Adivasis left high and dry in the Nilgiris

More than 700 families, including Adivasis, were incentivised to leave the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris as a part of a ‘golden handshake’ with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. But many of them complain of broken promises and abandonment, reports Rohan Premkumar 

March 18, 2023 12:15 am | Updated March 20, 2023 02:05 pm IST

A temple of the Kattunayakans at Bennai village inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. The Adivasis say leaving the forest was tantamount to abandoning the gods.

A temple of the Kattunayakans at Bennai village inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. The Adivasis say leaving the forest was tantamount to abandoning the gods. | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

On a hot afternoon in Cheppodu, an unhappy G. Maaran sits outside his mud house under a protruding thatched roof made of materials gathered from the forests. The old man owns a herd of goats, which stand bleating under a withered tree towering over his small house. Maaran used to live in Bennai, just a stone’s throw away, in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve of Tamil Nadu. Maaran says the Forest Department tried relocating him and other Adivasi families to areas outside the tiger reserve. But dissatisfied with what was promised to them, these families have moved from Bennai to Cheppodu, which is also in the reserve.

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Maaran is a member of the Kattunayakan tribe, an indigenous group who live in the forests of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and Guldalur in the Nilgiris. The Kattunayakans, Irulas, Paniyas and Kurumbas were incentivised to leave the tiger reserve as a part of the ‘golden handshake’ agreement between the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and more than 700 families.

The agreement was formulated by the government after the Mountadden and Wayanadan Chetty communities obtained an order from the Madras High Court in 2007 seeking relocation away from the forest citing a lack of basic amenities. The Adivasis claim that the Chettys were inclined to relocate as they had no traditional ties to the forest, whereas the Adivasis do. They say they were either coerced into moving or misinformed about the benefits of relocation. The aim of the ‘golden handshake’ was to not just benefit the local communities inside the tiger reserve, but also aid conservation efforts.

The 701 families from 30 small hamlets were to be relocated in three phases, with each opting for a one-time payment of ₹10 lakh, or land and housing equivalent to the land they forfeited to the government. The first phase began in earnest only in 2017, a decade after the agreement. Till date, 569 families from the four Adivasi groups and the Mountadden and Wayanadan Chetty communities have been relocated, say officials from the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, while 132 families remain within the tiger reserve. A total of ₹66.19 crore has been sanctioned for the project.

‘We feel cheated’

Angry with the Department for “cheating them,” Maaran and 40 families from the Kattunayakan tribe from Bennai have once again built houses on the forest land. It is in this hut surrounded by goats that Maaran sits now.

“I thought I was being promised ₹10 lakh in cash, a house and land by the government. But in the end, I only got some money, not the full amount I was promised,” he says.

G. Appu, another resident in Cheppodu, says the communities did not receive documents for the land that they purchased. “With the money and through mediation by a Forest Department personnel, I purchased around 25 cents of land (one cent is 0.01 acres). But I still don’t have a patta (documentation). The owner of the land says the land documents are with the Revenue Department and that he is yet to see them,” says Appu. “As we are poor and many of us haven’t gone to school, many of the landowners have cheated us.”

The Kattunayakans and Paniyas of Bennai village say they were either coerced into moving or misinformed about the benefits of relocation. 

The Kattunayakans and Paniyas of Bennai village say they were either coerced into moving or misinformed about the benefits of relocation.  | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

Like Appu, Maaran opted for a one-time payout and bought a vehicle that he rents out to transport goods. According to Maaran, the Forest Department said that all his sons, who were above the age of 18 when the scheme was implemented, would be eligible for compensation. “Even though three of my children are eligible for compensation, only one of them has got the money,” he says.

Also read | Forest rights are still far off for tribal communities

K. Mahendran, an Adivasi rights activist from the Nilgiris, says many of the Adivasis who were resettled outside the tiger reserve are unclear about what they were owed in the first place. “While the Mountadden and Wayanadan Chettys wanted to relocate from the reserve, and have largely been able to do so with few complications, the Kattunayakans and the Paniyas have not been resettled fairly. As many people seem to have been involved in the process of resettlement, and promises were made with little paperwork or documentation, it seems that most people were not informed clearly or were even misinformed about what they would receive for relocating,” he says.

The two communities claim that they have been cheated by a few Forest Department staff, some landowners and middlemen. “While this is difficult to prove, it should be probed by the police,” says Mahendran.

The activist has been trying to ascertain the level of fraud committed against the community members, but says this is a challenge. “First, it is difficult to gain the trust of the community as they are suspicious of outsiders. And even when you gain their trust, it is difficult to ascertain exactly who has cheated them,” he explains. “For instance, one old woman told me that she has ₹3 lakh inside her house. When I asked her to show me the money, she only had ₹3,000 with her. Someone had told her that it was ₹3 lakh and had given it to her.”

Based on his interactions with the community, Mahendran says that most of the people who bought land with the money they were given do not have pattas. “My suspicion is that either the land brokers over-inflated land prices and took a share of the money, or that they took the money from them and made them settle on government lands,” he says.

