A Silent Genocide

Attapadi Tribals facing Extinction

Susaman Chowdhury

Attapadi in Palakkad is home to a large number of tribes. Kerala is making efforts to obtain environmental clearances for mining in the potential gold bearing zones in this tribal heartland of Attapadi and Nilambur.

A few years ago, the government set up an agency called Attapadi Hill Area Development Authority with Rs 219 crore aid from Japan. The lofty objective was to restore the degraded environment of Attapadi. But the agency soon turned into a construction company, indiscriminately mining sand from rivers and creating illegal quarries in core forest areas.

Many parts of the district, particularly the 745 sq km stretch of the Attapadi tribal belt, are reeling under severe drought. And Attapadi witnessed over 40 tribal infant deaths. While 14 forest divisions in the state have lost 1,00,078 acres of forest land, thanks to private individuals making systematic encroachments on forests bordering farmlands and residential localities.

Grim situation in Atlappady is a combined effect of land alienation, and loss of traditional agriculture and indigenous food system. Over the years, fertile tribal lands got alienated and traditional cultivation came to a standstill. Now most tribes are living on barren hillslopes. The tribes are forced to depend on the rice supplied by the public distribution system (PDS). Food given through community kitchens, schools or anganwadis was not nutritious. They are given some rice and vegetables which will not provide sufficient nutrition leading to serious nutrition problems among tribal students and the large number of cases of severe anemia among them. In 2013, as many as 299 tribal children in Attappadi were found to have severe malnutrition. The number has reduced to 52 now. In 2013, the number of children with moderate to acute malnutrition was 600.

Shortage of water has badly affected the cultivation of crops, mainly millet, cotton, vegetables, banana and coconut.

Meanwhile, the revenue department officials said that drinking water is being supplied in 50 tribal hamlets in tanker trucks including in some remote areas. Cattle rearing, which is one of the main vocations of the tribal people, is also badly hit. There is scarcity of cattle feed due to the drought situation. The tribal people have started selling off the cattle as they are not able to provide them with enough fodder and water.

Environmentalists say that there has been a change in the pattern of forest land encroachment in the last decade or so which has destroyed vast swathes of green zones along the Western Ghats.

"While earlier the forest land was encroached upon by settlers and plantation companies, today it is done by miners and quarry lobby", says Dr Kunhikrishnan, environmentalist and former associate professor, department of zoology, University College, Thiruvananthapuram.

He says the grasslands and Sholu forests are exploited by miners and once they encroach on the land they apply for quarrying permits.

"They then extend their activities to the neighboring forest areas. Forest department officials are helpless as the miners have local political support and operate like a mafia. The recent case where a forest department team was attacked in Kannur when it went to do a survey of forest is a classic example of the miners' muscle power", he says.

Years ago Muduga tribes used to live here in the Attapadi Valley. When an irrigation project (Attapadi Valley Irrigation Project) was planned, they were promised that they would be settled on agricultural farms. Four villages (Bengahedwa, Chittoor. Kettegari, Koronbodi) were displaced in this process and only two were later rehabilitated in the agricultural cooperative. Three tribes (Muduga, Irula and Kudumber) used to live in these 4 villages.

They were to be a part of an agricultural co-operative and were promised a lease for five acres of land per family to carry out their own farming. They were not given titles to the land but only a lease and the promise that the cooperative will be profitable in five years.

However, this lease was not renewed and the tribals were compelled to work as agricultural labor on other people's lands. In 2007, the tribal people realized that the planned dam had not been constructed and decided to return to their original land to farm. They approached the collector, the revenue department, and the state land tribunal, but a decision in their favor was not taken. The revenue department kept the issue informal assuring them that they would get landdeeds, but this hasn't happened. Hence the tribals decided in February 2011 to return to this land, for which their forefathers had titles.

Once they returned to their lands, the local administration started engaging with them and told them to cap the re-occupation to the 26 families that had returned. As a result, 175 families are still waiting to return to their original villages. They were offered another village for settling down but they refused as their culture is tied to the land they used to have. Their argument is that there is no reason to live in another village when their own village is available and the irrigation project has not taken shape. Because of the displacement their culture was destroyed. The people were dispersed, which affected their sense of community. Their culture requires them to live together but because of changes in the socio-economic conditions of their lives, their culture and ways of living were destroyed. This village was on revenue land for which they had legal documents before the displacement.

Even today, they have some legal documents to prove their ownership of the land. The court had also passed a judgment that the displaced families should receive financial compensation for being displaced for 40 years but the community hasn't received any compensation yet. However, the communities say that their struggle is not for any compensation but for their land which is their identity and livelihood and that they will continue this struggle until they achieve their objectives. As in many other parts of the country, alienation of tribal lands from the indigenous population in Attapadi has left them vulnerable to exploitation and dependent on erratic government largesse. During the 50-year period from 1951 to 2001, the percentage of tribal population in Attapadi decreased from over 90 per cent to 41 per cent. The non-tribal population, on the other hand, increased from less than 10 per cent to 59 per cent during the same period. The tribes lost over 10,000 acres of farmland to settlers from outside.

Vol. 49, No.37, Mar 19 - 25, 2017