Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Translated from Tamil by Nisha Felicita
In the 72 year history of independent India, Adivasis,who are the guardians of the jungle, are still struggling to get documents for their rightful housing and farming land. The Adivasis have lost their rights due to the continuous deception by the Forest Department and have been portrayed as criminals who have suddenly occupied forest land. The tribes that live in the Anaimalai range of the Western Ghats are suffering, because they live in their own demarcated area in the forest and are under the power of the Forest Department. Due to this, their unique culture, language, culture, biodiversity and population of these tribes are being pushed toward the verge of extinction day by day.
Because the Forest Department continues to block the Adivasis’ access to the basic right to education, medicine and essential facilities provided by the constitution, the area that these tribes live in has become a dark region. Recently the district tehsildar, who had recently attempted to go to the Adivasis in this region to issue ration cards to the tribe, was denied permission by the officers of the Forest Department to enter the tribal area. He was made to wait at the Forest Department’s check post for five hours and then forced to go back. The voices of the tribes who are denied their rights are buried within these forests.
Before the Forest Department was even formed, there were six tribes who have been living in this forest in the Annamalai mountain ranges- Kadar, Muduvar, Malaimalasar, Malasar, Yeravalar and Paliyar. They have already lost their native lands and livelihoods to tea and coffee plantations established in the area and also to the construction of dams. This situation continued in this region during the creation of 1976 Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary which was later expanded in 2008 as Anaimalai Tiger Reserve. The Adivasis continue to be systematically deprived of their livelihood and rights by these wildlife conservation programs. The Forest Department is mainly to blame as other government departments are denied entry within the forest. Thus, the children of the forest are transformed into servants to the forest department and are forced to live in miserable conditions.
The Kadar tribe faces acts of violence from the Forest Department
Kallar Kadar Forest Station is located at a distance of 15 km from Valparai. The village in Adarvan was badly damaged by heavy rains last August. Fearing that the outside world would not even know if the village would be destroyed if they remained here, the people of this village left their homes, possessions and pets and migrated to the traditional forest where their ancestors lived. They predicted the locations of the landslides in the mountains with their traditional knowledge and set up six small huts made of bamboo and leaf litter. There are a total of 100 people who settled here. Most of them are elderly, children, women and the people with disabilities. They continually send petitions to the government regarding their plight.
It is quite natural for forest tribes to change their habitat or even move their village this way due to natural calamities such as epidemics, wildlife threats, and landslides. However, the Anaimalai Tiger Reserve Forest Department considered this act (of submitting petitions) of the Kallar Kadar tribesmen as a great violation and humiliation and forcibly removed the occupants for a week and set fire to the huts.
The Kadar Adivasis are forced to stay at tea plantations near their village. 23 families are being forced to stay in 4 houses for more than 110 days which have been damaged. To date they have not been offered any alternative arrangements for dwelling.
Sakthivel, the leader of the Kallar Kadar tribe
Sakthivel, the leader of the Kallar Kadar tribe, tells us about the condition of these tribes. “I am 50 years old and I have never left a forest or a house like this. In our forest there are no sewer, garbage, or mosquitoes. However, that is not the case here. Everyone has been sick since the day we came here. Nobody has come here to look at the situation- no officials and no politicians. Our life is like a fish living apart from the water. This is very shocking and painful for us.”, he says. This is the situation of the Yethakulli and Kavarkal tribal villages who were forced to abandon their land and village for wildlife in the Valparai area.
Nedungundram Kadar village’s elder Rathinasamy says, “In 1958, there were 150 families in our village. Today there are only 68 families. Only 29 of them receive government rations in the village. The rest of the families have no livelihood even though they have a home. They are forced to leave the village for reasons such as employment, education and sudden deaths. Our village has electricity but there is no electricity in the other 17 tribal villages. There will be electricity in the adjoining estate area and the government office but there is no electricity here for the nearby tribal huts. The Electricity Board is ready to supply electricity to our houses, but the Forest Department refuses to allow this. Adivasis have anyway completely abandoned agriculture due to the threats from wildlife. They also refuse to hand out land documents to the existing house and land owners. The Forest Department demands permits to build toilets for the schools and the houses here. Thus not even a water tank could be built in the village. In the summer there is never any water to drink in the village.”
“Not only this, even if we want to build a new house in our traditional way, the Forest Department will not permit it saying things like, “Do not take soil or stone with a shovel.” Tell me, how can people live here? In Kerala, in the same forested neighborhood, where our Kadar tribe relatives from one of the older tribal settlements live, the government has supported them with amenities such as good quality concrete houses, a road to the village, street lighting, and their own agricultural land. Although in the same forest region, in Kerala they respect and treat humans like humans, but there is no such thing here in Tamil Nadu.” The birth rate in the villages of the Kadar and Muduvar tribes here is declining.
No implementation or regard for the Forest Rights Act and other acts and safeguards
When the Forest Rights Act was enacted in 2006, the then Prime Minister of India, Mr. Manmohan Singh acknowledged that the government has done great injustice to the tribal people and they can no longer be allowed to wait any longer for justice. They need immediate justice. He also said that Adivasis who traditionally live in the forest should be provided 10 cents of housing land and up to a maximum of 10 acres of agricultural land for farming. He said the traditional rights of Adivasis should be recognized and that it is an important law enacted for the tribal people throughout history. The law redistributed the power of the Forest Department, which had been plundered from the tribes, and handed back to the tribes. The higher administration also ensured the role of the tribes in the management of the forest.
It has been more than 12 years since this law was enacted to bring justice and to right the injustice done to the tribes by the Forest Department. The Forest Department had been delaying law enforcement through its former forest officer, Sampasivam, who has now taken on a vicious covert plan to drive the tribes out of the forest. “We will give you a house and money if you come to the plains” is the honey-dripping “Golden Hand Shake” that is designed to deceive us and always presented at the Adivasi meetings. This intends to completely sever the connection between tribes and forests.
That is why millions of acres of land across the country have been distributed to the tribal people under this Act. Among the tribes living in the Anaimalai range, not a single person has been given land under this Act. The Government of Tamil Nadu has just launched an action plan to convert all the forest villages into revenue villages, the first aspect of the Act has just started. The announcement last month with regard to this is the only consoling news.
Adivasis hold democracy and equality in high regard and live in complete harmony with nature. They are being ignored, denied fundamental rights, deprived of their unique culture, language, and external forces are acting with the aim to distort their livelihood. This is against the rights granted by the Constitution to the Adivasi people. It is also against the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Indigenous people. The continued indifference, silence and complicity by other departments, several administrative bodies that are supposed to stop the continued dictatorial course of the Forest Department under the state against the tribes is a severe injustice against the tribes. Such acts are a punishable offense under Section V (7) of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 with a fine of Rs.1000. It is also an punishable offense under Section 3 of the Prevention of Torture of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Amendment Act, 2015.
What is the use of all of these acts if it does not benefit the tribal communities?
Indigenous peoples have set an example by reducing the culture of consumption and living in harmony with nature. They have an unshakable hope that this forest will give them what they need. Without producing anything for the market, they would have depended and designed their life around the forest for everything from birth to death, including dancing, singing, beliefs and rituals.
The tribes have been waiting for a long time in the hope that the government and the general public will listen to their problems and feelings. What are we going to do to ensure such a life and traditional right of the Adivasis who are living in such conditions? It is the responsibility and duty of every individual who loves this planet to speak up, because the tribes are the children of the forest and we are descendants of the tribals.
Note: A part of this article was originally published in The Hindu. The complete version of the article has been translated from Tamil and published with permission.
This article was first published in Youth Ki Awaaz