“I still want to go back to being a farmer,” said Rajan, a Muduga tribal from Kattaikad settlement in Chittur, Agali. Rajan, like many other fellow tribals, works as a porter.

There is an obsession with agriculture among the tribals here; they save money to get back to farming every two to three years. But the transition in labour culture in the Attappady region in Kerala’s Palakkad district seems to have left them with the only option of going back to work as porters.

A major reason behind this phenomenon is higher daily wages. “We earn more working as porters,” said Kumaran, another tribal from the area. As porters, men and women tribals earn around Rs. 300 and Rs. 200 per day respectively — almost double of their farm income.

The region, that had extensive agricultural activities till some years ago, now grows only small quantities of vegetables, pepper, areca nut, coconut and coffee. Ragi, chana, and toor dal is grown by some tribals for self-consumption. Around a decade back, they used to grow ganja (cannabis) as it fetched more money than growing regular food items. Frequent excise department raids, however, has brought that down as well.

Meanwhile, lack of rainfall and irrigation facilities in Attappady has deteriorated soil quality, making agriculture even more difficult. Apart from the rivers Bhawani and Siruvani, borewells are the only source of water for irrigation, according to Rejimol, field assistant at the State’s Agriculture Department.

In spite of the Agriculture Department organising campaigns and forming farmers’ groups to encourage agriculture, more than half of the tribal population continues to work as porters. Krishnakumar, a Scheduled Caste Development Department official, explained the reason: “Due to the lack of proper documentation of tribal land, farming has received a major setback.”

Alcoholism, too, exacerbates the situation. Valliamma, an Irula tribal from Nakkupadhi, said, “Men drink to the extent that they never work. Farming is beyond their capability now.”

However, District Collector P.M. Ali Asgar Pasha said that measures were being taken to address these issues. “We have the Attappady Farmers’ Cooperative Society among other societies to re-establish agricultural practices.”

But micro-level State policies seem to do no good to the perishing agriculture. Vast barren stretches have replaced much of the agricultural land. According to a report of the Attappady Hills Area Development Society (AHADS), there is more fallow land (157 sq km) than agricultural land (130 sq km) in Attappady now.

In this scenario, the Attappady Valley Irrigation Project (AVIP), which proposes to irrigate 49 sq km of agricultural land, seems to be the government’s answer to reviving the dying agricultural practices. This project, which was proposed in 1970 by the Kerala Government, has not yet seen the light of the day. Acquiring land for the project is in progress. According to the AVIP report, land occupied by five Muduga settlements near the Siruvani river will be acquired for the project.

Residents of these settlements had vacated the area in the 1980s. While the Irrigation Department report states that 51 tribal families have already been rehabilitated and “there is no other impact on the population in the surrounding human settlement”, the displaced Mudugas have a different story to tell. They were offered alternative land, but only for constructing houses. Agricultural land, a means of livelihood, was ignored.

For all these years, the Mudugas were staying in makeshift premises, waiting to return to their own land. Some residents did return to one such settlement in April 2011, following an agitation.

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