IMPROVED incomes and provision of clean drinking water can significantly alter the health situation in the Integrated Tribal Development Agency area of Visakhapatnam district. An increased income can push up the average life expectancy beyond the present 45 years, while clean drinking water can add some quality to life in the region.
A tribal hamlet does not present a rosy picture in tune with the scenic beauty of the forests all around. The scattered habitations on the slopes of the hills, usually small clusters of thatched huts, have narrow pathways and no safe drinking water. Cattle, fowl, pigs and dogs share the 10 ft by 10 ft shacks with their owners. The tribal people do not like to risk theft by leaving their livestock outside. The family's food and the animal wastes vie for space, and one usually finds hanging from the roof a large chunk of meat that is bought at the weekly market now and then. A portion of the putrefied meat is plucked from it and used in cooking, while small lumps of it become the children's munchies whenever they are hungry.
There are more than 2,000 borewells in the area, but the tribal people do not seem to be making full use of them. Their regular source of water is still the streams or the small waterholes. Social factors come in the way of sub-sects sharing water from the same borewell. "Disputes sometime lead to the dumping of dead cats or hens into a borewell to prevent others from using it," said Krishna Sastry, a doctor with long experience in the region.
A ban on hunting has meant reduced supply of healthy meat while a switch-over to cash crops has led to reduced availability of food. Rice, turmeric and ginger are grown more for sale than for consumption. Earlier, the tribal people grew vegetables in their small landholdings, each not exceeding two acres; now they have to buy them.
The tribal people are easily cheated, which makes the situation worse. The tribal people of the Araku-Paderu region mostly live on forest produce and what they cultivate. Firewood, jackfruit, mangoes, honey and tamarind are some of their main sources of income. They are sold at the weekly shandies (markets) held on Fridays. The traders who buy from the tribal people trick them out of their dues in various ways, in the absence of any supervisory mechanism. The wholesalers use spring balances to weigh the produce. A check by this correspondent, with the help of a local man at the Araku market, showed that about 20 kg of vegetables did not even clear the eight-kilo mark on the banned spring balance.
The tribal people are afraid of holding on to their produce and this makes them even more vulnerable to cheating by wily traders.
If in the plains a daily wage-earner makes an average of Rs.100 a day, a tribal couple who cut firewood or collect addakulu (leaves for making plates) through the week get hardly Rs.100 for a bundle in the market - which works out to a meagre Rs.12 for two in a day.
The public distribution system of the Girijian Cooperative Credit Society treats the tribal population no better. There are 192 depots selling essentials, but only 96 employees to man them, which means one person manages two depots. M.V.S. Sharma, who heads the local unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has been doing significant work for the uplift of the region's tribal population, explained how the tribal people got cheated by this system too. "Kerosene is an important commodity for the tribal people. When five litres of kerosene is sold, the dealers give only 4.5 litres - a small hole in the bottom of the measure allows some of the oil to trickle out. Again, instead of charging Rs.9.50 a litre, they round it off to Rs.10," he said.
Each depot caters to the needs of at least 400 tribal people on a busy day. One can imagine the extent of the loss that the tribal population incurs in both selling and buying.
Drinking is also a problem. Samba, a health assistant at the Araku Community Health Centre, said most tribal people spend a considerable portion of their earnings on `maddi kallu', a locally made brew, without caring for the hole it makes in their pocket. They ensure that there is enough kerosene, onions and chillies to last the week, and blow up the rest of their earnings at the weekly market on drinks. In the tribal household, the woman is the main breadwinner and it is she who bears the brunt of the problems in case of any illness.