“While some tribesmen sold most of the land they owned to settlers for peanuts, others were duped into handing over their land in the guise of a better deal. When the Forest Conservation Act came into being in 1980, majority of their farmland was lost to the reserves. By the time the bill was passed, unrestrained encroachment and illegal timber trade thrived in the hills which led to massive deforestation. In the eighties, the lands became barren and water bodies dried up. The tribes could not revive cultivation or traditional farming practices on their own. This eventually resulted in deaths due to starvation,” said Sheen.
The gravity of the situation led AHADS to implementing programmes that facilitated afforestation, biomass development and soil conservation apart from installing water harvesting systems with the support of the Local Self-Government Department. Sheen strongly believed that nurturing the tribes’ existing skills and capabilities in lieu of introducing new techniques would have garnered more efficient results.
We asked him if the tribes ever revolted to redeem their lost identity, assert their right to life; if they ever demanded to know why they were ousted against their own will. “Their only wish is to be treated like human beings with equity and compassion. Till date, they continue to wander in lands that never truly belonged to them.There have been a few altercations in the past but they never catapulted into a full-blown revolt. However, if they choose to fight for what they want, noone will be able to stop them. The infamous Muthanga agitation was nothing but a result of tribes revolting against years of suppression,” explained Sheen.
In 2003, the Muthanga tribe having exhausted all attempts at seeking legislative protection and settlement with respect to land alienation resorted to nonviolent protests to recover their ancestral territory. The Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha marched into Muthanga to set up a Grama Sabha (village council) of its own. They resided on the fringes of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary which was apparently being used for cultivating eucalyptus to provide raw materials for a rayon pulp factory owned by the Birlas. The peaceful occupation was met with intolerance and brutality. Without any prior notice, 500 armed police personnel entered the forests and opened fire at 1000 tribal families. According to official reports, the incident led to the death of a tribal member and a policeman who was held hostage by the tribe.
The displacement of Adivasi belts in Kerala began in the early nineteenth century with the tearing down of Malabar and Travancore forests for the British Navy. The destruction continued till the 1850s to accommodate the colonial railways. Soon, dispossession as a result of developmental projects occurred at an exponential pace in the tribal areas. Furthermore, the migration of locals into the hills and forests was encouraged by the then legislation. Drastic social isolation and insensitivity towards tribesmen eventually rendered them defenseless and their identity was reduced to that of bonded labourers. Ignorant of their basic rights, they continued to stay outside the ambit of the law in the colonial and post-colonial era. However, many activists believe that their situation is no different today.
“According to tribal rights, these people are free to live anywhere in the forests. However, they have lost their knowledge over time and the current generation will not be able to survive in the jungles anymore,” explained Sheen.
At around 2.30 pm, he suggested that we visit one of the tribal hamlets nearby. We stopped for lunch at a small eatery and took a detour into an off-road trail. As we drove towards the hamlet, we couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to live in an ecosystem interconnected with nature where living off the earth was sacred to one’s existence.
Sheen informed us that we had to pick up Lakshmi, an ex-colleague, who was absorbed into the Forest Department once AHADS shut down. He had requested her to join us since she could speak the tribal dialects. It was only later we learnt that she belonged to the Mudugar tribe. “She has been instrumental in initiating several schemes in the tribal areas. She will be able to paint a clear picture of the situation here. I would only urge you to be a little sensitive and compassionate towards the tribal members,” said Sheen and added, “Their existence has been belittled for decades. Too many people have come and gone. And, all they are left with today are empty promises…”
(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