Gavi’s quaint charms fail to hide the struggle of Tamil families from Sri Lanka rehabilitated in the village.
Gavi is a new rage. Ever since a popular Malayalam film, Ordinary , lifted the veil on the quaint charms of the mountain village, 104 km from the district headquarters of Pathanamthitta, in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, the world has been flowing to this ecotourism hotspot.
But for some 400 desperate Tamil families from Sri Lanka rehabilitated in Pachakkanam-Gavi, it is a daily struggle for existence in this desolate island of agonies.
As the film has shown, even getting to Gavi is difficult, with the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation running just four services via the village, connecting Kumily and Pathanamthitta. Two taxis and three autorickshaws complete the transport system. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. has set up a base transceiver station at Gavi, bringing the place on the cellular map.
But access, communication, educational and health-care facilities — nothing meets the requirements of the Tamils in the village.
As many as 136 Tamil families from Sri Lanka were rehabilitated on the cardamom plantations of the Kerala Forest Development Corporation (KFDC) at Gavi four decades ago on an agreement signed between Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and his Sri Lankan counterpart, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1964. The number of repatriates has gone up to 1,500 (nearly 400 families) in the past four decades.
But their plight in the reserve forests on the borders of Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts is turning from bad to worse. They now live in penury. The KFDC, which is expected to take care of them, is finding itself in an equally pathetic plight. Successive governments have failed to understand the problem of the poor Tamils, whose forefathers left India for the erstwhile Ceylon and settled there, working on tea, rubber and coffee plantations.
The Shastri-Sirimavo pact was made in the wider perspective of protecting the interests and welfare of those Stateless Tamils of Indian origin. But as time passed, the government miserably failed to do justice to them.
The Sirimavo dispensation had, under the pact, provided the Indian government with money for the rehabilitation of the Sri Lankan Tamils who settled down in different colonies in the southern States. The amount worked out to Rs. 21,000 a family, a sufficiently large sum those days. The government had given this money to the KFDC.
But the corporation, plagued by alleged maladministration and resultant losses, is finding it difficult to provide jobs to the settlers on its cardamom plantations.
“We were brought into this forestland with promises of better living conditions. But after all these years, we do not even get proper drinking water supply in these colonies. We have to toil hard on the cardamom plantations on a meagre daily wage of Rs. 237,” Nataraj says. Paechi Amma, another senior citizen, nods assent.
“And look at our slum-like dwellings which are in a dilapidated state. We are denied even the right to education and employment. A majority of the families here belong to the Scheduled Caste sections. The saddest part is that we are not eligible to get reservation as the authorities are reluctant to give us caste certificates,” Manikantan, a young graduate, says. Manikantan, one of the 10 persons with degrees here, is a regular visitor to the Secretariat, seeking justice for himself and his people.
Though the Ranni Tahsildar had issued a community certificate that he belongs to the Pallan community, a Scheduled Caste, on July 2, 2005, the Revenue Department denied him a caste certificate.
A letter issued by the Additional Chief Secretary to Rajendran of KFDC Estate at Gavi on April 4, 2012, says those repatriated after 1950 are not eligible for caste certificates from the State where they have been settled. They would be treated as members of the Scheduled Castes only by their “State of original.”
Mr. Manikantan did his Plus Two from the Government Tamil Higher Secondary School in Thiruvananthapuram and the B.Sc. course in Botany from University College there. Amaravati, his sister, had passed the 10th standard with distinction from a school in Vandiperiyar, 28 km from Gavi, but could not pursue her studies for want of money.
A Tamil-medium lower primary school, with a headmistress, a part-time teacher and a student strength of eight, functioning in a small building is the lone education facility for the children of repatriates at Gavi.
Those repatriates who have the money send their children to schools in Vandiperiyar. Some 50 children make the trip packed in an ambulance allotted for Gavi by Francis George, former Idukki MP.
K.J. Varghese, Managing Director, KFDC, told The Hindu that the corporation would soon buy a bus for transporting the children.
Mr. Varghese, a Chief Conservator of Forests on deputation to the corporation, said many of the grievances aired by the repatriates were genuine. But the corporation was in loss and found it hard to give them adequate support. The corporation would, however, take immediate steps to repair the labour quarters.
He said the corporation was trying to compensate is losses from the cardamom plantations with the revenue it earns from the successful ecotourism initiative in Gavi.
As much as 913 ha of forestland was leased out by the Forest Department to the corporation for the plantations in 1975. Official sources say the yield from the plantations in the previous year was about 10 tonnes of cardamom. But, by the projections of the Spices Board, the cardamom yield from one hectare should be 200 kg. As such, the 913 ha of KFDC cardamom plantation should have yielded no less than 182 tonnes.
A breakeven situation would demand a yield of 50 tonnes, official sources say.
Kashinathan, electrician with the corporation’s ecotourism project, says the healthcare facility provided to them in the form of a dispensary at Gavi was pathetic.
Only a compounder (pharmacist) mans the dispensary. In Gavi, snakebites and accidents involving poor workers are common. Many had died without proper medical care, Palaniyandi says.
Children above the age of 18 are not eligible for free medical aid in the dispensary, Mr. Kashinathan says. The condition of 50-year-old Kamalamma Chelladurai, who had suffered a stroke leading to partial paralysis while working on a cardamom plantation two years ago, is sad. Twenty nine-year old Dharmalingam, who fell from an electric post two years ago, is bedridden. The corporation has spared a worker to assist him and his 80-year-old father. The post office has gone without a postman for the past two years.
Mr. Kashinathan and Mr. Manikandan complain that the movement of people has been restricted with the inclusion of Gavi, excluding the cardamom plantations, in the Periyar Tiger Reserve three years ago. They say the Tamil families at Gavi would be happy if the government comes out with a pragmatic plan to rehabilitate them outside the reserve forests and give them compensation for finding a dwelling place.
Sanjayan Kumar, Deputy Director of the Reserve, told The Hindu that the Forest Department had limitations in relaxing the rules pertaining to the wildlife sanctuary for the families.
The taluk headquarters of Ranni is at a distance of 108 km. Gavi comes under Ward III of the Seethathode grama panchayat, 75 km away, Thaipillai Guruswami, panchayat member, says.
Ms. Guruswami told The Hindu that it was sad that the Tamil repatriates were not eligible to get any benefits under various welfare schemes launched by the government.
Meanwhile, the police station at Gavi was closed down a decade ago and the area brought under the Moozhiyar police station situated at a distance of 70 km.
He said the KFDC could operate its vehicles for transporting people across check-posts at Vallakkadavu and Pachakkanam during emergencies.