Translated from Tamil by Nisha Felicita
In a world plagued with capitalism, consumerism and industrialization, there are tribal communities across the world still relying on public and forest resources, worshipping the forests and not actively engaging in consumerism. Wherever there is rampant exploitation of natural resources, and they are sold as a commodity, there is a complete destruction of tribals, their way of life, their beliefs, and their natural habitat.
For the benefit of the global market or a powerful individual, natural resources face destruction, along with the people who live in harmony with nature and are dependent on nature. Most tribals do not misuse the forest for the sake of a large profit or an exploitative business; they try to protect the forest to sustain themselves, their livelihoods and also work to preserve nature.
In its plan to promote globalization in the name of welfare schemes, the government has managed to keep the country’s first citizens (tribals) at a disadvantage. They haven’t been allowed to move towards self-sufficiency and long-term growth.
In Tamil Nadu, there are about 36 different tribes amounting to about 9 lakh tribals. 70% of them live in the forests or lead a life dependent on forest resources. The rare acknowledgement and importance that the tribal populations receive at the national level do not resonate in Tamil Nadu, and representation of tribal communities in Tamil Nadu is almost non-existent on national platforms. This prevents their struggles from being highlighted and addressed.
The tribals who live in forests of Tamil Nadu are constantly denied the right to their own land and resources. They are also denied their right to raise their voice against this injustice.
The state welfare programs do not address or pay attention to the tribals when they are planned and executed. Tribals used to live a life based on collective values and sharing; they based their lives on equality, self-governance, self-administration, and discipline. Now they are forced to depend on the government’s “free rice” scheme and pension fund for the elderly. Their workmanship is also reducing by the day.
There is a severe lack of basic necessities like food, shelter, schools, and access to education, hospitals, drinking water, roads, livelihood, employment opportunities in such tribal areas.
In the post-independence era, when the states were divided, and the borders were being defined, the tribals of South India were the most affected. Since the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka divided the populations of the tribes widely residing in the Western Ghats amongst their states, the number of tribal populations has declined. Among such tribal groups are Kurumbar, Paliyar, Katunayakar, Cholakar tribal communities, which are of the same ethnicity and are relatives.
When we assess their current situation, it is evident that tribal populations are systemically cast out, in which they are continually denied forest rights and political, socio-economic, and developmental welfare. Perhaps the development of the tribal population would have been better if all these forest areas had been consolidated and converted into a tribal-state or territory.
The Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution is in place to grant rights of different Scheduled Tribes in several states in Northeast India to establish Autonomous District Councils and Autonomous Regional Councils. Such a system should have been implemented in South India, too. The 1996 Panchayats Extension to the Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act in particular, has failed to be implemented here.
Moreover, the implementation of the Integrated Tribal Development Program (ITDP) will only happen if there are more than 50% of the Adivasis living in one area, which is largely not the case for the tribal populations in the Western and the Eastern Ghats, in states such as Tamil Nadu. Merely because the tribal population isn’t more than 10 lakh, the tribals and their welfare are largely ignored.
There is a close connection between land and poverty. The poverty of tribals can be eliminated only through land ownership. Development can only be achieved by recognizing and ensuring land ownership. Land ownership will meet their livelihood, dignity, culture, traditional life, and food needs.
State administration, which has been far away from tribal people and their development for far too long, need to comply with the original objective of the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 to ensure it is carried out to preserve tribal heritage. The Recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006 ensures that every member of a tribe can own 10 cents of land for housing and a maximum of 10 acres of agricultural land. The entire tribal community in the village can enjoy all of their traditional rights except hunting and timber use.
As far as tribals are concerned, their land is their life. Historically, tribes had fought hard for their land when they were encroached upon and taken away. Some tribals have sacrificed themselves to protect their land. We build statues, celebrate and worship the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for this country, but we conveniently forget the sacrifice of the tribes who lost their lands, their livelihoods for the growth and development of the country.
The traditional forest rights of the tribals living in the forest are denied by illegally transforming these areas into a protected forest sanctuary without the consent of the Tribal Village Panchayat Council and mainly without consulting the tribals. Tribals, who belong to the forests and have a rich heritage and culture, are set aside and denied their birthright to live on their own land. They are being forced out with excuses like development work, wildlife conservation. They are treated as second-class citizens. They are destroyed culturally.
Identifying the tribals and granting them their caste certification is a process that is riddled with many problems that continue to persist in Tamil Nadu. There is a need for certification for those tribes not mentioned in the list of the Scheduled Tribes and various tribal groups like the Pulaiyar and Narikuravar are still not mentioned in the government list of Scheduled Tribes. They, therefore, lose their right to reservation.
The Scheduled Tribes List in Tamil Nadu should be reviewed, and the non-tribal groups should be removed from the list. There is a growing demand and effort to recognize tribals by the ruling party in the government to increase their number of voters, but this might cause damage and competition with the tribes that are already listed and recognized by the government. The list of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG)s that was created in 1995 should be reviewed, and changes should be made in accordance with the need at present and to include the most vulnerable tribes such as, Kadar, Paliyar, Mudduvar, Malaimalasar, etc.
The state of education facilities for tribals is in an abysmal state. Tribal elementary education should be designed in their native tongue, and the school curriculum should be designed to provide students with the opportunity to study in their village, especially subjects like biology, forestry, herbs, wildlife and their own traditions. In today’s reality, most tribal children have to consider boarding school as their only and viable option.
