“Maybe we were happier back then. May be not. I am not sure. At least, we had unity amongst ourselves. We forged deep connections with each other. Your sorrows were mine, as were your joys. Now, we seldom see our neighbour. Everyone is caught up in this race for survival. And, the community has lost its pulse,” said Lakshmi with rueful countenance.
Later, as we spoke about minimum wage, we asked her how the tribes managed to earn a decent living. Apparently, under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, they were employed for 100 days in a year. However, the number of days have now been increased to 200. “Every family earns about Rs 229 per day. Most of the people get jobs through this scheme. And, this is applicable for both men and women. The nature of jobs include labour work, PWD, construction work and agriculture,” she added.
Apart from the tribes having to constantly bear the brunt of procedural rigmarole in rural bureaucracy, she asserted that the state of education in the tribal regions continued to deteriorate year after year. Children are born and raised in the hamlets. They speak in their native tongue. However, they are taught in Malayalam. As a result, they develop an inferiority complex of sorts and are termed backwards. In the past, many tribal students have refused to go back to schools after summer holidays simply because they feared that they would be treated differently. They shared little or no similarities with the rest of the class.
A 22-year-old girl sitting across the room murmured in disgust the state of Scheduled Tribe Hostels in Agali. Unlike what the Panchayat claimed, they were unhygienic and poorly maintained. Further research disclosed several disturbing incidents pertaining to government hostels in the area. A survey conducted by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties years ago declared that there were at least 800 unwed mothers in Attapadi. While most of the officials claimed that ‘illicit affairs’ in the tribal hamlets led to unplanned pregnancies, preliminary inquiries exposed a far more alarming trend.
In 2000, three teenagers who stayed in the Pre-Matric Tribal Hostel run by the Integrated Tribal Development Department (ITDP) went into labour while several were found to be in different stages of their pregnancy. Around the same time, another report stated that a 15-year-old girl residing in one of the hostels run by Attapadi Co-operative Farming Society (ACFS) gave birth to a child at the Chemmannur hamlet. Fearing for her life, her father wanted to take her away from the hostel. He was found dead under mysterious circumstances.
Sensing something amiss, the then Palakkad District Collector probed into the matter and discovered that minor girls were being sexually exploited by both ITDP officials and hostel employees. On further inquiry, it was revealed that girls were lured into prostitution by their hostel wardens who promised to get them clothes, books, pens or ice cream in return. They were then handed over to clients and sex racketeers in cinema halls and other public places. Those who became pregnant were considered ‘damaged goods’ and were no longer required to offer their services.
Owing to massive political pressure and strategic cover-up, the culprits walked scot free. Unfortunately, the deplorable conditions in the hostels went unaddressed till organisations and various human rights and activist groups intervened to demand stringent measures to be put in place ensuring the safety of the girls aside from providing counselling for distressed single mothers. In fact, in 2013, the health department sent a report to the Union Ministry of Health expressing their concern over the steep rise in the number of abortion cases in Attapadi. At least 10 cases were recorded amongst tribal women in 20 days.
Our time in Vittiyoor had now come to an end. And, we had to return to town since we had scheduled a meeting with the Moopan at 4.30 pm. As we stepped outside the office, everyone gathered around us to say their goodbyes. With promises of returning, we drove away from the hamlet, the women and the hills into the heart of a city that once embraced the true spirit of oneness. That feeling, however, no longer exists. The bonds have been untied and there lies a strong divide today between those who made this town their home and those who were abandoned by the system. As we crossed endless rows of arecanut trees and lush green fields that sunny afternoon, we could still hear them – the voices of the women ringing loud and clear in our ears; the voices of despair; the voices of dashed hopes all begging to be heard…
(to be continued…)
Project ‘Rest of My family‘ is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.
Through #RestofMyFamily, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….
Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502