Shillong academics call for attention to tribal health

SHILLONG, June 23: A webinar on Tribal Health Security has become the latest event in the series of research, educational and public initiatives towards Universal Health Coverage in India being conducted by South Asia Institute of Harvard University and the Lancet Citizens’ Commission on Reimagining India’s Health System.
Prof Glenn C Kharkongor of Martin Luther Christian University (MLCU) and Dr Melari S Nongrum, associate professor, Indian Institute of Public Health, Shillong, were the panellists of the webinar along with Dr Abhay Bang, founder of the SEARCH Tribal project in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra.
The webinar was moderated by Dr Thelma Narayan, Director of Sochara, a well-known public health training and activist organization in Bangalore.
Dr Melari presented data on maternal and child health in Meghalaya while emphasising on malnutrition during pregnancy and childhood and the related social factors of poverty, loss of traditional diets and the use of land for commercial plantations. She talked about the usefulness of tribal medicine and the benefits of medical pluralism.
She even presented data from the National Family Health Survey and her own research of the dismal health indexes in the state.
On the other hand, professor Glenn drew a larger picture of basic issues that have impacted tribal health adversely.
He said that data from various disparate groups are lumped together that homogenses all tribals.
Stating that such data are not very useful in engaging with local health problems, he emphasised that from colonial times and even after Independence, tribals have not been given a voice, so they have no agency or autonomy. “Even in the compilation of the much-quoted Tribal Health Report, brought out by the Ministry of Health in 2018, there was hardly any tribal representation. So tribals have been re-presented (not represented),” he said, adding that cultural factors in health and disease have been neglected.
The webinar found that focus on local factors and solutions rather than reliance on national prescriptions was the key to addressing health problems. Empowerment of local communities, especially women was needed to bring about needed changes in health behaviours, it further concluded.

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