30 infants die in five months as result of malnutrition; rural development minister announces Rs 125 crore package
Attappady, the only tribal block panchayat in Kerala, hit the headlines following a series of infant deaths caused by malnutrition. According to the latest figures available with the Integrated Tribal Development Project office at Agali, the headquarters of the block, 30 infants have died this year till May 31, while data shows that 52 have died over the past 18 months.
Attappady is a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in the Western Ghats region of Palakkad district. In 1975, the state planning board assessed Attappady as the most backward block in Kerala and the next year the Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) was launched here—the first in the state. Since then a number of projects have been implemented in Attappady in the name of tribal development. But the lives of the tribes in this large block, spread over 745 sq km, remains a synonym for poverty and social backwardness.
Malnutrition and anaemia
Malnutrition and anaemia are prevalent among the tribals in Attappady. “Almost all tribal women, including adolescent girls, are anaemic, and it’s acute among the pregnant and lactating mothers,” says Prabhudas, a committed government doctor, who has served in Attappady for about 20 years. He had been transferred out of Attappady two years ago, but after the infant deaths, he has been appointed as the district nodal officer to coordinate health services for adivasis.
While it is dangerous for a pregnant woman to have a haemoglobin count below 10 gram, most pregnant adivasi women in Attappady have counts of seven or eight, points out Prabhudas, and it even goes down to five or six. According to him, the tribals suffer from calorie as well as protein deficiency. There are at present 536 pregnant Adivasi women in Attappady, and 90 per cent of them are anaemic and are facing serious health problems.
After many infant deaths were reported, the state health department conducted a mega health survey in April this year, screening 23,597 persons in Attappady. A total of 536 cases of malnutrition and anaemia were identified—of them 69 were severely malnourished while 463 were anemic. These 536 include children below six years, pregnant women, lactating mothers and adolescent girls. A mega medical camp found 536 of the 836 people from adivasis who participated in the camp suffered from malnutrition and anaemia—125 of them were children below five years.
The report of the six-member medical team led by Ekbal observes eclampsia (high blood pressure and seizures) is common among tribal women of Attappady in the third trimester of pregnancy. One of the major reasons for high blood pressure during pregnancy is lack of nutritious food, says Ekbal. This leads to growth retardation of babies before birth (intra uterine growth retardation).
Poor health risk management
The death toll of infants would not have been this high had the health centres worked efficiently, points out A Laxmiah, public health nutrition specialist with the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition, who led an experts’ team that conducted a nutrition survey in Attappady’s adivasi settlements in May. “Undernourishment is there but more than that the risk management by healthcare centre was very poor,” says he.
In Attappady, there are 36 healthcare centres—one tribal speciality hospital, one community centre, three primary health centres, 28 sub centres and three mobile medical units, all managed by the state health department. Besides, there are two outpatient clinics (OP) under the ITDP and 85 Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) under the National Rural Health Mission.
“But none of the healthcare facilities were working effectively and efficiently for the past two years,” points out P V Radhakrishnan, the ITDP project officer who took charge in March this year. It was he who first confirmed deaths due to malnutrition in a report sent on April 4 to the state tribal development department. The state government was literally caught in a bind when the media continuously highlighted the ITDP officer’s report.
Radhakrishnan’s report had clearly pointed out that the functioning of the health care centres and anganwadis in the block was not satisfactory. It had also pointed out that there was no coordination among ITDP, health, social justice, local administration, agriculture and forest departments in Attappady. The report had sought immediate intervention.
“But even after that, the state government did not take any preventive measures to control deaths by giving special attention to pregnant mothers and infants,” says Rajendra Prasad. Fifteen more babies died—six in April and nine in May.
Tribal activists are extremely bitter about the whole episode. A health convention organised by the tribal organisations in December last year had highlighted the dismal health scenario in Attappady. “We had given submissions to chief minister and ministers of health, social justice and tribal development departments and had requested urgent actions,” says K Kaali, from Naickerpady settlement, an activist of Thayikula Sangham, a group formed by tribal women in Attappady to fight against spreading alcoholism. “But only when the national attention turned to Attappady did the state government take infant deaths seriously,” says B Udayakumar, an activist with Thampu. They are more disgusted to see the flow of ministers, officials and politicians and media persons after the deaths. “Now women have to remain in oorus and are unable to go for wage work. They stay back to narrate their stories to the visitors,” says Kaali.
Packages and promises
The state government has started a 11-bed nutritional rehabilitation centre in Attappady apart from a series of other actions. It distributed free rice and announced four months free ration of 10 kg ragi and 2 kg green gram. It has also filled up the vacant posts in the health centres and anganwadis. Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh has announced a Rs 125 crore package. A special task force to implement the package has also been constituted.
Part of the package includes government help for adivasis to develop vegetable cultivation and grow traditional food crops in Attappady. “But where is the land for that?” asks Kaali. “The state government does not address the basic issues of our land alienation which is the root cause of our poverty, malnourishment all major issues we face now,” she says.
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