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Tribals Displaced By These Dam Projects In Tamil Nadu Are Now Struggling For Livelihood

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Translated from Tamil by Nisha Felicita

India has been on the brink of an infrastructural development boom for a while now. While these structures are lauded and seen as a sign of progress, many people who have been displaced due to these projects, especially Adivasis and tribals, continue to suffer for many generations, without a livelihood. Many tribals in the Western Ghats were displaced due to such projects, namely the water dam projects in Tamil Nadu.

Rearview of Aliyar dam. Image provided by the author.

Three major dam projects, which were established in 1957, were combined and executed in the Coimbatore district, at the Aliyaru, Thirumurthi and Amaravati rivers. These structures serve as a basic source of irrigation and drinking water for the general public, including many farmers.

However, the tribals who have been living along the banks of these rivers for generations — from communities including the Eravallar, Malasar, Malai Malasar and Paliyar — have been badly affected by the dam projects. Their agricultural lands and places of settlement have been impacted and their cultural history has been destroyed. These communities are forced to live in poverty.

The tribals who have been chased away by the government for these development projects have moved to places such as Udumalaipettai, Pollachi, Aliyaru, Anaimalai, Vettikaranpudur, Dhivanshapudur, Meenakshipuram and even Kerala, for about three generations. They often live in neglected lands (poramboke). They were initially working as farm labourers and agricultural laborers in nearby estates.

Today, people in the coconut farming community have lost their jobs due to reduction in demand for human labour in all the plantations, where only machinery is used. They now make a living by procuring waste cloth from textile factories, making products such as backpacks, and selling them to earn a meagre income.

Thippiparai Malasar settlement, where the tribals affected by the Amaravathi Dam live. Image provided by the author.

There are more than 3,000 tribal families living in Coimbatore and Tirupur districts without adequate employment opportunities. Only a few men from these villages go to Pollachi, Tirupur and Coimbatore for work. Women often stay home and struggle with unemployment. Due to this predicament, women from these communities work with leftover cloth pieces from the garment factories in Tirupur. Agents between the textile factory and tribals carry discarded clothes in sack bundles and leave them in the homes of the tribals.

Bundle of leftover pieces of cloth that has been left before the house at Sarkkarpathi Village. Image provided by the author.

The tribal women then work on separating these pieces of cloth into threads. The agent then collects the processed threads and sells them to shops or factories, paying the women the agreed amount.

The women separate each thread from the torn pieces of cloth with the help of a small knife. They are able to work on two to three kilos of clothes per day. The fixed-rate for this work is Rs 20 per kg, and this amount is paid only once a week.

The otherwise-unemployed tribals use the little money generated by this labour to pay for their essential expenses, purchase household goods, and their children’s education and transportation.

Mrs. Muthulekshmi, works on processing the threads in the Yeravalar tribal settlement in Puliyankandi. Image provided by the author.

Muthulakshmi, belonging to the Yeravalar tribe and a native of Puliyankandi village near the Aliyar dam, now lives in the Zero Point area. She says,

“My husband died three years ago, after falling into a nearby PAP canal. I have two children, the oldest is in 7th grade and the youngest in 5th grade. We do not have agricultural work here. We do this work because there is no cash in hand.”

The Anaimalai mountains and the surrounding terrain has famous spots for nature tourism. However, not many know about the state of the tribals living in the region.

Tribal communities like Yeravalar, Malasar, Malaimalasar and Paliyar who live near Pollachi, Aliyar and Annamalai cannot avail the 100-day employment scheme, the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act 2005) scheme, since they are under the Town Panchayat administration. Many tribal villages including Kotoor, Anaimalai, Udaiyakulam and Vettaikaranpudur come under the administration of the Town Panchayat. People living here have no other jobs, and the tribal villages in the village panchayat are discriminated against when it comes to providing 100 days of work. 

A woman works on the threads in the Malai Malasar tribal settlement in Sarkarapati. Image provided by the author.

Mrs. Murugaththaal belongs to the same village as Muthulakshmi. She says,

“We belong to the Adi Dravidar community. I have two children, the eldest son is 23 and my daughter is 20. Both of them have been blind since their childhood. My son has completed two years of his college education and my daughter has studied till 11th grade. Both of them are unemployed now. We have no other employment here. This job is not too difficult, but it helps us make ends meet.”

Like them, the entire tribal population in this region has many landless agricultural labourers. There are also a large number of widows, elderly and people with disabilities in the region. Most of them undertake this work part-time. With the help of government-provided free rice, they are able to survive without going hungry and manage their household work.

Need for Consistent Self-Sustenance

As of 2011, almost 37% of tribals in rural Tamil Nadu live below the poverty line, according to statistics reported by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. They have their own unique culture, and are characterised by biological systems they protect and dwell in. There are. however, a lot of struggles in their day-to-day lives.

The development of these tribal regions should be balanced, keeping in mind their unique culture and history. Right now, it is stagnant. This is their reality right now, and a matter of great pain and misery — a shame for the state governments.

Scenic views of the Anaimalai range. Image provided by the author.

It is the duty of the government to protect the lives and livelihoods of tribals who have sacrificed their lands and settlements for the development of the country. Especially for the affected communities, who have been and are being chased out of their homes for the sake of government development projects, agricultural land should be provided. Residents of villages under the Town Panchayat administration should be given employment in accordance with the National Rural Employment Scheme, 2005.

It is our duty to ensure a dignified life of tribals and amplification of their voices for their rights.

Note: This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.

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