We met Sheen at around 10.30 am. The hills were shrouded in mist adding a certain charm to the mystery and allure of Attapadi. A pall of gloom descended on the town as we made our way to a tiny tea stall run by a mother-daughter duo. After a heavy breakfast of crispy appams and idli, we drove towards lands unfamiliar and laden with ancient memories of a foresaken civilisation. Upon meandering through the woods, we discovered trails and roads that curved upwards. And, for a fleeting moment, we caught poignant glimpses of a bygone era amidst lonely cries of boles and creeks.
We reached an Irula Hamlet called Paloor in an hour. The rocky off-road path paved way to the centre of the village. Sheen told us that he knew a local and it would be better if he accompanied us to the hamlet. We decided to wait for him at a barber shop. In the span of a few minutes, men surrounded us. Some looked at us with amusement while others showed expressions of scorn and contempt. Sheen explained to them who we were. Soon, the atmosphere lightened and curious glances were thrown our way. Whilst we stood there in silence, an old man could no longer contain his eagerness. “Who are you? Where have you come from?” he asked. We spoke to him for a while till we saw a man walking with long strides towards us.
His name was Jose. His eyes sparkled with amusement. He stared at Fayez dumbfounded for a while and said with a chuckle, “You look like Che Guevara.” He gathered a few of the tribal elders and led us into an alleyway. We sat on a makeshift porch outside a dilapidated structure. One of the men, Dora, wore a dispirited look and muttered in whispers, “What did the officials tell you? Did they talk about all the projects they initiated for tribes over the years? Take a walk around the hamlet. That will answer all your questions. Only half the schemes have been implemented by the government. Of course, on paper, we have supposedly received everything a human being could ever ask for. It gets quite exasperating sometimes when we realise how we have been duped over and over again. Houses meant for us were sold to settlers. And, those built for the tribes don’t last more than three years. Our life is worthless to them and will continue to remain that way.”
Clouds heavy with rain rolled across the sky. Dora’s eyes went blank as his arms tightened around him. Angst and betrayal consumed his thoughts. Their children hadn’t the faintest clue of the atrocities committed against their forefathers. Hope seems to fade with every passing moment as the tribes witness their ancestry collapse before their eyes. They live together today but are separated in spirit.
Contrary to what we were told, the government provides them support with respect to education only till grade ten. A middle-aged man approached us and sat beside Dora. Puffing on his beedi his voice dripped with repugnance as he said, “Our schools are falling apart. The walls aren’t stable and yet we have no choice but to send our children there. We have been complaining for the past decade. But no one has paid any heed to us. Sometimes, it feels as if we are deliberately being pushed to the brink of sanity. Are we helpless or are they indifferent? We can’t say anymore. A few years ago, they upgraded the schools from eighth grade to tenth grade. However, no teachers were hired for the students. No curriculum was devised. We have lodged innumerable complaints but they haven’t yielded any results.”
Their dependency on initiatives spearheaded by the government increased ten-folds in the past few years. Earlier, they would survey the land, gauge the conditions of the soil and water-levels on their own. They had ample rainfall and never once did they envisage drought-like conditions plaguing Attapadi. Soon, all that changed. Rapid urbanisation and deforestation destroyed the character of the landscape. And, before they knew it, the earth and the heavens turned against them. Lush green vegetation withered and wilted before their eyes.
“Government intervention ended up destroying our identity. It was all a part of a bigger corrupt agenda. If our situation improved, then these agencies would stop receiving funds regularly. Therefore, the pockets of our babus would never be filled and the middlemen won’t make their cut. Their problems and solutions begin and end with us. Eventually, they wanted to turn us into slaves who would be completely dependent on them for food, shelter, education, health and even survival. Tell me, don’t I deserve to be treated with dignity? Am I not a part of this land too? ” asked Dora who further added that if the Panchayat had in fact built an efficient system in place, then it would result in programmes shutting down within a few years of their emulation. The existence of pervasive corruption has made bribery an acceptable practice in the tribal hamlets today. And, he strongly believed that the system continued to capitalise on their precarious economic and social realities.
Throughout the conversation, we felt as if these tribesmen were simply waiting to be heard. And, that’s all they ever wanted. Someone to listen to their woes without any judgement. Someone to understand their side of the story. They held nothing dearer in their hearts than the boon of freedom. They wished to be free from the shackles of urbanisation and modern slavery. Their only hope is that perhaps someday their kids will tell tales of their ancestors those who once resided in the forests, who celebrated harmonious unity and peaceful co-existence with all life forms; who treated one another with kindness. Perhaps someday…
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