G. Malaichamy, a Nilgiris-based lawyer who has filed a complaint with the police along with 21 Adivasis from Nagampalli and Puliyampara, says there have been many cases of fraud. “Based on our complaint, a case had been registered by the District Crime Branch Police for fraud and under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against a forest ranger, a guard, a lawyer and some brokers for cheating the Adivasis who were relocated,” he says.

In many of the cases, Adivasis were sold land for which there was no documentation, says Malaichamy. The lawyer argues that the funds for the relocation should have been handed over by at least 2010, when land was affordable. But now, due to inflation, the money given to them will get them no more than a few cents of land, which he says is simply unsustainable to earn a living through agriculture.

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“In 2010, one cent of land in the area sold for around ₹25,000. Now the rates have increased, with people finding it difficult to purchase land for anything less than ₹3 lakh per cent,” he says.

Poor quality of life

In the village of Palapally, G. Bindu lives in a small two-room house with her husband. They were relocated to the village in 2018 from the Nagampally settlement in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Bindu has planted vegetables in the one acre of land. But she has no documents to prove ownership of the property. “Last year, due to heavy rain, we suffered crop damage amounting to ₹1 lakh. Even if we want to apply for a loan or compensation, we are not able to, since we don’t have the documents to prove that we own the land. We fear that the government may evict us in the future,” she says. Bindu also says the quality of life too has not improved in their new home. “Our houses don’t have electricity connection or running water,” she says.

The government built houses for a few Adivasi families from Bennai. In one settlement, known as Bennai Number 1, residents live in dilapidated houses. Many of these structures suffered damage during the heavy rains in 2018 and 2019.

Maadhan, a 76-year-old resident who depends on the Public Distribution System for food, doesn’t understand the rationale behind the relocation process. He points out that the families have been moved just a few hundred yards from their village, which was inside the tiger reserve. “Is the forest safer now that we have moved?” he wonders.

Children of Bennai village inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.

Children of Bennai village inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

He too complains about the structures. “During the rains, the roofs leak and these places get flooded. Our thatched roofed houses, which we had built ourselves, used to protect us more effectively than these homes built by the government. At least those houses could be repaired with materials from the forests nearby. These houses are expensive to repair and renovate without the government’s help. It is almost impossible to stay here,” he says.

A sense of regret

Stan Thekaekara, co-founder of Action for Community Organisation, Rehabilitation and Development (ACCORD), an NGO which has been working to protect the rights of Adivasis in Gudalur for over three decades, says there have been many cases of fraud perpetrated against Adivasi groups during the relocation process. “What is clear from the bank passbooks of the community members is that they were pressured into withdrawing large sums of money. They were promised land and housing but after the money was handed over to the middlemen, they did not get what was promised. They allege that they were shown government lands and government housing for the money they paid. Many Adivasis who opted for the one-time payment option of ₹10 lakh said that during the disbursement of the first phase of the payment of ₹7 lakh, they only received a few thousands. The rest, they say, was pocketed by various people,” he says.

Thekaekara also speaks of the deep connections the communities have with their land. “For many older community members, it is almost impossible to leave the forests, which are home to sacred groves and sites where they worship,” he says.

When the plans of relocation were first conveyed to them, the Adivasis passed resolutions in Gram Sabhas refusing to move out from the forests. But after this, say villagers of Cheppodu and Bennai Number 1, community leaders were persuaded or coerced into negotiating with the villagers by the Forest Department, and they finally agreed to the move.

Maaran from Cheppodu points to a temple where the Adivasis pray. Leaving the forest was tantamount to abandoning the gods, he says. “We now fear that if we leave, the Forest Department may stop us from visiting our temples and praying here in Cheppodu.”

Maaran says many Adivasis who have moved out as part of the relocation plan have told him that they regret their decision. “Our lives are intertwined with the forest and its animals. None of us have ever had problems with elephants or tigers, though we spot them regularly near the village. If we are forced to move, our identities too will be lost,” he worries.

Conducting an inquiry

Despite these allegations of fraud and cheating, the Forest Department is continuing with the relocation process. D. Venkatesh, Field Director of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, confirms that the third phase of the relocation process is ongoing, with the Collector ensuring oversight of the relocation process. In the first two phases, a total of 569 families were relocated. Another 132 families, including Adivasis and Chettys, are to be relocated in the next phase, say officials.

Nilgiris Collector S.P. Amrith says the Adivasis who claim to have been cheated should approach him with a complaint. He promises to look into the allegations made by the residents. He adds that the process of issuing pattas is ongoing, with more than 100 families who are part of the relocation plan having been offered pattas recently.

When asked about the allegations of fraud against the Forest Department staff, C. Vidhya, Deputy Director of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (Core Area), says following the First Information Report, which was filed in 2019 (against Forest Department staff and land brokers), a sub-committee was formed to “enumerate the number of families affected by the malfeasance.” Once this inquiry is completed, steps would be taken to compensate affected persons, she says.

“Neither us nor the forests have benefited from the relocation scheme,” says Maaran. “Only a few Forest Department staff and some middlemen have profited from the funds that were meant for the Adivasis. Why would we trust anything the government says in the future?”

Maaran contends that the villagers will not leave Cheppodu until there are more favourable negotiations or, at the very least, they are given what they were promised as part of the original relocation plan.

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