and we left. We came back. In the sixth month, I started bleeding heavily. The twins were born on March 23. They too died. Again, the doctors did not say anything. If the baby dies, we are told to leave the same day,” Ms. Ponnamma said.

Ms. Maruthi too had gone to the Agali community health centre for her delivery. Her daughter was eight months old when she died in October 2012. She weighed just 1 kg.

“Doctors told me she had high blood pressure and sugar,” she said.

Ms. Chithra was delivered of her baby, a girl, on February 21, 2013. The child weighed 1.36 kg at birth. The baby survived for a week, before giving up.

“There was a time when pregnant women and young mothers ate green leaf and vegetable curries and rice cultivated in our own land. Now, all we get is this rice and green grams from the ration shop,” Ms. Ponnamma said.

“I have two acres of land, but there are four heirs. Chithra has one acre and four heirs to share it with. Maruthi has 2.5 acres and seven heirs to divide the land among … Years ago, we had acres of land to cultivate our traditional crops … Now we live in three cents and panchayat-built houses,” she said. “We are not blaming the doctors, but if only they would tell us why our babies died...” Ms. Maruthi wished aloud.

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