Rest Of My Family Travel Diary: Day 21 (part 2)

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“We put in a request for electricity and asked the officials to get it done as soon as possible. I hope to see light someday,” said Arumugan with a smile. The government refuses to give the Malasar Tribe their rightful ownership of land simply because they haven’t measured the area yet nor have they conducted appropriate reviews to determine the population residing there. Moreover, the private estates had stopped them from appraising the land for reasons unknown.

A few years ago, the Vendari – tribal leader – expressed his discontent over the government’s haphazard attempt at surveying Pollukad. The leader put forth a condition that the entire tribe was to be given fair compensation rather than a small group of 29 families who have been making demands for years. It was wrongful on the state’s part to consider providing them a short term solution. The authorities starkly refused to make amends and eventually the plan was stalled.

“If they give us our patta land or at least provide us with an alternative, then I am ready to move. Right now, I belong nowhere,” said Arumugan. At this point, another young man Senthil Kumar joined us. He happened to be the spokesperson for the tribe – the one who conveys their problems to higher officials like the Tribal Extension Officers. There are about 156 families who belong to the Malasar tribe residing in the forests. Those who have jobs don’t stay here anymore. They have migrated to cities and bigger towns in search of greener pastures. Those who are unemployed are the worst affected. With nowhere to go and no means to earn, they often struggle to make ends meet. Fifteen years ago, when Arumugan was first employed by an estate, he was paid Rs 126 per day. Today, if hired he can earn about Rs 230 per day.

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We asked them if wild animals have wreaked havoc in the area. Apparently, tigers, leopards and elephants visit the settlement regularly. “At night, when I go out to pee, there have been many instances when I’ve come across leopards prowling around in the dark. But, they aren’t man-eaters. They usually prey upon animals and hunt them at night. Elephants, on the other hand, come in groups and the only way to scare them off is by lighting a firecracker. They are terrified of the noise,” said Senthil.

Living in constant fear of being attacked by wild animals takes a toll on their mental health. “How long will we do this?” asked Arumugan and added, “I am always worried about my children. What if one of them decides to step out at night without waking me up? What if they get hurt someday?”

They requested the government to let them put electric fences around their houses and farms to protect themselves from wild animals. Much to their dismay, they were informed that they weren’t allowed to do so. Permanent structures cannot be built on temporary lands. And, going against the law amounts to criminal offense. The tribe’s existence warrants little or no attention anymore. The opprobrious conduct of those in power blinded by their urban notion of what constitutes unsophisticated and backward has had a devastating impact on the ecosystem of the tribal culture.

To those who consider the earth as much theirs as other creatures’, marking territories based on economic wealth and power may have always seemed futile and frivolous. Today, they find themselves suffering at the brink of injustice masked by an immoral societal hierarchy.

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Indiscriminate felling of trees and the exponential spread of tea estates all over the hills led to rapid deforestation thereby destroying the habitat of animals residing in the forests. This eventually led to the set up and formation of the wildlife sanctuary in 1973. In 2007, parts of the sanctuary and neighbouring forests were destroyed as a result of wild fire. One of the main reasons cited for the damage was depleted pre-monsoon rains. In fact, this year Nelliyampathy received absolutely no rainfall between January and April. The repercussions of environmental degradation eventually led to the disruption of nature’s balance. As a result, the entire region faced an unprecedented drought this summer.

Arumugan told us with great sadness that many decades ago, they were asked to leave the forests since their land was forcefully declared to be a part of the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary. As a part of their rehabilitation, the tribes were promised jobs within the estates and a temporary living arrangement. However, over the years, they began to realise that they were uprooted in the name of conservation; to protect the forests and its wildlife. And, perhaps, they paid a heavy price for it.

On the left hand side of the house, we saw a small black pipe with diameter of an intravenous pipe running across his courtyard. Drops of water dripped down the pipe which was collected in buckets and used for their daily chores. This was their situation in monsoons. We asked them if they had any water at all in summer. “No. It usually dries up and we have to walk a great distance to a water body nearby. Look at the size of the pipe we are using. The least they can do is provide us with better pipes. We have put these shoddy pipes ourselves. Sometimes porcupines and elephants end up damaging them. We have approached the ministers and have given them all the legal documents they require and yet all we can do is wait.”

We asked him if his kids went to school. He stated with a hint of pride that his oldest daughter Padma passed her B.A (Hons) with distinction and was currently preparing for her civil services examination. All his kids go to school and he will ensure that each and every one of them get good education and a chance at a better life. Thanks to all the schemes introduced by the government, education and medical facilities have been provided adequately to the tribals.

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Despite losing all their arable land, there are many houses today growing fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. However, wild boars end up destroying most of their produce and it gets more and more difficult to maintain their small farms. They also keep dogs to prevent wild hogs from entering their gardens but since they are an aggressive lot, the possibility of their dogs being injured in the act is far higher than the hogs being chased away.

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These tribes usually make their living by collecting wild ginger, wild turmeric, honey and sambrani from the forest. While sambrani is collected from trees, ginger grows in thick bamboo groves. They get about Rs 500 per litre for honey, Rs 80 for 1 kg sambrani, Rs 70 for 1 kg wild ginger and Rs 30 or 40 for 1 kg of wild turmeric. To collect honey, they use huge bamboo poles and carve steps on them to create a makeshift ladder which is then used to climb tall trees that house bee hives.

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We took a quick glance into their dimly lit house. It almost felt like entering a miniature household that was barely held together with tarpaulin sheets and thatched roofs. Although thatch, straw and dried coconut leaves were woven to make sturdy structures by the tribals since the dawn of time, these houses are a haunting reminder of a thriving self-sustained community losing its soul owing to thoughtless urbanisation. The tribes that once survived on their skills and ability to live in harmony with nature have now been declared as primitive beings in desperate need of help and redemption by those who displaced them, took away their homes and destroyed their identity.

(to be continued…)

Project ‘Rest of My family‘  is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.

Through ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….

Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502

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