No Medicare, no roads; ailing tribals in Vizag Agency turn to faith healers for cure

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By Harish Gilai
VISAKHAPATNAM:
It was around 8 am on Saturday. It just stopped drizzling. The rain-drenched lush green hills of Paderu Agency gleamed in the gentle morning sunlight. Locals, most of them tribals from PVTG (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups), made their way to the house of Killo Balanna, a 50-year-old poor agricultural farmer at D Sampalli, interior tribal hamlet in Iradapalle Panchayat.
Balanna brought his wife K Lingamma (40) out of the house holding her shoulders tight while several people waited outside along with a 60-year old man, who is the village head. Well, it’s not any kind of marriage or a religious ritual. Balanna was actually seeking the help of the village head, Nageswara Rao, a faith healer, to identify the problem ailing his wife and make a prognosis.
Soon the village head sets out to use his supposed supernatural powers while the gathering waits with bated breath.
Nageswara Rao draws a rangoli in sand and places a small doll, incense sticks and rice mixed in turmeric, in the middle. When TNIE asked what is going on, one of the women Damayanthi, says, “Lingamma is suffering from severe fever, stomach pain, nausea and other health disorders. So the priest has come to perform puja to ascertain whether she will live or die.”
What follows is quite curious. The faith healer starts chanting mumbo jumbo for about 20 minutes and throws rice on the rangoli.
Then he brings three hens and makes them eat rice. The elderly man declares if two of the three hens eat grains, Lingamma will live. If just one eats rice, then he says grimly, that her life hangs in balance.
To the great relief of her husband and the gathering, two of the hens pecked at the rice, prompting the village head to declare that Lingamma will recover and live longer. For the poor and ignorant tribals, this could give some mental relief. But there is a flip-side. Taking the prediction seriously, there are instances of the innocent people totally ignoring the seriousness of the ailments affecting their family members and failing to seek medical help.
We are doing our best: ITDA
“We have Community Health Workers (CHW) to help tribals. They are trained to give first-aid. Their main job is to bring patients to CHC. They also hold awareness programmes on superstitious beliefs. We also hold ‘Kalajathalu’, a dance form, to educate tribals about dangers of believing in superstitions,” said ITDA PO DK Balaji. “ITDA arranges ‘dolis’ to bring patients from villages to hospitals wherever there are no roads. We also provide bike ambulances.”
When the TNIE team asked Balanna why he sought the help of the village head for his wife’s medical problem, he shot back, “Where is medical facility?” Over 50 families reside in the tribal hamlet, which is hardly 15 km from Paderu mandal headquarters. But there is no proper road connectivity. In order to reach a road, they have to walk about five to six kilometers. The gravel road that was laid years ago was washed away completely.
“We do not have a proper road connectivity here. We have to carry patients in a ‘doli’ for about five km to reach the road and catch some vehicle. ITDA officials rarely organise medical camps in our areas. Private ambulances or jeeps charge `3,000 to come and take patients to hospital,” said Balanna. Nagesh, who has finished intermediate, says, “Years have gone by, but transport facility is still a mirage. Not even drivers of autorickshaws or jeeps dare to come to our village. Once in a while some NGOs come with ambulances and conduct medical camps. Many fall ill here due to various factors and die because of lack of medical facilities.”
Like D Sampalli, several villages in the Agency areas have the same pathetic stories to narrate. Pothurajumetta, Kothavalasa, Vanajangi in Paderu and G Madugula, Araku, Munchingput, Hukumpeta, Koyyuru, Sileru and Dumbriguda trek miles to buy essential commodities. For example, villagers of Pothurajumetta trek 6 to 10 km to buy essential commodities from a fair price shop. Residents of Hukumpeta and Munchingput cross streams to reach the mandal headquarters. Many tribals met watery grave while crossing the stream.
“Government should take steps to mitigate the sufferings of the people in the Agency. That is the only way to bring them out of superstitious beliefs. In the last couple of years, some roads were laid under the NREG scheme, but they could not withstand rains. In case of emergencies, ambulances arrive and stop far away from villages for the patients and their family members to undertake the arduous trek to reach the vehicle,” said Saadhu Ram, a social activist from Paderu.
According to ITDA sources, there are about 3,636 tribal habitats in the Visakhapatnam Agency and hundreds of them in Chintapalle, Araku, Munchingput, Paderu, Hukumpeta and Dumbriguda mandals which lack road facilities. Notwithstanding officials’ claim that bike ambulances, stretchers and other facilities are being made available to the tribals, tribals continue to suffer. The most affected because of this sad state of affairs are pregnant women. Nutritious food and proper drinking water facilities are beyond their reach.
“People here simply die because they cannot afford to pay for medical treatment in private hospitals. There are some developmental programmes unveiled by successive governments but there is a lack of seriousness in their implementation. Roads were laid, but they turned very bad. “Regular health camps should be conducted in the areas to rescue tribals from superstitious beliefs,” said Kollu Surendra, a member of AP Girijana Sangham (APGS), Araku mandal.
A senior official of the ITDA said that they are using two-wheeler ambulances to ferry patients to hospitals and laying roads under various schemes of State and Central governments.

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