The Lede
Dying In Attapady, One Child At A Time

Dying In Attapady, One Child At A Time

Rejimon Kuttappan

Tribal children are dying in droves in Kerala’s Palakkad district while authorities convey mere platitudes  

By Rejimon K

Raman R, 26, a tribal from Attappady in Palakkad, and his wife Bindu R, 21, have not come to terms with their loss.

On 22 November 2018, at around 8:30 am, their three-day-old baby boy showed symptoms of uneasiness in breathing. Within a few minutes, he died.

“Everything happened in less than a minute. When we noticed that the child is facing difficulty in breathing during feeding, we rushed the child to medics. But they failed to save the life,” Raman said.

“Medics told us that the child died due to aspiration. Even if aspiration is the case, why couldn’t they save the life?” asks a bereft Raman.

According to government statistics, Raman’s child’s death was the 14th in 2018 in Attappady. “In 2017 it was 10 and in 2016 it was 9,” Rajeev Sadanandan, Health Secretary of Kerala, told The Lede.

Meanwhile, talking to The Lede, Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja Teacher said that the numbers are alarming but that they have taken steps to address the issue. “We had a meeting with health officials in Wayanad. We are thinking of how to address the issue in a much more effective way. How we can avoid deaths, how we can support them and all. We are working on the issue seriously,” the minister said.

Attappady, the only tribal block panchayat in Kerala, has been in the news on several occasions over malnutrition and infant deaths in the past.

In 2012-13 Attappady had garnered national attention following the death of 63 tribal children reportedly due to malnutrition and poor health of mothers.

Talking to The Lede, K Ramu, a tribal activist from NGO Thambu, said that infant deaths are mainly because of land alienation, loss of traditional shifting cultivation and due to loss of traditional food items.

“Changes (that) happened and happening in lands laws and forest laws since 1950s have thrown out tribals from their original settlements. From cultivators, now, they have become daily wagers. They have lost the self-sustainability they had. And it is affecting them in all phases of life, especially on health front,” Ramu said.

Thrown Out

According to Dr OP Salahudheen, historian and principal in charge of MES Kalladi College in Mannaarkadu, the Land Reform Act had led to alienation of tribal land in hilly regions.

“The non-tribal people, mainly those who migrated to Attappady and other tribal areas from other parts of the state for farming, took more lands on lease from tribals. We can even say that the tribals become the ‘Land owners’ and non-tribals became ‘tenants’. The non-tribals applied for deeds in their possession and they occupied larger area of land,” Salahudheen said.

When the Land Reform Act came into existence the government of Kerala distributed 279 hectares of land to 943 tribal families.

This was one of the major distributions to the tribals in Attappady. In Kottathara village, 404.53 acres of land was owned by Sankarappa Gounder.

The government captured the land as surplus land and on 10 December 1976, 145.81 acres of land was redistributed among 150 tribal families in this village.

However, the report of the Tehsildar of Mannarkkadu, submitted on 23 April 1999, revealed that the tribal families did not use the land for agriculture. Thus on 11 May 1999 the government ordered a recapture of tribal land from their possession.

The main recommendation of the Dhebar Commission (1960) was that all tribal land alienated since 26 January 1950 should be restored to the original rightful owners.

Further the meeting of the ministers called by the Centre on 01 April 1975 had passed a resolution that legislation for prevention of land alienation should be undertaken immediately and this work should be done within six months.

In pursuance of this resolution, the Kerala Scheduled Tribes Restriction of Transfer of Land and Restoration of alienated land Act (KST Act 1975) was enacted by Kerala’s Achutha Menon government.

The Act got the mandatory assent of the president of India on 11 November 1965 and was passed unanimously by the State legislative Assembly.

According to this Act any type of occupation, either by sale, lease, mortgage or force on tribal land after 1960 is illegal. According to this law the transfer of tribal land became a punishable offence since 1975.

The 1975 Act came into effect from January 1982 in Kerala and it was included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution making it non-justiciable.

It made all transfer of property “possessed, enjoyed or owned” by tribals to non-tribal people between 1960 and 01 January 1982, invalid and ordered restoration of such land to Adivasis.

Unfortunately, the law remained on paper.

However, in 1993, Nalla Thampi Thera, a non-tribal in Wayanad, gave a twist to the tribal struggle when the Kerala High Court passed an order on his public interest litigation directing the State government to implement the 1975 Act.

In 1996, the Kerala High Court set a deadline of September 30 to evict the non-tribals from tribal land. The government responded with an amendment to the 1975 legislation.

Flexing their political muscle, the settlers forced the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front to amend the “impractical” provisions of the 1975 Act under which they should hand over land in their possession back to the tribals.

The result was the Kerala Scheduled Tribes Amendment Bill 1996 passed by the State Assembly almost unanimously (there was only one dissenting vote).

But the President of India, KR Narayanan did not give assent to the Amendment Bill by the Kerala Assembly.

Another Bill was passed in 1999 which said only alienated land in excess of two hectares possessed by encroachers would be returned to the tribals.

The Kerala High Court however rejected the Bill. The State government appealed to the Supreme Court and obtained a stay order.

All transfer of tribal land to non-tribal was restricted from 24 January 1986. Since 1986 only a negligible area of tribal land was alienated, hence very little land had to be restored.

