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Kerala moves swiftly to treat Attapady’s tribes

K Rajendran
30th Aug 2018
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The lynching of a mentally ill tribal youth has spurred Kerala to create jobs for tribes living in the progressive state, besides surveying them to identify the mentally ill, treat them and rehabilitate them

Tribal people in Kerala’s Attapady administrative block suffer from mental illness. Image Credit: K. Rajendran

Six months ago, had anyone reached Agali, the capital of hilly Attapady, she would have come across an unkempt young tribal man, wandering around with snorts, seeking alms. Attapady is the only tribal administrative block in Kerala.

Till six months ago, the public would have shown apathy towards the unkempt 30-year-old man, if not contempt. All that changed when Madhu, the young man of unsound mind, was lynched by an irritated mob for allegedly stealing eatables from a shop.

For the first time, the state of Kerala, known to be progressive with incredible human development index (HDI) numbers had witnessed a racial lynching. It was later learnt that Madhu had not stolen out of hunger, but because he was of unsound mind.

The shocking photograph of Madhu, clicked and spread through social media by one of the accused just before the lynching, triggered shockwaves across the state. Keralites asked themselves in disbelief if it was really happening in their state that had the epithet ‘God’s own country’.

Six months later, the unkempt tribal man is conspicuous by his absence. Now no one shows apathy towards the mentally ill. For the Indian state with the highest literacy has just woken up to the status of mental health, especially among the tribal people, hitherto unattended.

While issues such as poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, and exploitation of the tribes were discussed, mental health was not.

Lack of mental healthcare

Madhu’s house at Kadukumanna indicated that he did not steal because of hunger. There was no glimpse of poverty. His family owns one acre of land. His mother and sister have been working in Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres.

The family gets its public distribution system entitlement of 35 kg rice, free of cost. With another of Madhu’s sisters working as a police constable and a brother-in-law as a clerk in a government department, the family did not lack in resources.

According to Madhu’s sister Chandrika, he had been suffering from mental illness for nine years.

“He led an isolated life, often sleeping in caves deep inside the forest,” she told VillageSquare.in. “Our frequent attempts to bring him back were futile.”

Statistics tell a tale

The unfortunate incident triggered action. The Kerala Health Department and Social Justice Department jointly conducted a detailed survey by visiting all the 302 tribal hamlets in Attapady in Palakkad district. They found that 363 persons suffered from mental illness.

Of the 363 diagnosed, 188 were women and 175 were men. Seven were below 19 years old. Attapady has three tribes, namely, Irula, Kurumba and Muthuka. Of the diagnosed, 301 belonged to the Irula tribe, 30 were Kurumbas and 32 were Muthukas.

The total tribal population in Attapady is 33,000 and about one percent of this population suffers from mental illness, according to latest statistics. But experts opine that this one percent is enough to derail the livelihood of a sensitive downtrodden tribal society.

Reasons galore

Chirutha is one of the 363 who have been identified as suffering from mental illness. Steeped in poverty right from childhood, Chirutha’s life worsened due to her father’s addiction to country liquor. “I was a mute spectator when he became penniless and took his own life,” Chirutha told VillageSquare.in.

As the incident hounded her, there was no one to provide her counselling. To add to her woes, her husband, an alcoholic, abandoned her after a year of marriage.

Their inability to make a living after being pushed to the fringes from their fertile lands has affected the mental health of some tribes. Image Credit: K. Rajendran
“Tribal communities are very sensitive and as many of them are incapable of bearing the present day stress and strain, they are driven to depression, alcoholism and suicide,” Seema Baskar who headed the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) at Attapady and initiated formation of 120 tribal women self-help groups told VillageSquare.in.

An eye-opener

The incident involving Madhu was an eye-opener to the society and the government. Besides lack of development, discrimination and alienation of the tribes, the mental health issue among them is being addressed.

“Though a similar percentage of mentally ill people may be there among non-tribal communities too, they are not marginalised and they have access to mental health treatment,” Dr Prabhu Das, deputy district medical officer in-charge of health services in Attapady told VillageSquare.in. “In fact, the tribal people’s situation is totally different as most of them do not get proper mental health care.”

The survey that the government did also revealed that out of 363 only 10 were suffering from severe mental illness. Most of them could be made to join the mainstream if proper treatment was ensured. “We are trying to help them get treated,” Unni, a social activist at Agali, told VillageSquare.in.

Bringing back from the fringes

Murugan, a 56-year-old tribe lives in Puthur. Influential non-tribes acquired lands and pushed the tribes from their fertile land to the fringes. In 1951, 90% of the Attapady population was tribes. But according to the 2011 census, the tribal population had dwindled to 34 percent.

Murugan tried to earn from the barren land in the fringes, but failed. He fell deep into the debt trap. The moneylenders seized his property and the house.

Unable to bear the turn of events, his wife took her own life. Two sons ran away, and Murugan became mentally ill.

Dhanya Raman, a tribal activist blames the society and the government for the present state of affairs. However, AK Balan, the SC-ST welfare minister refutes the charges against the government. “In the last two years, the present government has done a lot for the tribes,” he told VillageSquare.in.

After the lynching incident, the Kerala government has taken many steps to uplift the marginalised tribal communities. On April 5, this year, the government issued an order for special recruitment of 100 tribal youth in police and excise departments. Of the 100, twenty are from Attapady block. Chandrika, Madhu’s sister is one of them.

Treatment and rehabilitation

Psychiatric treatment is available at the Government Tribal Speciality Hospital, Kottathara (GTSH) in Attapady. According to Dr Hareesh, psychiatrist at GTSH, mental illness, like cancer, has to be diagnosed early. Now that Chirutha has been diagnosed, she is getting treatment at GTSH.

“Most of them suffer from bipolar disorder,” Dr Hareesh told VillageSquare.in. “Due to lack of facilities, after initial treatment, we are sending them back home.” But many families do not care for them when they get back home or abandon them.

Realising the need for rehabilitation after treatment, the government plans to open a rehabilitation centre at Kavudikkal near Agali for tribal people.

“It will be inaugurated soon,” said Dr Prabhu Das. “Apart from providing food, shelter and mental healthcare, they will be involved in day-to-day activities.” This is the first such rehabilitation centre in Kerala, being opened for the tribal people, bringing hope.

Disclaimer: This article was first published in VillageSquare.in. The views expressed by the author are his/her own and do not necessarily reflect that of YourStory

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