Tribal people live in an enclosed society of their own. When we walked into the lanes of Sirgudhadi, their hamlet, most of them were reluctant to talk. They rushed into their huts after seeing us. But a little girl caught my admiration as she stood outside her house boldly, looking at us, until she was grabbed by her aunt (Geeta) and taken inside the house.
This undernourished three-year-old girl, Sridevi, was standing all by herself, looking puzzled at strangers. Her mother, Puttamma, had rushed in with others, while her father, Suresh, was away at work. She has a five-month-old brother, who was not yet named. We named him Samudra. Both of them were born in Vivekanand Hospital, which is 30 kilometres from their hamlet. There is no health care facility nearby, except the Primary Health Centre (PHC).
When we visited the village Aanganwadi, the data illustrated a different picture. Almost all children born in the village weighed 2.5 kilogram at birth. The Aanganwadi worker, who maintained the health records of children, had listed 2.5 kilogram as the weight of every child in the village supposedly based on the knowledge that 2.5 kilogram is the average weight. She did not know how to maintain the daily health chart though, as it was revealed that 47 out of 48 children were malnourished.
The reasons behind starvation among children from 0-5 years could be many. Sridevi lives in a small house with 17 members. The improper sanitation can result into health issues among children such as tape worms and protein energy malnutrition which are quite common.
None of the family members including her parents knows his/her age. The nearest school to their haadi (hamlet) provides education till 7th grade. Usually after they complete their 7th grade, the girls stay back at home, while the boys go with their fathers to Coorg coffee plantations to work. Early marriage is quite prevalent in this region, and subsequent early motherhood is one of the explanations for malnutrition.
The only positive sign was the awareness among tribal people on family planning. Puttamma’s eldest sister has been sterilised after giving birth to two daughters and a son, whereas Puttamma whose child is five months old is awaiting sterilisation after her lactating period. But Putamma’s other sister, Jyoti, wants a son after two daughters.
The issue of malnutrition continues to plague the village despite sound family planning measures.
Another issue the tribals in the village face is livelihood. They depend on forest resources, access to which has diminished gradually, as the forest department has become strict in the last few decades.
Earlier, the tribal people could access forest produce more easily as they had certain rights given by the government. But after the trenches and wiring were laid down with stricter laws, they needed permission from forest officials. These forest officials are selective in allowing people into the forests.
Owing to the strict rules of the forest department, tribal women are losing interest in traditional forest food like tapioca, sweet potato, goose berries and sopu leaves which were their main sources of nutrition. They have depended on food from the public distribution system (PDS) over the years.
In Sreedevi’s house, out of four families only two families have ration cards. The other two families had gone to Coorg on work when the government was issuing them. This means the entire family is forced to share food from only two cards, totalling 60 kilograms of rice per month.
A fancy colour television set in their crammed hut is perhaps a compensation for their displacement from the jungle. The children who would have otherwise looked around forests for gooseberries and fruits and learnt the language of animals are now huddled together in front of a 14-inch screen watching the “civilised” urban, concrete jungle.