“Successive governments kept the Tribal Land Act of 1975 in cold storage for almost 25 years. Ironically enough the act was sought to be amended in 1996 and again in 1999 not for protection of the tribes, but for protection of the encroachers of tribal land. And tribals have lost more than 10,000 acres during this period,” Ramu added.

“Eventually, the tribals came to a position that they were no longer asking for restoration of alienated land. Instead, they want five acres for all landless families. There was a proposal to give 85 per cent of the forests taken over by the government to the tribals. But the Centre’s Forest Protection Act, 1980, made it difficult to implement,” Ramu said.

“Successive governments kept the Tribal Land Act of 1975 in cold storage for almost 25 years. Ironically enough the act was sought to be amended in 1996 and again in 1999 not for protection of the tribes, but for protection of the encroachers of tribal land. And tribals have lost more than 10,000 acres during this period,” Ramu added.

Confirming Ramu’s views, PE Usha, State Nirbhaya Project Director, told The Lede that it is the socio-economic factors which has led to the situation.

“Infant death in Attappady is not simply a clinical issue. More than that, socio-economic factors matter a lot. Mainly, access to health for the tribals is still always a question even after hundreds of crores are being spent on it,” Usha said.

Ineffective Funds

Government data reveals that the allocation for the welfare of Scheduled Castes has been stepped up from ₹38,833 crore in 2016-17 to ₹52,393 crore in 2017-18, representing an increase of about 35%.

The allocation for Scheduled Tribes has also been increased to ₹31,920 crore and for Minority Affairs to ₹4,195 crore.

Meanwhile, an analysis of the budget allocation and spending reveals a different picture.

While the original budget allocation of scheduled castes in 2014-15 had been 2.82%, the actual expenditure was 1.81%.

In 2015-16, the actual expenditure on scheduled castes was 1.71% as against 1.74% of original allocation.

And in 2016-17, the actual expenditure was 1.74% as against 1.96% allocation.

Similarly, in the case of scheduled tribes, the original allocation in 2014-15 had been 1.8% and the actual expenditure was 1.2%.

In 2016-17, the original allocation was 1.96% and the actual expenditure was 1.74%.

And we can also see that in the 2018-19 Budget, while there has been an increase of 10.1% in the total expenditure from 2017-19, the increase in expenditure on Dalits and tribes have been 7.45%, which shows their reduced share in the total budget estimate.

In fact, the percentage of allocation for Scheduled Castes has reduced from 2.82% in 2014-15 to 2.32% in 2018-19. In the case of Scheduled Tribes, there has been a decline from 1.8% in 2014-15 to 1.6% in 2018-19.

Starvation Deaths

Meanwhile, Ajay Kumar, Director of Rights, an NGO working for the welfare of tribal children said that deaths are due to starvation.

“Government may use different wordings in their reports. But myself, being a worker for the welfare of tribals for decades, studying their issues and understanding their woes and realities, I don’t have a second thought to say that deaths are due to starvation and malnutrition,” Ajay said.

“Deaths in tribal areas are due to protein deficiency. Protein cannot be injected. It should be in form of food. Unfortunately, as these people are alienated from their land due to various ‘positive’ reforms and they have become daily wagers. Now, they have come to a situation that they have beg for daily food,” Ajay said adding that majority of the pregnant women are anaemic.

Despite India’s impressive economic growth over the past decade, India remains a nutritional weakling.

According to the National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS 4), 38.4% of children in India are stunted and 21% wasted.

And India remains one of the highest-ranking countries in the world in terms of the number of children suffering from malnutrition.

Ajay states too that even after spending crores and crores, lack of access to healthcare is a still a grave issue. “In June 2018, a 35-year-old tribal man in Attappady, along with his relatives, had to carry his pregnant wife on his shoulder for eight km to reach a place from where he could get a vehicle. The woman – who was experiencing labour pains – was carried in a sheet tied to a long bamboo stick. The lack of a tarred road and the alleged delay in the arrival of an ambulance from the hospital forced Panali and his family to take this extreme measure,” Ajay said.

The lady from Attapady who was carried on a cloth tied to a bamboo stick for delivery due to lack of transport
The lady from Attapady who was carried on a cloth tied to a bamboo stick for delivery due to lack of transport

“In the above said area, around Rs 9.78 crore was allotted by the Central government in 2013 for the construction of motorable roads. However, the work has not yet begun. When child mortality rates were going up due to such incidents in 2013, the then central minister Jairam Ramesh visited the area and allotted money. But it has not been used,” Ajay alleged.

According to an IndiaSpend report, Attapady is like an island of backwardness in a state known for its progressive social and development indicators.

Kerala’s human development index (0.79) is the highest in India. It tops the female literacy graph in India (91.98%) and has the highest life expectancy in the country too (74.9 years; 72 for men and 77.8 for women). It is the only state with a sex ratio that favours women (1,084 women for every 1,000 men).

However, in Attapady, tribals cannot access the public systems that make these figures possible because of ineffective state interventions.

“The living conditions of Kerala’s tribals are on par with those in backward states such as Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand, according to Census 2011,” the report published in 2017 adds.

Citing the report, Ajay said that nothing much has changed and nothing much is going to change until the government avoids the typical bureaucratic way of development, sees and understands the human life and plan accordingly.

“Deaths have become a statistic for their reports. That’s it…they believe in supplying rice soup and moong dal daily and feel that their responsibility is over in avoiding starvation. They feel that rice soup has protein,” Ajay added.