A proposal to shut community kitchens for Adivasis in Kerala’s Attappady has run into controversy.

The Kerala State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on March 26 urged the government to disband the kitchens, claiming that they were not really needed and only served to make Adivasis lazy, besides enabling non-governmental organisations to siphon off public money.

But Adivasis reject the suggestion that the kitchens have no utility. For one, they have proved vital in ensuring pregnant women get nutritious food, helping reduce the infant mortality rate in Attappady. Those managing the kitchens similarly rejected the charge that public money was being diverted to private hands, pointing out that NGOs have no role in the programme.

Attappady has 193 functional community kitchens, covering all three of the block’s gram panchayats, Agali, Sholayur and Pudur. Set up under the state’s poverty eradication and the Kudumbashree Mission women empowerment programme, the kitchens provide one nutritious meal a day to children, pregnant and lactating women, mentally and physically challenged people, widows and senior citizens. Schoolchildren and pregnant women are entitled to two meals a day. According to officials involved with Kudumbashree, each meal costs around Rs 30. In 2017, the state spent around Rs 7 crore on the programme.

But the Kerala State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes believes that the kitchens do not do much good. “The government is providing them [Advasis] enough rice and cereals through the public distribution system and all they have to do is cook,” said S Ajay Kumar, a member of the commission who submitted its report calling for ending the programme to the government. “They will become lazy if they don’t cook at home.”

Moreover, the kitchens serve “less nutritious food”, he said. “Adivasis prefer cereals but these kitchens serve them parathas,” he claimed.

Kumar also alleged that NGOs have got involved in running the kitchens even though they are not allowed to. “They inflate the expenditure bills to fill their coffers,” he said.

Malnutrition problem

Attappady was once known as the land of Adivasis, who constituted 90% of its population in 1951. Their numbers declined steadily as settlers from elsewhere in Kerala and neighbouring Tamil Nadu took away their land. As per the 2011 census, about 30,658 Adivasis live in the block, comprising 34% of the population. Another key reason for the declining numbers has been the high infant mortality rate, believed to be a result of malnutrition among pregnant women. In 2013-’14, as many as 58 infant deaths were reported in Attappady. This was partly the reason for establishing the community kitchens. By 2017, infant deaths were down to 14.

Attappady’s Adivasis mainly belong to Irula, Kurumba and Muduga tribes, each having a distinctive lifestyle, culture and food habits. The Kurubas live close to forests while the others occupy the plains. They live in hamlets of 60-100 families known as oorus. Currently, Attappady has 193 oorus and each is served by a community kitchen.

The first kitchen was established at Nallasingha, Sholayur, in 2013. The programme is run by the Attappady Comprehensive Tribal and Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups Development Project – simply called ACT and PVTG Development Project – under the Kudumbashree Mission.

Seema Bhaskaran, the project’s chief operating officer, denied the allegations levelled by Kumar. “Community kitchens are functioning well in all 193 tribal hamlets in Attappady thanks to interest shown by neighbourhood committees of tribal Kudumbashree units,” she said.

Pointing out that the facility has helped combat malnutrition among pregnant Adivasi women, she said, “We are in the process of converting the community kitchens into nutritional education centres.”

As to the allegation of corruption, Bhaskaran said NGOs were not involved in the project. “It is a government-funded project,” she added. “Neighbourhood committees handle the funds and every penny is accounted for.”

According to the latest data released by the ACT and PVTG Development Project, the 193 kitchens together catered to 16,715 Adivasi people in March. They included 4,351 children, 2,480 adolescents, 329 pregnant women, 919 lactating women, 255 mentally challenged persons, 222 physically challenged persons, 1,191 widows, 366 senior citizens and 5,606 “bedridden patients”.

A community kitchen in Attappady. Photo courtesy Kudumbashree.org

Lack of alternative

In 2016, addressing the Assembly, Kerala’s minister for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, AK Balan, had praised the work of the community kitchens in Attappady and promised to expand the project. Yet, a delay in getting funds and an acute water scarcity led to many kitchens being shut in September 2017. They were reopened only after an Adivasi man was lynched in Attappady in February. Madhu, 29, had allegedly stolen some rice after going hungry for several days.

“The government did not act when the kitchens were closed a few months ago because of paucity of funds,” said Maruthi, a 57-year-old Adivasi activist who is actively involved with the project. “It only acted to escape public criticism after Madhu’s killing. His case showed the importance of the community kitchens.”

In all 14 wards of her Sholayur panchayat, she said, the kitchens are “functioning well”. “We cook either idli or rice gruel with green gram for schoolchildren and pregnant women in the morning,” said Maruthi, who is secretary of Thai Kula Sangham, a women’s collective that was formed in 2001 to curb alcoholism among the Adivasis but went on to work on environmental matters, organising agitations against sand mining, quarrying and tree felling. “We serve rice with curry and vegetables or cake made of ragi and rice for the evening meal. We never served non-nutritious food like flatbread.”

The community kitchens may not be needed if the Adivasis are given their share of land, Maruthi said, but until that happens the facility should not be taken away. “Give us our share of land,” she implored the state government. “Only then can we become a food-sufficient society.”

Others have a different view. Kali, another tribal woman leader, argued that the kitchens should only be a temporary arrangement. “I think this project can be continued for a maximum of five years,” she said. “We have to think beyond it.”

Kali, however, agreed that the kitchens provide nutritious food, especially to pregnant women. “They have helped reduce infant mortality rate,” she said.

Saritha, 23, who gave birth to a boy last year, said she benefited greatly from the kitchen. “I would get two meals every day when I was pregnant,” she said. “My husband, who is a daily wager, could not have afforded to get me such nutritious food.”

Bhaskaran said she was ready to phase out the kitchens if the Anganawadis under the Integrated Child Development Services were improved and made to “function well”. “Until then,” she added, “we have to continue this project.”