Introduction to Maternal Health of a Tribal Community in South India

The Landscape

Chamarajanagar is the southernmost district of Karnataka in southern India, bordering Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and has a large area under forest cover. Located at the northeastern edge of the Western Ghats, the forest-dwelling people of Chamarajanagar live amidst diverse flora and fauna.

The Soliga population is spread out in and around the forests of Chamarajanagar district.
In a country where forests are shrinking and fauna dwindling, local health and development aspirations get entangled with global and national priorities for conserving forests and natural resources. Large parts of Chamarajanagar’s forests are legally protected under India’s wildlife protection legislations, while its tribal communities—until recently ‘illegal aliens’ on their own land and habitat—are beginning to acquire rights through legislations that seek to correct decades of injustice.

The People

Portrait of an elderly Soliga from Nalli Kadru podu.

Tribal communities are living in the forests of southern India for centuries now and they have remained in relative isolation from mainstream society, resulting in a distinctive way of life. The tribal people living in the forests of Chamarajanagar belong to the Soliga, Jenu Kuruba and Betta Kuruba communities. Living amidst forests for generations, they evolved a more sustainable lifestyle than most modern societies of the day, extracting based on needs and historically subsisting largely on locally available food. Earlier insulated from mainstream markets outside, formal employment and income was limited to daily wage labour for the British planters and later the forest department. Today for many tribal households, the main source of income is from harvest and sale of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) such as honey, Indian gooseberry (Pyllanthus embelica) and lichen (a composite of algae and cyanobacteria). They grow ragi (Eleusine coracana, the finger millet) and jowar (maize) mainly for subsistence.

Maternal Health

Portrait of a mother and child from a tribal hamlet of BR Hills

Tribal communities in India are among the worse off with respect to maternal and child health. In India, only one among three deliveries of tribal mothers is considered a safe delivery, while only one in two tribal children are fully immunised against vaccine-preventable diseases. The Indian government’s flagship programme for improving health, the National Health Mission brought significant health reforms to improve the quality and reach of reproductive and child health services in India, such as the ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) and various cash incentives and schemes. It also encouraged local health planning at the district level, so that areas like Chamarajanagar may set their health priorities locally. However most Indian districts still do not adapt their health planning to suit their local context.

References: 

  • Framework for implementation National Health Mission, 2012-2017.
  • Report of the High Level Committee on Socio- Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India. 2014
  • Indian tribe secures unprecedented rights to tiger reserve. Article published in Survival International.

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This series of photo essays talks explores issues on access to government health services by tribal communities in south India by bringing together perspectives of both community and health workers from the hilly and forested areas of Chamarajanagar district, Karnataka.

This series is part of a research project titled ‘Participation for local action: Implementation research with indigenous communities in southern India for local action on improving maternal health services’ . This project is implemented by Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra in partnership with Zilla Budakattu Girijana Abhivrudhhi Sangha (in Kannada for District indigenous forest-dwellers Welfare Society), District Reproductive and Child Health Office, Chamarajanagar, Karnataka State Health Systems Resource Centre, Bengaluru, and Institute of Public Health (Bengaluru). It is supported by the Alliance for Health Policy & Systems Research, World Health Organisation and United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF) under the decision-maker led implementation research call.

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Next in series: The Soligas

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