Kerala

Tribals in Wayanad wait for the promised land

Nowhere to go: Tribal people cultivating pepper on forest land at Cheeyambam in Wayanad, Kerala.  

Balakrishnan, 70, is the head of the Annapara ‘Kattunayakka’, a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG). As a boy, his parents told him that his grandfather possessed nearly 60 acres of land. “We do not own a single cent now, not even to cremate our dead,” he says. A dilapidated single-room hut situated on encroached forest land at Irulam, near Pulpally in Kerala’s Wayanad district, has been his home for five years now.

Mr. Balakrishnan’s grandfather was illiterate. When settler farmers began migrating to Wayanad in the 1960s, a few of them introduced alcohol and tobacco to tribals, who had no proper title deeds, and soon found their land usurped. Two hundred such tribal families have been living on the slopes of Irulam and Cheeyambam in the South Wayanad forest division since May 2012.

The politically sensitive issue of tribals with no lands in this part of the Western Ghats has hit the headlines again, after 54 families entered the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and took over land last week, marking a fresh phase of the agitation.

Years ago, on January 5, 2003, over 3,000 tribals from 800 families of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha began encroaching upon forest land and building huts at Thakarappadi in the Wayanad Sanctuary. About 725 tribal members from different parts of the district were arrested under the Wildlife (Protection) Act.

They were acquitted in two cases by a magistrate’s court in Sulthan Bathery on August 2, 2011. Later, the government cancelled all related cases against them.

A few months later, a group of tribals under the aegis of the Adivasi Kshema Samiti, a tribal feeder organisation of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), encroached on and built huts in the forest under the South and North Wayanad Forest Divisions.

A tribal couple before their newly hut covered with plastic sheets at inside a piece of forest land at Cheeyambam near Pulpally.

A tribal couple before their newly hut covered with plastic sheets at inside a piece of forest land at Cheeyambam near Pulpally.  

 

Later, the agitators were given rights for the land under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. When the stir intensified in Wayanad, with support from major political parties in 2012, thousands of landless tribal people participated. They erected huts on forest land, hoping that they would get to own it at the end of the agitation. This led to 53 agitation points in the two forest divisions.

Hope takes root

They felt encouraged because similar agitations had resulted in land being assigned under the Forest Rights Act, on which they began cultivating ginger, coffee and pepper.

Mr. Balakrishnan also planted nearly 300 pepper vines and 200 coffee plants on an acre of forest land ‘assigned’ to him by the leaders of the Adivasi Congress, an outfit of the Congress party. He was promised that he would never be evicted. But the Forest Rights Act was meant only to protect the rights of people who could trace their claim back to 75 years or three generations, and not for all landless tribal people.

Narayani, 45, a resident of the Irulam Paniya settlement near Pulpally with just 15 families, is an activist with the Adivasi Kshema Samiti, the tribal wing of the CPI(M). She says her party members told her that tribals should continue agitating and not leave the area till they got land.

Though Forest Department officials arrested 826 tribal agitators, including 296 women, after demolishing nearly 1,287 huts erected by the latter in July 2012 alone, they were let off. They were back when local courts granted them bail.

The families were those arrested under the Kerala Forest Act but later, the government cancelled all forest cases against them. Once the intensity of the agitation abated, a few returned to the huts. Those who did not possess land stayed back.

An old age tribal couple before their thatched hut with wild hay erected on a piece of forest land, under the South Wayanad forest division, at Irulam in Wayanad district.

An old age tribal couple before their thatched hut with wild hay erected on a piece of forest land, under the South Wayanad forest division, at Irulam in Wayanad district.  

 

Battling many odds

These members still live in unhygienic makeshift huts, with no potable water, vulnerable to diseases and attacks by wild animals. In some instances, elephants have destroyed their huts. Their political support disappeared after elections were past.

Though governments have enacted the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, and the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer and Restoration of Alienated lands) Act, 1975, for tribal people, their issues remain unresolved, says C. K. Janu, chairperson of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha. “The Land Reforms Act enacted in the Kerala State in the 1960s helped thousands of landless tenants realise their dream of owning land but it also denied justice to tribal people,” says Ms. Janu, who has led agitations for them.

Data available with Kerala’s Directorate of Scheduled Tribes Development, show there are 36,135 tribal families in the small district. Of them, 8,018 are landless and 5,050 families hold below 10 cents of land.

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 1:46:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/tribals-in-wayanad-wait-for-the-promised-land/article19743621.ece

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