K A Ramu discusses the plight of Adivasi communities since the loss of their lands to settlers and the land mafia, leading to malnutrition amongst Adivasi children, his Adivasi welfare NGO’s efforts to combat such problems, the issue of intercaste marriages and his own experiences as an Adivasi agricultural laborer.
Born into an Adivasi family himself, K A Ramu experienced firsthand the decline in his family’s prosperity after settlers and the land mafia seized his family’s agricultural lands. They could not recover their highly fertile plots after leasing them, leading to gradually falling agricultural output and a reduced diversity of available crops. Eventually, Adivasis only had rice left to consume, and suffered malnutrition. Ramu also experienced working as an agricultural laborer for a daily wage of 15 rupees. However, he notes that the landlords provided food for workers in the past, this is no longer the case. Given that the salary for Adivasi laborers has also risen to 700 rupees in contemporary times, their employment as farm labor has also declined.
Ramu’s NGO works primarily in addressing Adivasi children’s issues, such as nutrition and education. Although literacy amongst the Adivasi population has risen, and almost 90% of students complete tenth grade, he remains concerned that most do not enter university, and the few that do often drop out. He also discusses the issue of intercaste marriages. As Adivasi traditions have always given women the autonomy to choose their partners, requiring men to prove their ability to provide for their future wife, educated female Adivasi have begun choosing men outside their communities. While Ramu does not oppose this on principle, he cautions that many wealthy men with families elsewhere may buy land near Adivasi settlements to build temporary marriages of convenience, only to abandon the woman and her children later.
He further explains that these mixed-caste children are given certificates confirming their Adivasi origins, but that this practice departs from the legal standards of classifying children by the father’s caste. Yet, this adaptation had to be made in light of many cases of non-Adivasi fathers abandoning their temporary families. According to Ramu, these half-Adivasi children often perform better at standardized tests than their fully Adivasi peers, taking up coveted reserved places in universities and government jobs, creating further economic divides within the community.
Most importantly, Ramu discusses his NGO, Thamb’s work in addressing child malnutrition in Adivasi communities. Even the government’s data on the issue is derived from Thamb’s work, he claims. He shares about a public health study they conducted from 2012, where they found that 90% of their respondent mothers survived solely on the government ration of 28kg of rice per family, which only fulfilled the requirement for carbohydrates. Further, these rice supplies were old produce that were artificially kept stable with chemical treatment, Since the loss of Adivasi land, the community has not been able to access fruits and vegetables to have a healthy balanced diet, which Ramu finds is the leading cause of infant mortality. However, he disputes anecdotes of starvation deaths in the region. He credits the transformation of the lives of the Adivasis to the work of many organizations like his own, while acknowledging that there is more work left to be done.
8 January 2020
K A Ramu is a convenor of a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called Thamb in Attappady. It is a platform focused on the welfare of Adivasi communities. Their main activities include promoting small scale businesses in Adivasi hamlets, promoting education among Adivasi children, addressing issues related to health and nutrition within the community, and conducting studies and collecting data about the issues related to the socio-economic life of Adivasi communities. He is one of the seven children of Andi.
The interviewer met Ramu at his house in a village in Attappadi. In this interview, he talks about various problems of Adivasi communities and the activities of his organization in addressing such problems. He says that, because of the encroachment of migrant settlers and interventions of the land mafia, the Adivasi communities lost a large share of their traditional land. The loss of land, to a large extend, put an end to their traditional farming practices. The decline in the traditional farming and the decline in the availability of forest products created a problem of malnutrition in Adivasi communities.
Kunhi: What are the main activities of Thamb?
Ramu: It mainly works for the welfare of Adivasi communities. We are largely focused on children’s issues, like education, social security, malnutrition etc.
Kunhi: Is there any change in the number of school-going children in the region because of the intervention of your organization?
Ramu: A great deal of change happened in the number of school-going children. The main problem was the dropout of school. That situation changed significantly since we began to work in the field. Thumb became a registered platform in 2002. But it was working in the area even before that. In the 2002 period, dropping out of school was a serious problem among Adivasi students.
Kunhi: Is the Thamb a local organization or is it active in other parts of Kerala?
Ramu: It is a state-level organization. Our main office is in Kochi. We have a field office here.
Kunhi: Its main focus is on children’s education. Am I right?
Ramu: If we have to address the problem of children’s education we have to address other socio-economic issues related to Adivasi communities.
