Recent months have seen a huge noise being made over the abysmal human development situation in Attapady. Attapady is a block lying on the Kerala—Tamil Nadu border, a predominantly tribal belt. The cases of infant deaths and chronic malnourishment have anguished many an analyst, as the social development miracle state of Kerala is embarrassed over the situation in its own backyard.
Nearly a decade ago, I spent close to two months in a village in Attapady. Reviewing my notes from back then, I find a host of factors that were at play at the local level that have systematically marginalised the tribal population in the block. Attapady saw massive displacement of tribal groups by the more affluent settlers who migrated into the region—a conflict which lies at the core of the chronic poverty and malnutrition in the region today. The influx of settlers into Attapady started the process of social exclusion of the tribal groups, who in spite of being the original claimants to the lands in the region became dependent on the land belonging to the settlers. They then worked as agricultural labour on the land which once belonged to them. From there, also started the process of their marginalisation and exclusion from all developmental initiatives that were carried out in the block. The settlers exploited the forests, deforesting Attapady beyond recognition and snatched away the forest based livelihoods of the tribal groups, the original inhabitants.
A major barrier to development in Attapady is the poverty resulting from severe depletion of natural resources. This misery of poverty also led the tribes to adopt and perpetuate unsustainable practices in agriculture and be party to the illicit liquor businesses, destroying huge tracts of forestland. Attapady has long suffered from such short-sighted extraction by its own inhabitants. This has continued as experts and policymakers argue about massive state failure and the design of large development projects funded for the block. In this column, I highlight factors on the ground that has contributed to the problems that Attapady faces today.
First, government interventions in Attapady oscillated between eco-restoration and social interventions. Most of the eco-restoration work engaged members from the tribal communities as wage labour, giving them little or no encouragement to think in terms of long-term stakes in their common property resources. Some of the social interventions too suffered from confused implementation strategies. For instance, women’s groups were encouraged to stand up against the illicit liquor business in the villages. However, settlers who owned the local breweries usually employed tribal men as wage labourers. At the end of the day’s work, these labourers are paid partly in kind (liquor) and partly in cash. Thus organised tribal women’s groups that agitated against rampant alcoholism among tribal men created significant friction within the tribal community, in addition to threatening their own household income sources.
Second, government interventions in Attapady did not succeed in ensuring that the benefits were spread equitably. Observational studies at multiple field sites showed that participation of tribal communities remained limited. The social power relations where the settlers had systematically marginalised tribal groups were not challenged strongly enough. As a result, the existing power structures co-opted the community-based organizations promoted by external agencies and continued to dominate those that remained excluded from key decision-making processes when planning and implementing these programmes.
Third, tribal groups were under-represented in local politics. Being small in number and having limited political awareness, tribal groups were ignored by political parties in Kerala. Also, tribal groups lacked the local leadership that could have represented their causes to the government. While we were out in the field, we saw for ourselves, the old guard collapsing with no significant emergent leadership.
At the end of the day, malnutrition and infant deaths are manifestations of a vicious cycle of poverty. While Attapady has been the beneficiary of substantial government assistance over the years, weak implementation on the ground has meant that resources were largely squandered by successive schemes. As the government scrambles to meet the immediate emergency, one must focus on the systematic processes of social exclusion that has consigned poor tribal communities to a state of chronic poverty.
This is my latest livemint article