Tribals on the brink of starvation

ELURU MARCH 30. The camping of official teams from a host of departments for a whole night at the grief-stricken Regulapadu tribal hamlet at the top of Papi hill ranges, seemed to have failed to break the silence of Gangamma, whose three-year-old son died of a `mysterious' disease a couple of days ago.

The feverish movement of top officials and their cohorts across the dusty roads in the remote village, their visits and soothing words all through failed to impress as she hardly believed in them and in their advocacy of modern medicine and values of nutritious food.

The scene at Gangamma's house with her two anaemic and undernourished children and with no source of income depicts the pitiable lifestyle of the Kondareddies, a primitive tribe, in the cluster of remote agency villages.

Tribals, both Koyas and Kondareddis, in the agency, spread over Jeelugumilli, Buttayagudem and Polavaram mandals in the district, are finding themselves on the verge of starvation deaths. Almost all their sources of income have dried up as their podu cultivation suffered extensive damage due to acute drought and the Government schemes intended to ensure their welfare have little or no relevance to the conditions. Added to this is the apathy of the Forest Department in ensuring bamboo-cutting work on a regular basis.

The very location of habitations in the interior forests and hill ranges and the resultant inaccessibility to transport, healthcare and the administration aggravated their agony. For instance, if any body wants to reach Regulapadu, he has to trek the Papi hill by passing through as many as five hill slopes as the route is unfit for movement of vehicles.

The futile bid by Gangamma to save her son was a case in point for the problem of food insecurity tribals face in the agency. "I could not offer any thing except java (gruel made of maize and broken rice) to my son even as he was battling for life. He refused to take in the liquid for over a week and breathed his last," a sobbing Gangamma told The Hindu during a visit. She supports her family, comprising two children and two adults, with a little she earns by way of collecting tamarind in the reserve forests.

Autumn is the worst season for tribals living in deep forests as they forego a major chunk of income in the form of collection of forest produce during the season because of massive denudation of adda trees as a result of leaf shedding. Even as maize and millet are raised in the PTG (primitive tribe group) villages, the crop suffered heavy damage this year due to serious dry spell. About 13 families survive on podu cultivation on 15 acres in the adjacent Repalli habitation. They could harvest maize from only two acres, while the crop in the rest of the area withered, according to Chinna Reddy.

Life for tribals could not have been so miserable this year, had they been engaged in bamboo cutting executed by the Forest Department through contractors. They get employment for about six months in a year and earn a monthly income ranging from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000 per family, if the Forest Department ensured bamboo cutting on a regular basis. Tribals found the going tough since the forest authorities did not undertake bamboo-cutting work this year. "As a result, java has become a part of our daily food habit," says Chinna Reddy.

Although the Forest Department is undertaking Food-for-work programme in the PTG villages in a bid to give them employment, it did not look promising for a variety of reasons.

"I was engaged at basin work meant to store water around the trunks of cashew trees as part of FFW programme for a day just before my son got afflicted with viral fever a week ago. Even after his death, I am yet to receive payment," bemoaned Pothu Reddy of Regulapadu village.

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