Rest Of My Family Travel Diaries: Day 27 (part 1)

Last evening, Joby introduced us to Radhakrishna Kurup who would serve as our translator and point of contact to tribes for the next few days. “It might not be possible to visit Kurumba hamlets since they have some of the most difficult trails to trek through. Besides, this time of year, the paths are muddy and filled with leeches. It would be wise to meet the Moopans (leaders) of these tribes who’ll be able to paint a clear picture of the current social problems,” said Radhakrishna.

We rang him in the morning to remind him about our visit to the hamlets. To our misfortune, he was neck-deep in official work and wouldn’t be able to join us today. He suggested that we get in touch with his friend Augustine Sheen — a freelance journalist and former employee of the Attapadi Hills Area Development Society (AHADS) who was more than willing to help us.

“You will always be given an extensive tour of the hamlets situated close to the departments and Panchayat offices. They take great care in maintaining them thereby giving an impression that they are making progress. However, the deeper you go, the more you realise that nothing is as simple as it seems,” said Sheen as he bit back a helpless smile.

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As per the statistics and data furnished by the government officials, the tribes have received enough assistance to rehabilitate themselves and elevate their economic status. However, Sheen felt that the current situation is a consequence of poorly executed policies and an incomplete understanding of its implications. “Prohibition of alcohol led to a rebellion of sorts. This led to more and more people consuming liquor and acquiring it through illegal means. Their food habits were forcefully altered simply because it fit into our plans of providing them ration at subsidised rates. Their dependence on Western medicine increased as their knowledge on traditional medicine dwindled and was eventually forgotten,” he explained.

Sheen also rubbished claims that eggs and milk were served as a part of the mid-day meals in the hostels. On further inquiry, he discovered that children were given substandard food that barely met any nutritional requirements. There was immense disparity between envisioning a project and implementing it on a grass root level. According to him, in the 70s, both private and government organisations conducted numerous awareness programmes to tackle issues like addiction and alcoholism. “The funds continue to pool in even today. But, no one is conducting these campaigns anymore,” he went on.

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Amongst the institutions that have striven to work towards social upliftment of tribal communities, AHADS played a crucial role in educating the tribes on their rights and providing holistic developmental solutions. It was initiated primarily to aid eco-restoration projects in Attapadi with assistance from Japan International Cooperation Agency. However, the organisation collapsed two years ago owing to funding problems. While the government maintained that AHADS failed to facilitate projects within a stipulated period of time, Sheen strongly believed that the assigned timelines were unrealistic to begin with.

“It was a time-bound project. And, our deadlines were extended twice. But, I feel the programme was shut down purely due to political pressure. It was quite a superior institution and was above the three-tier Panchayats. Our director was an IAS Officer who believed in our vision from the start. We had a very strong team,” said Sheen who further added that the initiative encouraged and facilitated afforestation of at least 11,000 hectares of barren land and undertook a slew of projects ranging from organic farming, soil conservation, installation of irrigation ducts to even rejuvenating flora and fauna, and building sustainable houses.

There’s a strong undercurrent of anti-tribal sentiments brewing in the hearts of ‘settlers’ who believe that the tribes receive enormous help from all corners of the country while their struggles often go unnoticed. Exhibiting callous indifference to tribal welfare, some of the residents do not lend their support to initiatives benefiting any of these communities.

Land displacement and alienation as a result of encroachment by migrants led to Adivasis being dispossessed of their native lands years ago. In 2005, the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill was passed which sought to recognise the rights of these tribes to live in the forest, to self-cultivate and use minor forest produce. However, according to a US diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks — 48157: (Tribal Bill: A UPA attempt at social engineering) — the bill merely hoped to grant ‘forest dwelling tribes’ a clear title to the lands they occupied while compelling them to act as ‘stewards’. The Ministry of Forests and Environment had even predicted that it would result in complete devastation of forest resources. Many believe that the bill did not bring forth any radical change at all, and was nothing but a desperate attempt at tapping into the tribal vote bank…

(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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