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Tribals in the Brink of Extinction due to Malnutrition and Diseases

In Kumbaribill, a neglected village nestled near the Similipal wildlife sanctuary in Orissa's Mayurbhanj district, deaths due to malnutrition and diseases are// frequent.

"We are dying of government apathy," lamented a villager. "We are poor and helpless because we are locked inside the forests." If the administration and medical system don't start delivering, the tribals here may well be wiped out, according to Grassroots Features.

"Located inside the buffer zone of the wildlife sanctuary, the village has no roads," complained Kumara Singh, a local social activist. "During the rains, the village remains cut off from the outside world for over four months."

The village is so remote and backward that even when seriously ill, villagers prefer witchcraft as it takes them two days to reach the Jashipur hospital.

The main diet through the year is rice and salt with occasional intakes of leafy vegetables and seasonal mushrooms. To buy salt, the villagers have to walk 27 km to the Jashipur weekly market.

When Dasma Hembram, three, died of measles in June, it raised the hackles of a social worker in the district. With the local media's aid, he publicised the deaths of 13 children here between June and October.

An independent working group on protected areas, formed with NGO members and activists, found that the villagers suffered from several diseases. Malnutrition was rife among women and children and there was virtually no development.

The group also found that anganwadi (rural welfare) workers visit here only once or twice a year. The village has a school without teacher and a tube-well without water.

On discovering the lack of basic facilities and livelihood means, the group said: "The immunisation programmes are not being carried out by the anganwadi workers."

Admitting that some children have died, Mayurbhanj additional district medical officer N. Rout blam ed the loss on tribal habits.

"People go to work leaving infants in the custody of elder children," he said. "Sometimes domestic animals share the rice bowl kept for children. This spreads several infections."

Biswajit Mohanty of the Wildlife Society of Orissa, however, said the people were simply too poor to take care of their health.

Accusing the administration of failing to provide basic healthcare, he claimed that doctors never visit the health centre at Gudugudia Gram Panchayat headquarters.

Debabrata Swain, director of the Similipal Tiger Reserve, agreed. "Whatever little healthcare is possible from our funds we provide. But the Gudugudia health centre has been of no help to the people as doctors don't visit."

"The issue here, however, is not the failure of one health centre alone," argued Sweta Mishra, a member of the working group. "It's the failure of an entire system."

Rout washed his hands off the matter: "We organised a healthcare camp for the villagers. Twenty ailing children were admitted to the hospital at Baripada, who have now returned to their homes."

Chaitanya Majhi, Orissa's tribal affairs minister who visited the area after the news of the infant deaths became public, swung the district administration into action.

Doctors were ordered to be present in a mobile health unit set up in Gudgudia to arrest the health crisis. The supervisor of the area was suspended, the anganwadi worker was given a show-cause notice, and the child development project officer's salary stopped.

These short-term measures may have temporarily alleviated the situation but leaves the larger crisis unresolved. A team of doctors found 49 villagers suffering from malaria, 35 from high fever and other ailments.

"If this is an indication of the situation in one village with just 88 households," says Mohanty, "what could be happening in all the other villag es is a matter of grave concern."

According to Mishra, "The main reason for high mortality is the careless attitude and lack of awareness among tribals." Girls are married off at an early age and no birth control measures are taken.

The Kolha tribe in the village also practices a hazardous child delivery system. Husbands - trained or untrained - deliver the baby with no outsider allowed in the premises. "Such practices are very dangerous, and often lead to the death of both mother and child," said a doctor.

While the blame game continues, it is clear that the village has suffered monumentally from administrative neglect and needs speedy and massive measures to make up for the lost time.


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