K. Bathran and his 62-year-old ailing wife, Sithaal, spent three weeks and more than Rs. 10,000 to build a small bamboo hut on a piece of land that they claim belonged to their ancestors. However, recently, the Revenue Department, with a posse of police waiting nearby, demolished their home as well as those of 60 other Irular families who had built their small mud houses on a patch of disused land near Vazhaithottam in Masinagudi in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.
The officials claim that the Irulars, an indigenous community in the Nilgiris, had “encroached” on 17 acres of government land located along an elephant corridor. R. Ravi, Masinagudi Village Administrative Officer, said that the High Court had issued the orders to remove the encroachments. He added that steps were being taken by the district administration to find alternative housing for the families residing here.
However, the residents said that each small house that was built by the government many decades ago now housed 3-4 families and that they were forced to “reoccupy” their ancestral lands because the government was not providing them alternative lands.
A. Kannammal, a daily wage worker, said, “we are surrounded by cottages built by recent immigrants. Our houses are made of recycled bamboo, straw and mud, and have no basic amenities. But they say only these houses are in the elephant corridor and not the huge private cottages and resorts.” B. Sita, another resident, said that living in the cramped government houses had become extremely difficult. “I have four sons, all of whom are married, and we all live together in the same single bedroom house. So it’s obvious why we would want to retake our lands,” she said.
The Irulars claim that the lands had belonged to them for many generations, but that the Tamil Nadu Co-operative Milk Producers' Federation Limited (Aavin) had “cheated” them and took over the lands promising jobs in return. However, such opportunities never materialised and the farm that was established here was closed down.
District Collector Innocent Divya said that while the Revenue Department had to act to remove the encroachments, the tribal residents had been assured that they would be given an alternative site where they can build their homes. “We have identified the site and have asked them to inspect it,” she said.