We took a detour from the main road. Muddy trails gradually led to the Moopan’s doorstep. Well-trimmed hedges adorned his courtyard as the winds sighed a soothing lull. Somewhere in the fading dusk, amidst valleys bathed in a rose-hued gleam, a cluster of garden bowers breathed its last…
A middle-aged man with jet-black hair and thick bushy moustache walked towards us. He introduced himself as Soman. We were ushered into his home and graciously greeted by his family. As we sat around a huge table, he narrated his story. “I was born and raised here. I work as an Ayurvedic pharmacist today. I studied till grade 10. At some point in my life, I knew that my situation would’t change unless I did something about it. So, I put in all my efforts to build a future for myself and my family. I could say that I’m content today but there are many of us who don’t know what happiness means,” said Soman as he sipped on his tea.
According to him, the government started interfering in tribal affairs with the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act passed by the Legislative Assembly in 1975. The primary objective of the Act was to restrict transfer of land by Members of Scheduled Tribes in the State of Kerala and restore alienated lands. The Act became a law in 1986. However, the government took least interest in implementing the law within tribal belts. They were willing to displace more people in order to pacify those protesting against atrocities committed towards the tribes. What ensued was a strategic display of development in the name of tribal welfare. “Vikasanam alla Vinashanam (It wasn’t development, it was destruction),” said Moopan in a bitter tone.
A few decades later, the United Democratic Front (UDF) tried to modify the existing law. However, they failed miserably. In 1996, the High Court of Kerala issued a deadline to restore alienated lands which forced the then government in power — Left Democratic Front (LDF) – to pass the amendment. As predicted, rather than taking into consideration the long term instability that evicting settlers would cause, the issue of land displacement was politicised leading to each party fighting for tribal communities simply to strengthen their vote-bank.
The tribes never asked for help and yet they were forcefully provided with facilities they didn’t require in the first place. “They had to showcase our plight as a pitiful one. Before the seventies, we didn’t have any issues of alcohol addiction. Our children didn’t die young. Soon, we became completely dependent on free stuff. If we wanted water, we were given substandard food. If we wanted electricity, we were given toilets. No one ever questioned them. We were just happy receiving more and more freebies. How will we use toilets without water? If I get one kg rice for Rs 1, then why should I spend my time and energy in farming? Eventually, we didn’t want to put in any effort to earn anything. Everyone just kept waiting with bated breath for the next prop to be introduced by the government,” he said.
Between 1980 and 1990, toddy and local arecanut liquor stores, sanctioned by the government, thrived in Attapadi. Soman told us that it was only in 1996 that alcohol was banned by the state. With unemployment at its peak and the authorities constantly dictating how they should live their lives by putting in moral restrictions, the need to rebel against the existing system began brewing within the tribal soil.
“Liquor was sold in black under the nose of officials. Everyone was aware of what was going on. In 1986, the government decided to release funds to tribes who wished to build their homes. There were many instances of men and women blowing it all up on booze. In order to curb such incidents, they then decided to introduce middle men in departments and ban alcohol completely. I am 45 years old and I am the only one left in my age group. Most of my friends have died due to excessive consumption. So, how has the situation changed? All they did was provide one slipshod solution after another,” said Soman.
He also expressed his deep sorrow over dwindling farming practices in the tribal communities. Earlier, if they came across a wild boar destroying their crops, they would hunt it down and feed the entire hamlet. This was a traditional tribal practice. However, today, it is a punishable offence to kill any animal.
“I am quite certain that at least 80 per cent of the population will start farming again if our ancestral lands were returned to us. Of course, this entirely depends on how we educate our younger generation on the importance of being self-sustained. My grandparents grew their own food. They never received any formal education but they could live off the earth. They taught themselves and strived to live in harmony with nature. My mother gave birth to eight children at home. We never relied on Western Medicine or doctors for that matter. The only time my grandmother entered a hospital was when she died,” he said.
In fact, until quite recently, everyone grew vegetables and grains near the forest. But now they have been prohibited to do so. Only those who have land by the river can actually farm today, the rest have either lost everything to the forest reserves or do not have a drop of water to spare. As our discussions continued, we were slowly beginning to realise that almost every tribe revealed similar patterns of socio-cultural and economic issues.
We asked him what he thought would bring back joy in their lives? He paused and took a deep breath. Somewhere in his heart, he believed that the only way they could facilitate a fundamental change within the hamlets was by appointing all the educated tribal members as government officials.
“In the past 30 or 40 years, no one has ever asked me these questions. I have been told many a times that my life was miserable and that I would be given ample support in the form of facilities. They keep telling me that I need help but no one has stopped to ask what I want, what I need. And, that’s where the true problem lies,” said Soman in a mournful tone…
At no point were the tribes dishonest about their problems. They were aware of their current situation and were looking forward to taking corrective measures to ensure that they did not banish within the shadows of oppression and corruption. While the older generation had lost all hope, the younger ones were oblivious to the fact that they had any. To the latter, this is what they had seen and this is all they know. They aspire to move to bigger cities some day and perhaps erase all semblance of an identity they once assosiated with …
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