“All the projects were introduced with good intentions and the purpose of doing something meaningful for the tribes. For instance, if a tribal person was hospitalised and if he or she had to be shifted to a bigger hospital, ITDP would give them an ambulance and provide the chief medical officer with enough funds to take care of their medical expenses. Moreover, the project manager hands over Rs 5000 to the patients immediately. The expenses of the bystander including food and accommodation is also borne by the department,” said the officials as they pulled out a few records.
For almost three decades, the tribes of Attapadi have been subjected to displacement and land alienation in the name of social and economic betterment. Aside from abject poverty and environmental degradation, they have had to deal with rapid decline of their cultural ethos. The extended migration of outsiders or ‘settlers’ and implementation of policies without the consent of Moopans (leaders) have perhaps led to one of the most devastating crises in the tribal milieu.
“If only the government had actively included the tribe before making vital decisions with respect to land ownership, the situation wouldn’t have been dire. Now, we have to spend more than half our time and resources correcting what we had done wrong all those years ago,” said Sadiq with a concerned look on his face. Encroachment of land by settlers and the rising power of land mafia in the form of bureaucrats and money mongers present a grim future for the tribal community.
As time passed by, those who lost their aura of familiarity with identity and places they once called home found themselves staring into the face of betrayal and despair. The law makers could not return what they had lost. And, instead they took away their only source of sustenance. Declining access and control over forest reserves through regulations put forth by the government in order to preserve our flora and fauna proved to be a massive blow to their livelihood.
In the olden days, the tribes ate 46 varieties of vegetables and millet. Now, they are left with no choice but settling for substandard food provided by ration shops on subsidised rates. As suspected, this was one of the most significant contributors to malnutrition. “They were so skilled with their farming techniques that they stored quintals of grains in their storehouses. They never ran out of food. Today, their crops have changed. This behaviour could also be attributed to a global trend of moving away from food-based agriculture. The dynamics of the agro-industry have altered over the past few decades. No longer do they grow healthy organic food for consumption. Most of them who have arable lands would rather invest in cash crops and make a living off them,” explained Sharaf.
There are 192 tribal hamlets in Attapadi. According to the Forest Rights Act, every hamlet belonging to any of the tribes had to register with the government and ensure that their land was leased out to them. Everyone except for the Kurumbas agreed to this settlement. The Act asserted that only 10 acres of land could be used at a time in the forest. Since, they practised shifting cultivation, it made no sense for them to take up the government’s offer on Patta. These tribes are nomadic by nature and were unaccustomed to the concept of a fixed settlement. They didn’t deem it necessary to declare a piece of land as their own.
In all, there are about 10,000 tribal families residing here out of which 218 are landless. According to both Sadiq and Sharaf, land was never a problem in this region. “The first survey was conducted in the sixties. A revaluation hasn’t been done since then. Therefore, these lands are still registered in the name of the person who first agreed to avail Patta. His sons or legal heirs wouldn’t have transferred the land to themselves. As a result, as per legal records, they don’t own any land at all. A lot of these problems can be imputed to incomplete paperwork apart from internal conflicts and petty arguments within the families,” said Sharaf.
Delving deeper into the history and ancestry of the tribes, they explained to us that the Irulas came from Tamil Nadu, Mudugars from Nilgiris and Kurumbas were the first tribe to move to the hills of Attapadi. “They always lived collectively. Hamlets have been a part of their social structure since time immemorial. Back in the day, they only married within the tribe and treated each other like untouchables. It was a taboo to consider a mate from another tribal lineage. However, these days they are free to marry whoever they like. Social constraints evolved over time and people are not caught up in these beliefs anymore,” said Sadiq as he stood up to leave for a meeting.
After a few hours, we decided to head towards the main office of Integrated Tribal Development Programme (ITDP) where we met the Project Officer briefly to get a consolidated map of tribal settlements in Attapadi. As we left the premises, our thoughts drifted back to our discussion and what we had learnt so far. We soon realised that we were missing an important piece of the puzzle and were now eager to talk to the tribes to reveal their side of the story.
After lunch, Joby took us to upper and lower Sambarkod to give us a short glimpse of what some of the developed Irula hamlets looked like. As we walked uphill through paths, unbeknownst to us, jagged mountainous trails vanished before our eyes. Amidst the hills, a cluster of houses peeked through the trees. A lady held a tiny pot on her waist while her child played with wooden toys in the courtyard. In a desolate corner, an old man sat beside a rock smoking his beedi. His hand gripped his knees while his eyes wandered to the forests. He puffed out a cloud of smoke gazing into the horizon.
As the sun went down, a woman with dishevelled hair and a stick in her hand took a solitary road towards a crumbling structure she now called home. Like her forefathers, she too was forced to become a part of a remorseless civilisation only to be shunned by those who promised them better lives. Today, they’ve no choice but to place their faith in a social system that is detrimental to humanity and thrives on the nefarious intention of exploiting the naivete of such communities. Entangled in the web of malice and helplessness, these tribes now find themselves being bereft of free will and perhaps human dignity…
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