A hornbill calls in Kochu Pampa, its two-note sound echoing through the woods and the line houses that once was a busy neighbourhood. There was a time when curious children would come rushing out of their homes on hearing the bird calls. But today, almost four-and-half-decades after Sri Lankan Tamil refugees were settled in one of the remotest villages in Kerala, several houses lie vacant and the area wears a deserted look. The settlement falls within the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR).
As heated debates on buffer zones rage across the forest-fringe settlements outside, confusion on the impact of the buffer zone markings and resettlement reigns supreme among the residents here. Adding to their confusion was an earlier proposal by the Kerala Forest Development Corporation (KFDC), which manages the area, seeking their willingness to relocate.
While the older generation fear they will be forced to leave the settlement, the youngsters appear keen to move out. “I do not own anything here but this forest has been my life since I was 18. I will take my last breath here,’’ Yeshu, a 64 year old cancer patient who now survives on a monthly pension from the KFDC, said.
A bulk of the nearly 350 families residing here are descendants of Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates who were rehabilitated here in the 1970s. With cardamom plantations loosing their sheen, the residents are left with fewer options. “I have been allotted some land at Angamoozhi in Pathanamthitta under the LIFE Mission programme. But my employment prospects are limited in the rubber-dominant villages of Pathanamthitta and I will have to travel across this forest every day to work in the cardamom plantations of Idukki,’’ Manikandan, 43, pointed out.
The forest officials too appear in a state of confusion over the future of the village with lease period of plantations set to expire by 2025. “Every feature of the forest here has a significance in Gavi’s life as the people here rely on products collected there to sustain life. In this context, one time compensation for rehabilitation is not going to be enough,’’ noted a forest officer.
When contacted, KFDC officials said they were awaiting for a clarity on the buffer zone demarcation on the plantation area. “It is for the forest department to define whether Gavi is part of the buffer zone or not. Till then, there will be no regulations on the activities under the management plan, that is cardamom cultivation and tourism,’’ said Sajeer K.V., KFDC Divisional Manager, Gavi.