Will the plans to develop the tribal panchayat bear fruit?

The sound of an earth mover greets you at Pettimudy, the entry point to the remote tribal village of Edamalakkudy. Work is under way on a road to connect the village with the main town of Munnar.

Munnar was the parent grama panchayat before Edamalakkudy was carved out in 2010. Since then, a number of development projects have been taken up, and the road to Edamalakkudy has received top priority. Still, it’s a long road to progress.

The Muthuvans, the only tribe at Edamalakkudy, were leading a reclusive life since time immemorial in their 28 settlements. Since the formation of the grama panchayat, many changes have come to the village. It is a period of transition – both in terms of physical and social life.

Under a special package announced by the government after the visit of Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Tribes P.K. Jayalakshmi to Edamalakkudy, an amount of Rs.10.35 crore has been earmarked as the initial investment for infrastructure here.

The development works are being taken up by the Forest Department with the Idukki Sub-Collector as the nodal officer, and the funds are being routed through the Tribal Welfare Department so as to minimise the impact on the forest environment and the traditional way of life.

In the social realm, the tribal people, especially the women, have started to mingle with those from outside. This change in outlook and the yearning for economic progress is shared by them with the officials who visit them and inquire about their well being. However, the officials highlight the need to look at the larger picture. “Their needs need to be acknowledged while providing basic facilities,” a forest official said.

The village faces a host of problems, and these need more focussed attention than what the special package envisages.

Drop in population

The number of Muthuvans has been on a decline. As per estimates, there are 2,200 Muthuvans at Edamalakkudy. A major reason for the decline in the population is a contraceptive tablet used by women to avoid the ‘Valappura,’ a separate house that they live in during their menstrual periods. Without lights or basic facilities, the ‘Valappura’ in every settlement is a nightmare experience.

A survey by the Health Department shows that regular use of the tablet has resulted in many couples not having children. A health official told The Hindu that a campaign had been started among the tribal people on the negative effects of the tablet, and funds had been earmarked in all the settlements to equip the ‘Valappura’ with basic facilities. Nutritional food would ensure that young girls, who were found to suffer from anaemia and other health issues, would grow up healthy.

Migration

Annasami, a senior member of the tribe, says a major problem is the lack of agriculture production in the village, forcing the tribal people to migrate to Mankulam and Kothamangalam. The government provides rice under the public distribution system at Re.1 a kg, but the tribal people have to pay Rs.11, the extra Rs.10 being the cost of transporting a kilo of any commodity on head from Pettimudy.

The agriculture production has decreased drastically owing to wild animal attacks, poor soil fertility, and lack of facilities for marketing the produce, including cardamom.

Vast areas of cardamom cultivation in the forest have been overrun by other plants, and the tribal people have almost abandoned it. While the Edamalakkudy cardamom is grown organically and is of good quality, it suffers on account of shape and colour. With no pesticide or fertilizer application, the production is below one-tenth of that in an average plantation. Even when the price had touched Rs.1,000 a kg, the tribal people never got more than Rs.300 a kg in the Munnar market. “How can we grow it if we suffer losses after paying for the labour and the cost of transporting it to Munnar,” says Sivalingam, a cardamom farmer. With no facilities for drying the cardamom, the tribal people sell it when it is green, fetching a low price and often on the terms set by the middlemen.

It is a similar story with kurumbullu, plantain, rice, pepper, and tapioca.

Elephant raids

Annasami says it was some five years ago that the farmers stopped cultivation as the crops, especially plantain, were destroyed in frequent raids by wild elephants. “Wild gaur and pigs also destroy the crops,” he says.

A positive change is community farming. Members of various families in the settlements make sheds either on treetops or on the ground, and stay there at night to scare away the wild animals. “When we take up farming in a group, there is no shortage of people in the shed for keeping watch,” says a farmer.

Special package

Under the special package, an amount has been earmarked for making trenches and solar fences around the settlements. However, a question mark hangs over their effectiveness in a tribal village where settlements are scattered across a large area.

“A practical approach is cultivation of crops that are not raided by the wild elephants. The cultivation of plantain and other similar crops is not advisable,” a forest official says.

Meetings will be held with the farmers to make them aware of animal behaviour so as to save the crops. Solar fencing and trenches will not be effective, given the topography of the area and the cost involved, he says.

Subin Kumar M., a panchayat official, says there is a plan to include activities such as digging of trenches and joint farming under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. But there are doubts about the feasibility of trenches in a region where there are no clear boundaries between the forest and the cultivated land. Trenches are also not practical as the settlements are located far from each other.

Tribal huts

There was a proposal in the special package to build traditional tribal huts for the poor that will be in tune with the natural environment. However, a forest official says, there are plans to make durable houses instead of the tribal huts that are prone to “attack” by wild elephants and are “vulnerable” to natural calamities. An amount of Rs.3 lakh has been allotted for each house.

However, whether these houses meet the requirements of the Muthuvans is suspect. In a forest settlement of Muthuvans near Marayoor, a non-governmental organisation had built a few houses for the tribal people using cement and asbestos. The selected beneficiaries abandoned the houses citing the unpolished surface of the walls and the heat caused by the asbestos roof. The Muthuvans say their traditional huts are strong and resistant to wild animal attacks. The huts are made using twigs, stones, and mud, and in such a manner that even if elephants attack the houses, they do not fall. Only the stoned are dislodged, says Neelamegham of the Marayoor forest.

Social structure

The traditional social structure of the Muthuvans is different from any other tribal communities. Though they mingle with outsiders now, the caste system is still strong, and no one from outside is allowed to marry into the village.

At Edamalakkudy, the population comprises two sections – Tamil Muthuvan and Malayalam Muthuvan, as they refer to themselves; both distinguishable through the dialects, though the customs and tradition are the same.

The road to progress in Edamalakkudy is not smooth, says an official of the Integrated Tribal Development Project.

There are many settlements in the State where crores of rupees had been spent for the welfare of the tribal people, but whose life has been made more miserable, he says.

Remani Arjunan, a tribal person and chairperson of the Kudumbasree Mission at Edamalakkudy, says: “We need the road as we have to carry those unwell on bamboo cot for 18 km through the forest to reach Pettimudy. We can also sell our produce at a higher price if the goods do not have to be carried on foot.