Kunhi: Talking about children’s education, how many percentages of Adivasi children complete the tenth standard level of education?
Ramu: Other than those who are physically challenged or belong to a very remote hamlet, most of the Adivasi children are now attending school. Among them about 90 per cent complete the tenth standard level of education. However, only a few among them go for higher studies. That is a bigger concern now. Even a large share of those who join the college will be dropped out before they complete the course.
Kunhi: Another major issue concerned with Adivasi children is malnutrition. What is your take on this subject?
Ramu: Recently newspapers published a report that infant mortality in Attappady has been significantly decreased over the years. However, that is not correct. In 2016, 8 kids died. In 2017 it was 13 and in 2018 it was 14. In 2019, 7 kids died due to malnutrition. This is the fact. Our organization is the one that brought the issue of child mortality in Attappady to the public for the first time. It happened in 2013, then 47 children died. We started addressing this issue when we began to focus on children’s rights. We started collecting data in late 2012. Even the government data in this regard is based on our data.
Kunhi: Did your organization make any detailed study to find out real reasons for malnutrition and child mortality?
Ramu: Yes, we did in 2014. We conducted a study by associating with paediatrician Dr Sathyan. We studied the mothers of infants who died by addressing 65 questions. It was a health analysis with credible data. We collected their blood samples and conducted a detailed study. We need to go through the history of the Adivasi community to make sense of our findings.
I have seven siblings. When I was a child, my family was active in traditional agriculture. We cultivated millet, rice, corn, taro, etc. We had about 50 acres of land, as dispersed in different locations. Adivasi culture and tradition are based on agricultural practices. All our traditional practices are conducted in terms of our agricultural activities. Every Adivasi family had their agricultural land and they were all active in cultivation. Though we had many acres of land, in terms of our tradition, we never cultivated more than 2 or 3 years continuously in a particular plot. We moved our cultivation from one plot to another. Once we cultivate a few times in a particular plot, we would leave that free for a few years to complete its natural restoration of nutrients. Thus, my family had four or five different plots to cultivate. Now we have only one plot to cultivate, about 3 or 4 acres of land.
Kunhi: How did you lose all other lands?
Ramu: It happened mainly due to the arrival of agricultural migrants from other regions. They illegally occupied our land. In addition to that, when the government started to do the land survey, a share of our land became forest land. We lost about 2 acres of land by leasing it to someone, as they somehow gained the title for it.
Kunhi: Did you lease it to migrants?
Ramu: yes, yes. The large share of our land became either the property of migrants or the forest land. It was a complete transformation of the living environment of Adivasi communities. This transformation led to the problem of nutritional deficiency within the community. Adivasis lost their land to cultivate.
Similar to agriculture, we had plenty of forest products. Adivasi communities had access to about 60 edible leaves and about 6 or 7 edible roots in every season.
When they had land, the Adivasi community was active in cattle rearing. Adivasi people were creative in various activities, ranging from agricultural practices to the collection of forest products.
In the past, to get a girl to marry, one had to prove so many things. He had to prove his ability to provide her, he had to show his agricultural skill and other skills. Now the situation is changed. In the past, one had to impress the girl with his skills to get her to marry him.
Kunhi: Girls had that freedom to choose, unlike the mainstream Kerala society.
Ramu: They still have that freedom. They can live with anyone they like. It creates some problems too these days. The number of intercaste and interreligious marriages also increased. When they get some education, they decide not to choose Adivasi as their partner.
Kunhi: What is your approach towards such marriages?
Ramu: I don’t consider it as a wrong thing. However, it affects the Adivasi social system. The number of people in the Adivasi community is decreasing because of such marriages. Normally, a girl is supposed to live in her husband’s house after the marriage. However, when the intercaste marriage happens, the girl gets no opportunity to go to his husband’s house. Often both husband and wife live in the girl’s house. Moreover, cheating is also a major issue in intercaste marriages. Some of these men leave the girl after a few months or years. The marriage does not last long. Therefore, as a social activist, I cannot encourage intercaste marriages.
In the past, there were so many unmarried mothers. That happened due to land-related issues. Some girls would go with any elders who have agricultural land in the area. Most of them had wives and family in other places. They buy land here just for making temporary marriages. Such things happened many times. We cannot accept such practices.
Kunhi: Such incidents are rare now, right?
Ramu: yes, the situation changed largely. However, intercaste marriage is an identity problem. The major problem with intercaste families is that their children get the Adivasi certificate. Whoever is the father, their children will be an Adivasi. They enjoy all the benefits of being an Adivasi.
