Situated 60 km from Palakkad in Kerala, the hilly town of Nelliyampathy has been grappling with tribal rehabilitation and land alienation issues for more than two decades.
The people living in the Pollukad settlement identify themselves as descendants of the Malasar tribe. Most of the indigenous population residing in these mountainous terrains practised a lifestyle that sustained and nurtured a healthy ecosystem. They were the original inhabitants of the hills. And, not once did they tread treacherous paths of mindless destruction and selfish consumption.
Their battle for land and ownership can be traced all the way back to the pre-independence era. The land that they are currently residing in was temporarily allotted to them by the government. In actuality, these are unfarmed lands that belong to private orange farms. Nelliyampathy has an abundance of tea, orange, cardamom, coffee, pepper and fruits growing in the hilly terrains. Most of the land here is owned by government leased commercial estates that run profitable ventures.
The government refuses to give these tribals ownership of land nor do they allot them an alternate area where they can build permanent structures. The tribe is therefore stuck in a limbo. If they abandon their current residence, they wouldn’t be eligible for any help from the government. And, if they continue to reside here, they will never receive the help they were promised in the first place. From being a mighty tribe who once dwelled in the forests and the mountains, they have now been reduced to hapless beggars at the mercy of an indifferent and corrupt system.
The reason behind the state’s refusal to give Malasar Tribe ‘rightful ownership of land’ is simply because they haven’t measured the area yet nor have they conducted appropriate reviews to determine the population residing there. Moreover, the private estates have stopped them from appraising the land for unknown reasons.
A few years ago, the Vendari – tribal leader – expressed his discontent over the government’s haphazard attempt at surveying Pollukad. The leader put forth a condition that the entire tribe was to be given fair compensation rather than a small group of 29 families who have been fighting for their rights and making demands for years. It was wrongful on the state’s part to consider providing them a short term solution. The authorities starkly refused to make amends and eventually the plan was stalled.
There are about 156 families who belong to the tribe that are currently residing in the forests. Those who have jobs don’t stay here anymore. They have migrated to cities and bigger towns in search of greener pastures. Those who are unemployed are the worst affected. With nowhere to go and no means to earn, they often struggle to make ends meet.
The tribe even requested the government to let them put electric fences around their houses and farms to protect themselves from wild animals. Much to their dismay, they were informed that they weren’t allowed to do so. Permanent structures cannot be built on temporary lands. And, going against the law amounts to criminal offense. The tribe’s existence warrants little or no attention anymore. The opprobrious conduct of those in power blinded by their urban notion of what constitutes unsophisticated and backward has had a devastating impact on the ecosystem of the tribal culture.
To those who consider the earth as much theirs as other creatures’, marking territories based on economic wealth and power may have always seemed futile and frivolous. Today, they find themselves suffering at the brink of injustice masked by an immoral societal hierarchy.
Indiscriminate felling of trees and the exponential spread of tea estates all over the hills led to rapid deforestation thereby destroying the habitat of animals residing in these forests. This eventually led to the set up and formation of the wildlife sanctuary in 1973. In 2007, parts of the sanctuary and neighbouring forests were destroyed as a result of wild fire. One of the main reasons cited for the damage was depleted pre-monsoon rains. In fact, in 2014 Nelliyampathy received absolutely no rainfall between January and April. The repercussions of environmental degradation eventually led to the disruption of nature’s balance. As a result, the entire region faced an unprecedented drought last summer.
Decades ago, the tribe was asked to leave the forests since their land was forcefully declared to be a part of the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary. As a part of their rehabilitation, the tribes were promised a temporary living arrangement and jobs within the estates. However, over the years, they soon realised that they were uprooted in the name of conservation to protect the forests and its wildlife. And, perhaps, they paid a heavy price for it.
Small black pipes with the diameter of an intravenous pipe run across their courtyard. Drops of water are collected in buckets and used for their daily chores. This is their situation in monsoons. In summer, water usually dries up and they have to walk a great distance to a water body nearby. They put these shoddy pipes themselves. Sometimes porcupines and elephants end up damaging them. The tribal leader had approached the ministers and gave them all the legal documents they required in order to get fencing, electricity and better pipes in the area. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.
Despite losing all their arable land, there are many houses today growing fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. However, wild boars end up destroying most of their produce and it gets more and more difficult to maintain their small farms. They also keep dogs to prevent wild hogs from entering their gardens but since they are an aggressive lot, the possibility of their dogs being injured in the act is far higher than the hogs being chased away.
These tribes usually make their living by collecting wild ginger, wild turmeric, honey and sambrani from the forest. While sambrani is collected from trees, ginger grows in thick bamboo groves. They get about Rs 500 per litre for honey, Rs 80 for 1 kg sambrani, Rs 70 for 1 kg wild ginger and Rs 30 or 40 for 1 kg of wild turmeric. To collect honey, they use huge bamboo poles and carve steps on them to create a makeshift ladder which is then used to climb tall trees that house bee hives.
A quick glance into their dimly lit house feels as though one has entered a miniature household that’s barely held together with tarpaulin sheets and thatched roofs. Although thatch, straw and dried coconut leaves were woven to make sturdy structures by the tribals since the dawn of time, these houses are a haunting reminder of a thriving self-sustained community losing its soul owing to thoughtless urbanisation. The tribes that once survived on their skills and ability to live in harmony with nature have now been declared as primitive beings in desperate need of help and redemption by those who displaced them, took away their homes and destroyed their identity.
The wretched state of the houses in this tribal settlement presented a scene of appalling misery. Their inhabitants sat frozen in time. Their eyes vacant, and expressions desolate. We wonder what it must be like to stand the test of time as their faith in humanity dwindled everyday. Owing to internal disputes between the forest department, state government and the Panchayat,the authorities haven’t been able to provide efficient solutions with respect to water, electricity, housing or even employment.
The Malasar tribe is yet another group of individuals entangled in the maze of a morally and socially corrupt paradigm. Through this piece, we urge both Kerala and Central Government to give the tribal settlement the rightful ownership of their land and permit them to build permanent structures.
Submitted By – Akshatha Shetty & Piyush Goswami | Photos – Rest Of My Family