: The government lower primary school at Nadukkudy in India’s first tribal grama panchayat, Edamalakkudy, has a peculiar student-teacher ratio. It has five teachers, including a headmaster, for seven students who represent eight Muthuva tribal hamlets nearby. The school has one peon, and a cook who prepares the mid-day meal. Till a decade ago, the student strength at the school was between 75 and 85.
The situation is similar at the Keezhpatham multi-grade learning centre near the Olakkayam Muthuva hamlet, where the student strength dropped from 48 in 2003 to five this year. While a single-teacher school in the Chattupara hamlet has 11 students, a similar school at Keezhvalayampara has six students. The school at Iruppukallu has 10 students on the register, but only seven attend classes. The same is the case in all the 10 schools of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and three schools of the Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) in Edamalakkudy grama panchayat, where more than 700 families constitute members of the Muthuvan tribal community.
The situation is no different in the other Muthuvan tribal settlements at Marayoor, Vattavada, Suryanelli, Bison Valley, Mankulam, Adimali, Kuttanpuzha and Adichithotti villages spread in Idukki, Ernakulam and Thrissur districts. Muthuvans are spread out in Kadambara, Karimutti, Cheethilmudi, Koranganimuttam, Manchapatti, Aadu Vizhunthan Kudi, Paliayath, Seventh Division, Sankaran Kudi, and British Kudi villages of Coimbatore and Tirupur in Tamil Nadu as well. But, all these hamlets are now witnessing an alarming fall in the number of children.
“The downward trend began about 20 years ago. A number of couples in Edamalakkudy panchayat face infertility. At this rate, the community will be wiped out very soon,” says P.K. Muraleedharan, a teacher under the SSA in Edamalakkudy for the last 15 years.
Health workers attribute the growing infertility among the Muthuvans to excess consumption of oral contraceptive pills by both married and unmarried women to avoid menstruation. “During menstruation, the girls have to stay in specially made isolated huts named Valapurais to avoid exposure to the rest of the family members. After childbirth, the mother and the infant have to stay in the Valapurais for 40 days. These rules are very strict among the Muthuvans and so the girls delay menstruation by taking contraceptive pills. At least, they can avoid the stay in isolated Valapurais risking attack by elephants,” says Ramani Arjunan, a worker of the Kudumbasree Mission at Nadukkudy.
Interestingly, it was the Health Department that introduced oral contraceptive pills in the Muthuvan villages two decades ago to ensure birth control. Then, there were eight to nine children in each family.
After a recent study exposed that the oral contraceptive pills caused infertility among 25 per cent of married women in the Muthuvan community, the Health Department stopped supply of the pills through its primary health centres.
Agencies like Kudumbasree are now campaigning against the use of contraceptive pills to prevent menstruation. The government also promised construction of 10 ‘fully secured’ Valapurais for Muthuvan girls of Edamalakkudy to stay during menstruation.
“But the official efforts have had very little impact. Medical shops at Valparai in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu face huge demand for contraceptive pills. There are agents and intermediaries who make bulk purchases from Valparai to sell among the women in places like Edamalakkudy by taking huge margins,” says Chinnappan, a resident of Aandavan Kudy, who has no children after six years of marriage.
Rajaprabhu of Edalipara says most married women in his hamlet suffer abortion after conceiving and their lives are put to risk as the whole region lacks a doctor. “The situation is grave and the government has promised steps to fight infertility. Nutritious food for our women is also a matter of concern,” says Kanniyamma Sreerangan, president of Edamalakkudy grama panchayat