A veteran journalist who enjoys looking at the quirky side of life

R K Nair

Primitive blame game

| Updated on July 23, 2013

The latest controversy gives rise to a nagging suspicion: Were the utterances of the Kerala Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleague aimed at deflecting attention from the raging solar scam?

Child deaths in Attapadi tribal hamlets in Palakkad district of Kerala are in the news again. As many as 54 tribal children have died of malnutrition there in the last one-and-half years.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has told an English newsmagazine recently that children were dying there, not because there was shortage of food but because the tribal people were not eating properly. As the statement kicked up a controversy, State Rural Development Minister K.C. Joseph added fuel to the fire yesterday by blaming alcoholism among the tribal population for the deaths.

"We should not overlook alcoholism," he told the media yesterday. "Even pregnant women consume arrack, which is causing serious health problems, even to the foetus."

It would appear from these statements that the hapless tribal communities in Attapadi have only themselves to blame for their plight. But, facts speak otherwise. According to news reports, tribal families in Attapadi have received only 17 kg of rice in the last four months, against the 35 kg mandated every month. So the Chief Minister could be partly correct: They were not eating properly. Because there was not enough to eat!

According to reports, despite the high-profile visits of Union ministers and the Prime Minister's special envoy, the State has not initiated any rehabilitation programmes for pregnant women in Attapadi hamlets. Under the integrated child development scheme (ICDS), tribal children are to be given a glass of milk and an egg every day through anganwadis. Many ICDS centres are not doing so.

An attempt was made to supply ragi, the traditional staple diet of the Attapadi tribal population, instead of rice through the public distribution system there. That has not succeeded as people do not have access to mills that would process raw ragi to flour.

As in many other parts of the country, alienation of tribal lands from the indigenous population in Attapadi has left them vulnerable to exploitation and dependent on erratic government largesse. During the 50-year period from 1951 to 2001, the percentage of tribal population in Attapadi decreased from over 90 per cent to 41 per cent. The non-tribal population, on the other hand, increased from less than 10 per cent to 59 per cent during the same period. The tribes lost over 10,000 acres of farmland to settlers from outside.

A few years ago, the government set up an agency called Attapadi Hill Area Development Authority with Rs 219-crore aid from Japan. The lofty objective was to restore the degraded environment of Attapadi. But the agency soon turned into a construction company, indiscriminately mining sand from rivers and creating illegal quarries in core forest areas.

Rajendra Prasad, President of Tampu, an NGO working for the welfare of tribal people, was quoted as saying in local media: "Instead of restoring the denuded eco-system, the project turned tribal people away from self-sustained employment and their own food security net. The project was launched with the promise of better livelihood options for the tribal population of Attapadi. But their condition has turned from bad to worse."

It is indeed a shame that a so-called progressive State such as Kerala cannot take proper care of its miniscule tribal population.

The latest controversy gives rise to a nagging suspicion: Were the utterances of the Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleague aimed at deflecting attention from the raging solar scam?

Published on July 23, 2013

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