“Endengilum kittiyo, saare? (did you get anything, sir?)” 18-year-old Suresh K. asked section forest officer Lavakumar E.R.
The teenager’s grandmother, Nenji, stifles a laugh, proud at Suresh’s open challenge to the Forest Department team whicht had just come out of a clearing in the forest at Thazhe Budhiyoor, a Kurumba hamlet nestled in the Nilgiris range.
Mr. Lavakumar’s team of three is heading back after a routine patrol.
The Forest official takes this correspondent aside and says: “Do you know there are fewer men than women in these hamlets… Why? The men die young of drinking. In every house, there is illicit hooch buried under the ground, but how can we go inside with all the laws protecting them. Of course, there is no ganja cultivation now,” Mr. Lavakumar said.
Suresh overhears him and throws a second challenge at the officer: “Sir, earlier our fathers were scared of you people. They would run inside when they see men in khaki. Today, that’s not case… we know that we have done no wrong; we don’t have to be afraid.”
Mr. Lavakumar, whose face crinkles into a smile, walks away.
Suresh is the new face of the Kurumbas… the next generation. Like his elder brother, Murugan P., he talks repeatedly about the confidence education has given him; the right to question authority. He is doing his first year of travel and tourism course at the KPSMM Vocational Higher Secondary School at Varode in Ottapalam. “I am the only tribal youth from Attappady in my school. There is no hostel facility there. So I went to the Palakkad District Collector’s office and asked him to help me. Now I get monthly stipend of Rs. 1,500 towards room rent. The going is tough, but I have to finish the course,” he said.
But, for Murugan, it has been tough from the very beginning.
“I was seven years old. I wanted to go to school. My ooru people did not take me seriously. I would rebel when they made fun of my wish to go to school. One day, my cousin Manickyan decided to take me to the Kookampalayam LP School. I still remember it was the school assembly, and I didn’t know where to stand. The hostel for tribal boys was near Thavalam. It was like a cattle shed. Every week, one or two children would run away home to their ooru,” the 23-year-old said.
Today, he is a daily-wage teacher at the Government Tribal Welfare LP School. He earns Rs.8,000. He is doing a distance course from the University of Calicut in M.A. Sociology and wants to appear for the University Grants Commission examination.
“I come home to Edavani ooru every weekend, not as a runaway from the Kookampalayam school hostel when I was a child, but as a teacher who wants to give something back to my ooru,” he said. The brothers have even been able to influence their mother, Mari, who enrolled as an anganwadi helper.
The ooru, one of the most remote hamlets in Attappady, has two of its children doing graduate courses in Physics and Economics.
There are 30 government educational institutions in Attappady, of which 18 are lower primary schools, 4 upper primary schools, 7 high schools, 4 Plus Two schools and 2 vocational higher secondary schools. There are 16 hostels for Scheduled Tribe children.
But Murugan’s cousin, Manickyan K, a Malayalam teacher at the Kottathara Government UP School, says tribal children study till class 10, after which they discontinue. “We call this phenomenon kozhinju pokku (withering away). Finance is a problem, hostel accommodation in Attappady is also an issue.
Panali M, who contested the Pudur panchayat elections last year and lost by 16 votes, says the Scheduled Tribes Promoters do not talk about the children’s problems at the ooru council. Most of them are “yes men”, he says. They are supposed to take care of the ooru’s children, visit them at the hospital or at the hostel. They don’t.