Almost all of tribal land in the colony has been pledged with them

The news shattered Santhoshkumar, a tribesman here, just four days before the wedding of his daughter Renji. A timber dealer, in a heartless manner, had demanded back the money he took as advance for selling two mahogany trees on his land. Mr. Santhoshkumar had hoped to conduct the marriage with the money from the sale of the trees.

In his predicament, a moneylender of nearby Doreland smelled an opportunity. The tribesman had only just got relieved from a 15-year pledge of his nearly two-acre fertile land with this lender. For the marriage, Mr. Santhoshkumar signed an agreement again for another 15 years for a sum of Rs. 1.5 lakh. He will have to repay the amount to get back the land, and the interest will be the produce grown in it.

The land, he says, has pepper, coffee and paddy and by selling the harvest, he could have raised the amount in a year.

With no formal channels of credit, the tribal people in this colony are easy meat for exploitative moneylenders,

Kesavan, Mr. Santhoshkumar’s neighbour, says his brother-in law has pledged his large land for a long term for a paltry sum. Ramankutty, another tribesman, says everyone in the settlement has pledged fertile land with the moneylenders for long periods. “It is due to a financial crisis in the settlement,” he says.

Kani Divakaran, the leader of nearly 35 families of Urali origin here, says crisis hits the families in the form of disease and marriage. “The moneylenders cannot be blamed for it, as they support us in a crucial time,” Mr. Divakaran, who has pledged his large cultivated area, says.

The tribal people have not sold land in the settlement in recent times. In reality, they are left with only a few barren acres. The period of loan extends from 10 years to 15 years, Mr. Santhoshkumar says.

Almost all tribal people, he says, have given away land for money in the form of lease (the right to harvest the crops for a long period) or pledge. In the latter case, the interest is the harvest.

The moneylenders love to take on lease the fertile land with a perennial stream flowing through the settlement helping to irrigate it even during the summer.

The settlement commonly had 50 acres of paddy field, which could meet the family requirements till four years ago. However, only below 10 per cent of it is now used for paddy cultivation, which is mostly done by people from outside the colony. The rest of the land has been converted to raise crops such as plantain, tapioca, cardamom and pepper. There is no bar on cultivating or shifting of cultivation and it is the reason crops such as cardamom entered the paddy fields, Mr. Divakaran says. “The immediate fallout of the cardamom cultivation is the pollution of drinking water as chemical pesticides and fertilizers are applied in huge quantities to maximise profit,” P.S. Pressannan of the colony says.

Most of the loan deals are secretly done, and it is known even by the family members only when a “new owner” comes with labourers for harvesting the crops, he says. The laziness of the young generation and the drinking habit are often the reason for the exploitation. Almost all the cultivated land is now in the hands of nearly 15 moneylenders. Ignorance and heavy dependence on people outside has led to the situation. Nearly a decade ago, it was one of the richest tribal colonies nearby, Mr. Pressannan says.

“Now most of the tribal people here work as labourers on outside plantations,” says Rejeesh, son of Mr. Santhoshkumar.

Unlike those of other settlements, the tribal people of Chenninaikankudy lack awareness and projects.

“A campaign against pledging land is needed among the tribal people before they become virtually landless,” Mr. Pressannan says.

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