Uproar over Attappady child deaths freezes Assembly proceedings

Health Minister Veena George (screen grab)

Are the continuing child deaths in the tribal belt of Attappady the result of the break down of the administrative mechanism put in place during the 2012-13 period when child deaths in the region peaked?

Or are the deaths the result of other factors unrelated to the health infrastructure in Attappady?

The Opposition UDF alleged in the Assembly on Thursday that the system had failed. The government ministers sneered at the accusation and one of them, health minister Veena George, asked Mannarkad's Muslim League MLA N Shamsudheen, who raised the issue, to first visit his constituency and check for himself before making allegations. Transport minister Antony Raju, who sat to the left of George, too was heard taunting Shamsudheen. Provoked, Shamshudheen rushed straight to the base of the Speaker's dais in the company of other Opposition MLAs.

The ruling bench MLAs also rushed towards the well and, before the situation could deteriorate into a noisy war of words, Speaker M B Rajesh temporarily halted proceedings and left the House.

He returned half-an-hour later and quickly wrapped up the adjournment motion. It was the death of a four-month-old tribal girl in the Murugala settlement of Attappady on July 11 that triggered Shamsudheen's adjournment motion.

He began in a rhetorical fashion, saying the bereaved father had to walk for three kilometres through the forest with the dead body of his child. "We are witnessing things that we had never seen before. This shows the failure of the government machinery," Shamsudheen said.

Tribal affairs minister K Radhakrishnan reasoned that it was difficult to lay a road through the forest to the Murugala settlement. "A road has to be cut through the National Biodiversity Reserve forest, which is extremely difficult," the minister said.

He said 15 families lived in 13 houses in the settlement. "We have been trying to get them to come out of the interiors and live in more accessible areas. But many are reluctant," he said.

Radhakrishnan, and later health minister Veena George, said that the child did not die as a result of malnutrition. "The child was healthy. She was given breast milk by her mother in the night and left to sleep. In the morning, the child was found dead," Radhakrishnan said.

He said the exact cause of the death was yet to be ascertained. "She had a bite mark in her leg. Milk asperation could also have been the cause," Radhakrishnan said.

The Opposition strategy was clearly to use the child's death to highlight the poor health infrastructure of Attappady. Shamsudheen attributed the resurgence in child deaths in Attappady since 2017, after it was nearly eradicated following a peak in 2013, to official negligence. He said there were 30-plus child deaths in 2017-18. In 2021, he said there were 12 deaths. "Till now this year, there have been nine child deaths in Attappady," Shamsudheen said.

He said major interventions that were initiated after child deaths peaked in 2013 had been discontinued. One was the constant monitoring of pregnant woman till delivery. "High-risk cases had to be admitted to the hospital days before the delivery date. And if a child was under-weight, she had to be kept in the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre till she acquires the right weight. None of this is happening now," the League MLA said.

He then said that the Kottathara Government Hospital was virtually dysfunctional. "The hospital had no essential medicines. There was no scanning facilities for pregnant women. 59 temporary workers have dismissed en masse. There is no water. Electricity to the hospital has also been cut because of some dues," he said.

The mention of the disconnection of power to the hospital apparently caused some resentment in Radhakrishnan. "You could have just told me and the power would have been restored in an hour," Radhakrishnan said. Power minister K Krishnan Kutty, too, intervened. "You could have told me," he said. "You call me for so many things. Why didn't you call me for this," he said.

After some time, the power minister announced in the House that Shamsudheen was lying, that power connection to the Kottathara Hospital was not cut.

This led to loud jeers from the ruling benches against Shamsudheen, asking him to make a point to visit his own constituency. Shamsudheen, who remained largely quiet, shot up from his seat and rushed towards the Speaker when the health minister, too, asked him to visit his constituency. Shamsudheen's aggression caused the Speaker to halt proceedings.

Later, when the House reconvened, Opposition Leader V D Satheesan condemned the health minister's taunt of Shamsudheen. "It is not for nothing that Shamsudheen has won from his constituency thrice," Satheesan said.

Later, providing a personal explanation, health minister Veena George said that ₹-64-lakh modernisation work had been carried out at the Kottathara Hospital. She said the paediatric ICU of the hospital would soon have four new ventilators


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