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 via 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 people. 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) centers.
The family gets it public distribution system entitlement of 35kg 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. 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 out that 363 persons suffered from mental illness.
Of the 363 diagnosed with mental illness, 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 Irula tribe, 30 were Kurumbas and 32 were Muthukas.
Total tribal population in Attapady is 33,000 and about 1% of this population suffers from mental illness, according to latest statistics. But experts opine that this 1% is enough to derail the livelihood of a sensitive downtrodden tribal society.
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 counseling. To add to her woes, her husband, an alcoholic, abandoned her after a year of marriage.
“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 National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) at Attapady and initiated formation of 120 tribal women self-help groups told VillageSquare.in.
The incident involving Madhu was an eye-opener to the society and the government. Besides lack of development, discrimination and alienation of the tribes, 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 marginalized 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%.
Murugan tried to earn from the barren land in the fringes, but failed. He fell into 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 A K 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 marginalized tribal communities. On 5th April 2018, the government issued an order for special recruitment of 100 tribal youth in police and excise departments. Of the 100, 20 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.
Realizing the need for rehabilitation after treatment, the government plans to open a rehabilitation center at Kavudikkal near Agali for tribal people.
“It will be inaugurated soon,” said Dr Prabhu Das. “Apart from providing food, shelter and mental health care they will be involved in day-to-day activities.” This is the first such rehabilitation center in Kerala, being opened for the tribal people, bringing hope.
K. Rajendran is a journalist based in Kerala. Views are personal.