By Lata Jha:
In 2010, a 65 year old woman named Ponni had visited the Gandhi family in Delhi. The concerned and compassionate young scion of the family had then advised her to stop consuming tobacco. Health advice, however was not what Ponni was there for. She had been chosen by Congress’ state leaders in Kerala to speak to the High Command of how tribals were being discriminated against by the Left regime in the state. Ponni was one of the many women whose land had been encroached upon, through forged documents. After visiting the local police station for months and despite assurances that she would be paid remuneration for the electricity generated from the windmill project on her land, she hung herself from a tree outside the police station.
Ponni’s village, Attappady, was lost in miserable obscurity among India’s tribal zones till the land scam happened. It later grabbed headlines for Maoists having been spotted in the area and also for a number of children dying of malnutrition there, 44 kids in 16 months.
People believe that a lot of problems in Attappady are rooted in the way women struggle to survive against odds. It is a world without men. Most of whom are victims of alcoholism and other diseases like tuberculosis and cancer. There are 182 tribal settlements in Attappady and most of them have a shocking number of widows. There are four or five settlements with no men at all.
Ironically, Attappady is the only region in Kerala where there is a complete ban on liquor. It is an informal one, imposed by the state government in April 1995, a year before the then Chief Minister AK Antony banned arrack in the state. Besides arrack, all other forms of liquor were also prohibited in the area. Since then, virtually every tribal settlement there has turned into an illicit liquor centre.
Things have come to a point where men in Attappady have no significant presence or participation in local life any longer. Women have to do everything, either as widows or wives of men who do nothing but drink liquor all day. Even pregnant women are forced to support themselves and their families. They often have to work long hours without proper nutrition. In such grim circumstances, it is no surprise that a lot of children are malnourished.
Unfortunately, the socio-economic problems of Attappady have received no attention from the state yet. Nor has the fact of tribals losing their rights been taken seriously. It is not a case of missing men, or malnourished children. This is an entire region languishing in misery and failing to rise above its problems. It is a blatant manifestation of the down, the under, the deprived and therefore, the ignored.