First, a declaration: I would like to tag Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in this story. The Gandhis may or may not understand what it means to be from Attappady, a desperately poor Tribal settlement near Kerala’s southern border, but they did know one woman there. Her name was Ponni. Her exact age was uncertain but assumed to be around 65. She belonged to Varakampadi in Sholayur Panchayat. In 2010, on a visit to Delhi, Rahul Gandhi had advised her not to consume tobacco. The Congress leader even had a team of doctors visit her after she returned home.
Health advice or help, however, was not why Ponni had visited the capital, nor was it her own initiative. She had been chosen by Kerala’s Congress leaders for the trip, the purpose of which was to have the High Command hear how Tribals were being discriminated against under the Left regime in the state (at the time), and she was accompanied by such Congressmen as Kerala’s current home minister, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan. What Ponni wanted of Rahul Gandhi was help in getting her land back. She was one among many whose land had been encroached upon by a windmill project. It was a scandal that involved the use of forged documents, as the chief secretary at the time stated in a report once the issue hit the Legislative Assembly. The report named Ponni as one of those who had been cheated.
Ponni, who lost her husband 20 years ago, lived alone. Her only son works in Tamil Nadu somewhere near its border with Kerala. She was led to believe she would get remuneration for the electricity being generated by the windmill on her property. That was an assurance that Rahul and Sonia gave her, say her neighbours, a claim that cannot be verified. But Ponni used to visit the local police station and village office for follow-up information on that promise. On 1 February, Ponni committed suicide by hanging herself on a tree near that police station.
Like all tribal zones, Attappady is an alien place to most of India, a place that usually spells ‘bad news’. After the 2010 land scam, it hit headlines last year for suspected Maoists spotted in the area’s forests. In the past few weeks, it has grabbed TV airwaves once again, this time for a series of malnutrition deaths of children—44 dead in 16 months—described as a “silent genocide” by Dr B Ekbal, a neurologist and public health activist who headed a team of doctors to study the crisis.
The media, politicians and doctors all make their way into the region whenever such issues crop up, but Attappady’s residents know that their attention is short-lived. “They will get onto other issues soon,” says Kali, one of the leaders of Thai Kula Sangham, an organisation of Tribal women that was formed in 2001 to fight atrocities on women. In the beginning, the Sangham focused on busting marijuana cultivation rackets and illicit liquor distilleries. “If you want to see the root of the problem,” says Bhagavati, a founder member, “you should see how the women in Attappady struggle to survive.”
In the villages and hamlets of Attappady, what you find missing are men. I meet Rangamma at Pottikkal Colony in Puthur Panchayat. She doesn’t know her age but looks around 70 and has been working as a helper in a local anganwadi set-up for 30 years. She is a widow. She lost her husband so long ago that she has forgotten when. She had two sons, both of whom died a few years ago, leaving her to take care of five grandchildren. Rangamma’s husband, who was addicted to liquor, had had a fight at a hooch distillery and his body was found in the river nearby the next day. Suicide, murder or accident—she has no idea what it was. Her elder son, she says, died of stomach pain. “It was cancer,” interjects TN Thresya, an anganwadi teacher whose son’s wife succumbed to fever a couple of years ago. Rangamma says her younger son also died of stomach pain. “He had TB,” says Threysa, “Both of them were addicted to hooch.” Before I can ask Rangamma how she managed to bring up five grandchildren alone, Thresya reads the question on my face. “These people get everything from the government,” she says, “They have nothing to worry about.” I sense that Rangamma wants to say something else. Without looking at us, she murmurs, “It is not like that. I struggled a lot.”
Rangamma’s 15-year-granddaughter Poornima is in Attapaddy on vacation from her tribal residential school at Kochi. She takes me to other houses in the neighbourhood, where I met Santha, Rangi, Chelli, Laxmi and Maruthi, all of them widows.
Santha was the youngest, at 36. Her husband died 11 years ago, a victim of alcoholism and tuberculosis. Fifty-year-old Maruthi’s husband died at the age of 45, a death she attributes to marijuana addiction. She has two sons and one daughter to look after. Rangi and Chelli have similar stories.
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. Even the few men you see in those areas are youths from elsewhere who married local girls,” says M Sukumaran, convener of the Adivasi Samrakshana Samithi, an organisation that fights for the land rights of Tribals. More than half of the hollow brick houses built by the Attappady Hills Area Development Society (AHADS)—a Kerala government initiative with financial aid from Japan—are locked when I reach Kakkuppady, a hamlet known locally as a settlement of widows. Most of the women are out on work.
