Badaga community members refuse to allow bus to ply to SC/ST villages in the Nilgiris

Despite assurances from the district administration, residents of the SC/ST villages say, the bus service was not continued; instead a spare bus plied to their village, but only in the evening, forcing commuters to walk several kilometres in the mornings

February 29, 2024 08:31 pm | Updated March 01, 2024 02:27 pm IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

Residents of Bikkapathy Mund face an arduous trek of 4 km through thick forest without buses to their village

Residents of Bikkapathy Mund face an arduous trek of 4 km through thick forest without buses to their village | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“If you cut us, do we not bleed?,” thunders an exasperated Vinod Kumar, a resident of Koranur village near Udhagamandalam in the Nilgiris. Vinod Kumar resides in one of two villages populated by Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities in Ebbanad panchayat.

The two villages, home to more than 45 Dalit and Adivasi families, were overjoyed after bus services, beginning from Udhagamandalam, were recently extended to Koranur from Ebbanad village, populated by the dominant Badaga community. The extension of the bus service by 2 km to Koranur was not only going to benefit the residents of the village, but also the Toda hamlet of Bikkapathy Mund, whose residents’ daily commute by walk, would halve, with buses stopping at Koranur.

However, the village residents’ joy of no longer having to walk from Koranur and Bikkapathy Mund, 2 km and 4 km from Ebbanad respectively, soon turned to anger and frustration after hundreds of people from Ebbanad staged a protest for over five hours late on Wednesday (February 27, 2024) evening, preventing the bus from reaching Koranur.

The bus to Koranur that was stopped by protesters from Ebbanadu on Wednesday (February 28, 2024) evening

The bus to Koranur that was stopped by protesters from Ebbanadu on Wednesday (February 28, 2024) evening | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Before the service was extended, residents of Bikkapathy Mund faced several difficulties: K. Thoodas Kuttan, 49, village headman of Bikkapathy Mund, said the last bus from Udhagamandalam would reach Ebbanad only around 7 p.m. -- for Bikkapathy Mund residents, this meant a walk of 4 km through thick forests populated by gaur, leopards, tigers and elephants to reach their village. “That is why we petitioned for the bus to drop us at Koranur, and then return to Ebbanad,” said Mr. Kuttan.

Incidentally, Ebbanad receives a major portion of its water from a stream in Bikkapathy Mund. “Yet, they have no gratitude to the residents of the village,” charged Mr. Kuttan.

Dinesh Kuttan, who has been forced to move out of the Toda hamlet to Koranur to ensure his children get to school everyday, said that the motivation to stop the buses to the village are casteist in nature. “They openly state they will not allow the bus to carry a signboard of a village populated by ‘colony people’ (a term used by dominant caste members to denote Dalits and persons of Sri Lankan origin resettled in the Nilgiris),” said Mr. Dinesh Kuttan.

Women are most affected by the lack of transportation to nearby Koranur, said Bhuvana Rani, who was one of the people on board the bus that was stopped by Ebbanad residents. She said instead of arresting the protesters, the police spent the best part of five hours asking the passengers to alight and walk to their villages. “We felt the police was taking their side,” said Ms. Rani.

The residents of Bikkapathy Mund and in particular, Koranur, are fearful of backlash from Ebbanad residents, who vastly outnumber them. “While we are around 100-150 people, more than 1,500 Badagas live in Ebbanad, and we feel this is also the reason why the government, especially in an election year, is reluctant to act against them,” alleged P. Natrajan, a daily wage worker from Koranur.

Nilgiris District Collector, M. Aruna, insisted the district administration is taking the situation extremely seriously. She said the bus to Koranur would definitely continue to ply, though the residents of Ebbanad met the Nilgiris Superintendent of Police, and again expressed their unwillingness to budge.

Ms. Aruna said adequate police presence would be posted along the route to ensure the bus reaches Koranur, and steps would be taken to ensure the situation remains under control and doesn’t spread to other villages.

T. Subramani, who along with a group of 15 men in Ebbanad was discussing the issue on Thursday, February 28, said the government could ply separate buses to Koranur, but the local residents would not allow the Ebbanad bus to travel past the village.

“The bus travels with the name of the Ebbanad village, which is our pride and identity,” he told The Hindu. He said the buses have been plying to Ebbanad for 20 years and that the residents will not allow “their village bus” to be extended to Koranur. “Nobody is stopping Koranur residents from getting on the Ebbanad bus, but we will not allow the Ebbanad bus to go to Koranur,” he said.

“We have been living here for decades, with no streetlights, no roads, no toilets and no basic amenities. It seems like all the facilities extended by the government stop at Ebbanad, just like the bus. The year might be 2024, but we are still living in the 1950s,” said a dejected K. Palaniswami, the headman of Koranur.

Despite the assurances of the Nilgiris district Collector, residents of Bikkapathy Mund and Koranur said on Friday, March 1, that the bus to Ebbanad did not reach their village. Instead, a spare bus plied between Udhagamandalam and Koranur at 5.45 p.m. in the evening, but no buses are plying to the village in the mornings. “Apart from giving into the demand of the Badagas, we also feel that the spare bus, which is now being operated, will be an eyewash, and may not last beyond a few days, following which the services will be withdrawn, citing lack of passengers,” said Mr. Dinesh Kuttan, when contacted by The Hindu.

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