Kunhi: Why do they get the Adivasi certificate?
Ramu: It is mainly because that the girl and her children will be isolated if the man leaves them. The children will have problems with education and other things. They will not get an Adivasi reservation. It is not completely legal to issue an Adivasi certificate to intercaste children. In terms of the Hindu system, a child belongs to the caste of his/her father. However, that system is not followed here because of the lack of confidence in such marriages. If the man leaves them, it is the mother who is supposed to take care of those children. That is why they give the caste of the mother to her children.
Another issue is that most of the time the kids born in intercaste marriage are more intelligent and smart than other Adivasi children. These kids perform well in competitive exams. Therefore, they get easily selected for the government jobs reserved for Adivasi communities. We never mentioned this as a problem anywhere. But it is a major issue.
Kunhi: Ok. Let’s come back to our conversation on nutrition-related issues.
Ramu: yes. Our study was focused on 150 mothers. 138 of them fully cooperated with our study. Rice was the main food of 135 mothers. They ate rice 3 times a day with some other extras. They do not eat any other things. They get a free ration of 28 kg of rice every month. It was 35 kg in the past. That is why they eat rice three times a day.
Kunhi: Is it 28 kg per person or family?
Ramu: for a family. We know the quality of our ration rice. It is a several years old low-quality rice. We saw the issue of pesticides in the rice distributed in school. As the rice is old, they use many chemicals to protect it. Every individual needs a particular amount of carbohydrates to survive. Rice is a major source of carbohydrates. However, even those who eat rice three times a day does not get enough carbohydrates. Other than carbohydrates, every individual needs several nutrients and minerals. They generally get it from fruits and vegetables. Most of the Adivasis have no access to such fruits and vegetables.
Kunhi: Many argue that starvation deaths continue to happen in Attappady. What is your take on that?
Ramu: This is the cause of starvation. They have nothing other than rice.
Kunhi: I’m not talking about nutritional deficiency. The issue of starvation deaths.
Ramu: It does not happen anymore. It happened in the past.
Kunhi: When I interviewed C K Janu, she said it is still happening in Attappady.
Ramu: I did not find any such incident. The issue of nutritional deficiency is very much real. That is the reason why infant mortality happens. We checked the level of haemoglobin in those mothers. It was very low in more than 90 per cent of mothers. That means these mothers are not healthy. Their children would naturally suffer the problem of nutritional deficiency. It is the main reason for infant mortality.
Kunhi: A major issue noted by some of the people I interviewed from Wayanad is that labour exploitation continues to remain a major problem for Adivasi communities. Some people take Adivasis to various agricultural works in Coorg or Mysore areas and they do not prove them a proper wage. Often they cheat such Adivasi workers by giving them alcohol? Did you see any such problem in Attappadi?
Ramu: Nowadays, such a problem also coming to appear. I’m a person who did daily wage agricultural work. We go to work after eating something from our house. Around 10 or 10.30 we will get food from the house where we are working. If we have work till evening, they will provide lunch and evening tea. But the system is changed. People do not give food to workers anymore.
Kunhi: Is there any difference in the wage an Adivasi and non-Adivasi worker get for a day's work?
Ramu: It is the same. There is no such discrimination. However, the daily wage work is very low these days. When I was going for daily wage agricultural work, the wage was 15 rupees. Most of the workers were from Adivasi communities. Now the wage is around 600 or 700 rupees. Therefore, people are not giving much work to Adivasi workers. They do such by themselves, to save money.
Kunhi: What do you see as the prime reason for transformation within Adivasi life?
Ramu: Firstly, the increase in the wage. Giving 700 rupees for a day's work is difficult for most people. They cannot afford that much money.
Kunhi: I’m talking about the change in the exploitation of Adivasi communities.
Ramu: That is due to various social interventions. Interventions of various organizations, various individuals etc. helped such transformation.
Kunhi: Ok. We can stop here. Thank you.
Interviewee: K A Ramu
Adivasi is a broad term referring to any aboriginal peoples of India, in this case Kerala.
How did traditional culture and values shape the lives of Adivasis in postcolonial India and facilitate their exploitation?
How did caste politics complicate the socioeconomic struggles of the Adivasi community?
Consider the role of aid organization like Ramu’s NGO in transforming the life outcomes of Adivasis. What does this suggest about the nature of the social security net for aboriginal peoples in independent India?