While the rest of Kerala went to polling booths on Thursday to become part of world’s largest democratic process, over 340 electorates from the particularly vulnerable tribal group of Kadar in Vazhachal hamlet inside Athirappilly forests have boycotted the election, mainly seeking clarity on the move to revive a controversial 163-megawatt hydel power project that would take away their entire hamlet.
Over 70 houses in the hamlet remained closed from early in the morning on the polling day because the families went inside the forests to collect minor forest produce like honey and gooseberry. Though it formed part of their daily routine, the families also wanted to avoid pressure from political activists and government officials to reach the polling booth and exercise the franchise.
Village elder M. Lakshmanan, who was seen near Pukalappara on the way to Perigalkuthu forests, told The Hindu that the community still remains an aggrieved lot because none of the candidates in the election from Chalakudy given them any clarity on the future of the Athirappilly project, which was in the cold storage for long due to environmental reasons but recently redrafted by the Kerala State Electricity Board.
Even as per government’s own estimation, the project would displace 163 Kadar families in Vazhachal and 71 families in Pokalappara settlements. The total number of Kadars, who live in Pokalappara, Vazhachal, Vachumaram, Ambalapara, Malakkapara and Sholayar hamlets in the same locality in the Western Ghats, is fewer than 1,500. According to social anthropologists, the Chalakudy river basin, which includes the famous Athirappilly waterfalls area as well, is the only home to the Kadars.
“Politicians always cheated us. We have no agricultural land here and our livelihood is at stake due to climate changes affecting fish wealth in the Chalakudy river and minor forest produce in the Athirappilly forests,” said Mr. Lakshmanan.
Living in harmony
The Kadars are living here for generations in perfect harmony with rare fauna like Asiatic Elephant, the Great Indian Hornbill and Nilgiri Langur.
“Though the so-called Vana Samrakshana Samithis (VSS) under Forest Department are providing us daily wage jobs, the earning is very minimal. We are also facing dearth of health and educational facilities. Some prominent candidates even ignored visiting our hamlets,” said J. Vineetha, mother of two children, at Pukalappara settlement.
Some years ago, the hamlets were promised agricultural land at Vadakkanchery, about 40 km away from Athirappilly. But on verification, the tribes people found they were dry lands with no forest environment and difficult for survive. Now they feel they would become part of electioneering once their genuine rights are met.