Far far beyond the sight of our honourable bureaucrats and politicians; lies a place where humans with limbs and hearts like me and you are left to survive and rot.
In 2016, an Odisha TV (also known as O TV) video of an Adivasi carrying the dead body of his beloved wife from Bhawanipatna Government Hospital to his village, Melghara, which was 50 kilometres away, shocked the conscience of the people. Usually, there are a number of SUVs draped as ambulances and mortuary vans around the Bhawanipatna Government Hospital. But along with the luxury, comes an exorbitant price which is beyond the capacity of people like Dana Majhi to afford.
Kalahandi is a district that is an epicenter of poverty, hunger, starvation deaths and numerous diseases that come with poverty. Last month, I had the privilege to visit Thuamul Rampur Block in Kalahandi, the block which witnessed the highest number of deaths due to tuberculosis, malnutrition and other diseases that are more prevalent in the lower-income population.
Semikhaal is a village in Silet Gram Panchayat. To reach the village, you have to endure the high terrains and cross two streams. There is no mode of transportation. So, either you take the risk of going on a bike or a 4×4 drive like Thar.
It’s a 45-minutes journey from the nearest health centre which is run by an NGO called Swasthya Swaraj, which has been working in Thuamul Rampur block for the last 5 years in association with Tata Trusts. The village is populated with Adivasis from Kutia Kondh community.
Unlike other Adivasis where the socio-cultural role of women is more than men, Kutia Kondh tribe is patrilineal or patriarchal in nature.
The journey starts with meeting Sarada, a mother of five kids, the youngest being seven months old. The baby looked underweight. On asking the reason why the baby looked malnourished, she said, “We hardly have any food to eat. There was a time when we were even denied PDS as our ration card was revoked.”
In the little hamlets, the families depend on subsistence farming for their food. In order to earn money, they depend on working as daily wage labourers.
On your way, you will find number of women and adolescent girls working as labourers at very low rates constructing roads. But one reality in every household is that when the food is prepared, the men and the male children are fed first. The daughters and the mother eat the leftovers – which means less intake of food by the female members of the household. One of the adversity is that due to low intake of proteins, the mammary glands hardly produce any milk leaving the babies malnourished.
As we proceed inside Semikhaal, we realize that every house has at least one child who is suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM). We met Suboti, a mother who delivered seven kids out of which six are alive. Her 3-month-old baby looked so weak that I remember being numb. The age difference between her children was less than a year. When the gap between babies is less than 18 months, problems such as pre-term birth and low birth weight develops.
The National Health Mission prescribes a three-year gap between children. When asked if the mother is considering to not procreate further; silence surrounded the premises and she meekly said, “My husband knows.” On asking a man who has four kids – three boys and a girl, he said, “I had a son who died couple of days after his birth. We want to have one more son and then we will stop”. When asked what if he had a daughter next time, he was in a fix.
The economics of a rural household is simple. They think that more children will result in more hands at work. More number of sons will be an asset as they will remain in the family and bring food to the family. More number of daughters is a liability as they have to be married off. So most couples go on procreating until they have four sons at least. Another dynamics that add to their family planning is that even if their babies are malnourished or they have a SAM child, they will hardly take them to the clinic. They think that it’s a waste of time, energy and money.
So, death of their babies is a brutal phenomenon they’ve befriended over the ravages of time. Therefore, another reason for giving birth to too many kids is that they know that by the time the kids grow up, some of them will die. The reason behind the kids’ deaths is mostly undernourishment and the root cause is the scarcity of the existing resources for consumption in a household. The bread earner is constant; with rise in the number of consumers, the share in the resources decreases for every member of the household.
Every village is filled with quacks and traditional healers called ‘guruguniyaaas’. They are entrusted the opportunity to loot people by their healing. Thus, in most cases, the villagers have no trust over the scientific healthcare. Despite having tuberculosis, villagers go to these guruguniyaas rather than the clinics. The guruguniyaas call the disease an evil possession and try to treat it with the help of their wizardry.
Even the delivery of babies is done at home. The lack of institutional delivery in these Adivasi hamlets has led to a high incidence of fetal and maternal morbidity and mortality. There was a case where the uterus of a woman slipped out of the vagina and was lying on the floor along with the baby. She was in shock; but this is not the only case, there have been several other cases of uterine prolapse.
In a conversation with Dr. Aquinas Edassery, the Executive Director of Swasthya Swaraj, she said, “Swasthya Swaraj conducts ANC-U5 (pregnant women & under-five children) clinics regularly once in 2-3 months in Semikhaal in the community building (VDC ghar). Our team consists of doctors, nurses, lab techs, etc. who reach out to the people in remote, hard to reach locations and there will be usually more than 100 under-five chidren and pregnant women from 6 villages around the vicinity. Last month when we went to the clinic we found the building is occupied – one non-tribal man from the neighbouring Kashipur Block was running a regular shop, staying there with family. The larger room, where we used to conduct training programs for adolescent girls, was occupied by a neighbouring tribal family.”
These cases of corruption may seem to be small, but they are of utmost importance when compared to the impact they have on the lives of tribal people. There are Anganwadi workers, ASHA workers and ANM workers allotted in the villagers (from other non-tribal villages) making occasional visits or nil (but there are hardly any). Even the officers in Block Development Office have really poor attendance as most of them take their posting as ‘punishment posting’ and voice their protest through absenteeism.
The schools have buildings (complete or incomplete) but they are operational only on events when uniforms are distributed on Saraswati Puja, Republic Day, Independence Day and Ganesh Puja. Rest of the working days are holidays for the teachers and headmasters. The peon along with teachers and headmaster siphon off the food materials meant for mid-day meal. So, you will hardly find any student from these tribal hamlets who can even do basic math or know alphabets.
There are numerous projects by the government of India and the government of Odisha for the development of KBK Plus regions, but most of them are just a farce. Roads are built, then they are broken. Then they are built again. And this goes on in a loop. Most of the sub-centres, primary health centres, and community health centres are adorned with locks on their main doors and you will rarely find a nurse attending. So, in this circus of development, somewhere deep inside, even an Adivasi does not know when this big world writes his/her obituary and leaves him/her to rot.
I distinctly remember Tilika, a woman in her early forties, saying, “They abuse him and he abuses us.” Being a woman at the receiving end of all abuses – the linear chain of exploitation continues. The distress call for me is that in our cities we have numerous dialogues on ‘gender parity’ and ‘equal rights for women’, there are many movements around feminism, but is there any movement where the voices of Adivasi women from a patriarchal tribal community like Kutia Kondh can co-exist with the urban and peri-urban narrative of ‘women empowerment’?