I meet Mallika, a 60-year-old widow with three daughters. She also had a son, but he succumbed to tuberculosis last year. Mallika’s husband, a forest guard who used to drink heavily, had drowned in the river several years ago. “Death by drowning is common in Attappady,” says PV Radhakrishnan, a local resident who is also project officer of Integrated Tribal Development Project, “In most cases, the men are heavily drunk when they fall into the water while crossing the river. We have not taken the exact data of widows. But undoubtedly, the number of women heading families is extraordinarily high here. I know of hamlets that have only females.”
Mallika’s neighbour Rangi (not the one mentioned earlier) is also a widow. Her husband had died 20 years ago. It’s the same story—addicted to liquor, he had stomach pain and passed away. “There are 30-35 families in this settlement. Almost all the women are widows,” says Kali.
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—such as toddy—were also prohibited in the area.
“It was one of the [state’s] biggest blunders,” says Sukumaran, “Since the ban, every Tribal settlement has turned into an illicit liquor centre.”
Local hooch distillers have been using hazardous inputs like used batteries to increase the potency of their output. As a result, consumption of liquor has shot up in these parts. The Adivasi Samrakshana Samithi once staged a protest by tapping toddy and demanding that safe liquor be made available. ‘Safe liquor’ is not a contradiction in terms around here, and the women do not see liquor in itself as dangerous. It is some forms of illicit hooch that are, they believe. When I ask Kali whether the ban on liquor was foolish, she does not even acknowledge the existence of any such order. “How can we say that liquor is banned when it is available aplenty in each and every hamlet?” she asks. If local hooch were not available, she argues, Attappady’s men would simply cross the border to Tamil Nadu for legal liquor.
No official data on the number of widows in the area is available, but Thaikula Sangham has some idea. Kookkappalayam in Agali Panchayat has 40 families, but less than ten have any men. Veettiyur in Puthur Panchayat perpahps has the largest population of widows. It has men in only four or five families. Palakayoor, in the same panchayat, has 30 families and “only four men as far as I know” in Radhakrishnan’s words.
Changes in agricultural patterns and land usage can be held partly responsible for the crisis. “In our visit, we could see pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers seriously affected by anaemia and malnutrition. Premature births and habitual abortions are common among women,” says Dr Ekbal.
When the AHADS project was underway, it had employed as many as 360 forest watchers to check hooch distilling and marijuana cultivation. But AHADS has completed its tenure and its monitoring system is no longer in place. “I am scared that there will be a large-scale hooch tragedy in Attappady at any time,” says Dr Ekbal.
According to PE Usha, a former deputy director of AHADS who has worked among the area’s Tribals for 20 years, men in Attapady have no significant presence or participation in local life any longer. “Women have to do everything, working for the whole family,” she says, “Either they become widows at a very young age or live with men who do nothing but drink liquor from morning to evening.” Even pregnant women are forced to work hard to support themselves and their families. They often have to work long hours without adequate nutrition. In such grim circumstances, many children are underfed. Malnutrition deaths make news, but are no surprise.
I meet another woman by the name of Ponni. She lost her husband when she was 26 years old. He was an alcoholic, she says, but gave her some support in rearing their three children. After his death, Ponni has tried all sorts of jobs to gain a livelihood, ranging from working on marijuana farms to being a domestic help. A few years ago, she was booked by the cops for distilling liquor. “It was a false case,” she says, “I did nothing wrong. My son had a fight with a private financier and all of us were picked up by the police. They made false charges against me.”
All the same, Ponni languished in jail for two years because there was nobody to pay her bail. Life inside prison, however, was not as bad as that outside. “I was happy there,” she says, “The food was good, I had good friends too.”
On her return from jail, Ponni, like most other women here, began working in the agriculture fields of new settlers. “I am alright. I work hard. My daughter is married and my two sons have started working. My only concern is of their being addicted to liquor. So far, both of them are moderate drinkers.”
Being a widow does not always mean hardship. Many women find better lives for themselves. Except a few, almost all the widows I meet say their husbands’ deaths relieved them of the domestic violence they had to suffer. On the flip side, they are now vulnerable to the violence of other men—and have no menfolk of their own to shield them.
So far, the widows of Attappady have escaped the attention of the State. It is a sign of the neglect they face that no proper study has yet been done on the early deaths of males in the area. Nor has the fact of Tribals being overrun by settlers been taken seriously enough. By the count of India’s 1951 census, Tribals accounted for 90.2 per cent of the region’s population, and settlers 9.7 per cent. The 2001 census, however, found that Tribals were only 41 per cent of the total, with settlers more than half the population, at 51 per cent.
It is not just a case of missing men. It is Tribals at large who are at threat.