A tribe in the Western Ghats in need of a lifeline

Issues such as alcohol abuse that are threatening to overwhelm the ‘Phani Yerava’ tribals in Karnataka need to be on the policy radar

March 12, 2024 12:53 am | Updated 12:53 am IST

A vice that may have been picked up from the city

A vice that may have been picked up from the city | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In Karnataka’s section of the Western Ghats, lies Makuta village, under Betoli gram panchayat of Virajpet taluka in Kodagu district. More specifically, the village falls under the Makuta Aranya Valaya which is in the vicinity of the Kerti reserved forest. This area is in the Talacauvery sub-cluster, identified as one of the 10 World Heritage Sites in Karnataka and is a region of dense tropical evergreen forests that have remained undisturbed to a large extent.

The village has a Girijan colony inhabited by the ‘Phani Yerava’ tribe. In 2021, with the help of two local people including a Muslim gram panchayat member, all the 19 Yerava households here were able to successfully claim their ‘land’ in the forest, under the Forest Rights Act. In a joint survey conducted by the Forest, Revenue and Social Welfare Departments, officials found that the Yeravas reside on 135 acres of forest land, right from the time of their ancestors.

When asked about the importance of acquiring forest rights, the tribals did not appear to be very enthusiastic because their dependence on the forest exclusively for their livelihood has been reducing over some time.

The reason they gave was that they found going into the forest to collect minor forest produce to be a tiresome job. Besides, selling the produce was no longer lucrative given the volatile market and also rampant exploitation by middlemen. This bitter experience led them to believe that for the same effort, they would get better wages if they worked as labour. Hence, working as daily labour (casual or agriculture) is now the primary occupation of these forest dwellers. The majority of them prefer to go to Kasaragod in Kerala State which is less than 10 kilometres from their habitation, as they are comfortable speaking Malayalam.

Nevertheless, along with fuelwood and honey, the other minor forest produce they collect includes dhoopa (Vateria indica)/incense, and shekakai (soap pod). The quantity collected depends on the availability of the produce in the forest as well as the need to procure them. However, most of those who gather forest produce said that the amount they collected was most often for their own consumption. There is no stockpiling.

The scourge of addiction

However, there is an issue that is a cause for worry. When this writer-researcher visited them to understand their socio-economic status after the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, almost the entire community was found to be in an intoxicated state due to alcohol abuse. According to non-tribal locals and others in the area, they picked the habit in the city seeing other labourers doing the same in the evenings after returning home to unwind after the pain from the day’s hard work. Not surprisingly, the tribals in the village were not in a position to recall how they got into this. Even adolescent children have taken to this vice. This has affected children’s attendance in schools too. Intoxication has slowly turned the community’s life into one of a miserable existence. As a result, the community is found to be uninformed about happenings in the external world around them. Given this development, important documents such as ration cards, Aadhar cards, voter identity cards, or even government documents such as rights given under the Forest Rights Act have to be kept in the safe custody of trustworthy non-tribal members.

Officials from the Department of Social Welfare working in this area have also been concerned about this issue because they find the state of the habitants to be ‘disheartening’. A case worker, who expressed deep empathy for them, said that efforts are being made to conduct a de-addiction drive. In another habitation in Nerugalale gram panchayat in Somwarpet taluka in the same district, a headman of the ‘Yarava’ tribe expressed sadness that a number of his relatives had lost their lives due to addiction. He cited this as the cause behind the population in his hamlet reducing to half. He hoped that good sense would prevail and that the tribals would lead a vice-free life.

It was the same story, but with varying degrees, in every tribal village that this writer-researcher visited in the Western Ghats region in Karnataka during the study (this article is drawn from a larger research study titled “Tribals, Forest Rights and Heritage Conservation: A Study of Western Ghats in Karnataka”, sponsored by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi).

Non-government organisation activists and government officials working in the jurisdiction of the villages have said that such issues do not get enough attention in the policy matters in the State — a view also expressed by the leaders of some local tribal communities such as the Hasalaru, Gowdalu, and Jenu Kurubas. According to them, only a few communities which are numerically dominant among the Scheduled Tribes have been gaining benefits over recent years, in every walk of life. They expressed the wish that the government should consider these kinds of social issues seriously and take steps that are in the best interest of those groups. It is only then, they believe, that existential concerns such as addictions haunting forest dwellers can be addressed effectively.

Madhusudan Bandi is a faculty member with the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, Gujarat

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