Mr Thangaraj belongs to the Paliyar tribal settlement of Arugammalpuram, near Ezumalai in Madurai district. He was educated from the first till the upper class from his region. He was asked once why none of the tribal children goes to school? He responded, “As far as the Paliyar tribe is concerned, for a child, our mother and father are our world. We know nothing else. The days I do not want to remember in my life are the 12 years that I was away from home, away from my mother and father and stayed in a boarding school about 100 kilometers away from here. I was sad during this time, and it was a very tough time. The education we got was not for our own individual benefit. This is why no one in our community comes forward to be educated.
These tribal students are forced to learn Tamil and English and in other languages, instead of focusing on their native languages which are Kadar, Mudduvar, Malayalar, Kurumba, Paniya and Chola. Even the students who are educated do not find suitable jobs, and hence the children in villages are also hesitant to pursue education. The extensive knowledge that tribals possess should be used for forest research and biodiversity conservation.”
Under the National Rural Employment Scheme, only 30% of the tribals living in the forest region receive an average of less than 41 days of employment per year. The mountain tribes that live in the forest believing the forest is life should be given employment opportunities in the forest according to their needs. Tribal manpower should be used for forest-based projects and biodiversity conservation. With such programs, forest cover can be expanded, protected, maintained and managed. Tribals alone have the knowledge of the soil of their area, the trees that grow in it, the creepers and the geography of the land.
It is concerning that the state continually chooses to waste away the resourcefulness of the tribals by not using their innate traditional knowledge and manpower for the forest afforestation program. In many parts of the world, indigenous people are individually and socially involved in such projects. This work can be done in partnership with the Forest Department, Local Government and Revenue Department.
Incidents of forest wildfires have been increasing in recent years due to lack of conducive environment for forestry tribes and the lack of modern technology to control wildfires. The forest department currently lacks the experience that the tribals possess, and these incidents can only be controlled with the help of the tribals.
Due to the continued denial of the forest rights of the forest tribes and the blame put on the tribes, the disgruntled tribals have not shown much interest in the control of wildlife in recent times. The tribals have publicly claimed that the government does not help those who risk their lives to do such work and are not given proper food, drinking water and compensation.
The tribals in Tamil Nadu collect wild honey, herbs, tubers, tree barks, turmeric, gooseberry, Kadukkai (yellow myrobalan), nannari (anantamul or anant bel), kungaliyam (Sal tree), etc. These items are being sold in the markets, but there is no scope for increasing their prices, and hence tribals have to rely on a middle man who charges a commission, and the tribals end up with a meager amount of money to survive on.
The tribes that live in woody forest areas, such as the Paliyar and Kadar, spend the majority of their time getting a small yield forest from these natural products. About 40% of their annual income comes from this old form of labor. The Government should provide continuous training and assistance to establish and operate tribal co-operative societies in order to safeguard and decide a reasonable value for these products that are environmentally and sustainably sourced from the forests.
50% of the post vacancies in the Forest Department should mandatorily be allocated for Adivasis. Students who study Agriculture and Forestry are demanding that 100% of all the vacancies in those government departments be set aside for them. Likewise, the job vacancies for the Forest Department should be provided to the tribals who have the required knowledge, understanding of the forests and the physical strength, especially since they are born and raised in the forests.
The Forest Department should use the traditional knowledge and experience of the Adivasi community and make sure they get more than half of the job vacancies. The government should uplift the community with reservations and create opportunities for them and bring about equality.
The amount of funds allocated for projects planned for the general public is also what is reserved for tribals. Cheap quality TVs, mixers, grinders, etc. that are issued by the politicians can not be used by people who do not have any electricity, to begin with. These items are either unused or go waste, or are sold for a higher price by many. The state issued priceless goats and cows, which only live on the plains, will not survive in the forest.
However, the tribals have to accept the blame that they did not take care of the animals, causing the death of the animals. The state chooses to implement these welfare programs that do not make sense when implemented for the tribals who live in the forest. Among the projects proposed and discussed during the Annual State Planning Committees, only a few projects are actually executed.
Before any major action or decision is taken by the tribals, everyone in the village gathers and discusses it. Therefore there are no conflicts, mistakes or problems within the people of the community. They do not go to the police or court to resolve disputes between themselves. When it comes to implementing government welfare programs, the government officials, who plan and execute projects related to the tribals, assume that they are illiterate and that they have no idea what they should say or do, and this is when the problem arises.
Similarly, the rule that the elderly should withdraw their pension in person at the bank is not applicable to those who cannot even walk. Aren’t the laws and programs in the country meant to enrich and not entrap?
Development plans are not being implemented with the participation of locals before the planning and execution of building of housing, roads, electricity and drinking water for tribal villages. For example, in the district of Coimbatore, the Yeravalar and Malasar tribes who live in Annamalai near Pollachi were evicted to develop the forest area and build dams where they resided, when this was under the panchayat administration.
It is strange that 16 tribal villages in the dense forests of the Annamalai mountain range come under the municipality of Valparai. This has resulted in these Adivasis not being unable to access the amenities they have the right to and are not able to afford basic amenities and housing they need.
As per the Forest Land Rights Authorization Act 2006, the Government of Tamil Nadu should immediately convert all the villages in the forest into income (revenue) generating villages and provide basic facilities to its residents. The reality that the tribals are ignored for the sake of project prevails more than the effort to tailor a project to also include and address the tribals. “When outsiders who are ignorant of our heritage and culture intervene in our area, our lives will be severely affected. Can’t they understand our preferences and plan welfare schemes?”
This long-standing question by tribals should be answered before planning any more development projects.
Tribal life, art, culture, culture and beliefs are not easily understood by everyone. Many tribals living in the forest are not aware of information such as the present day, date, date or year. Volunteers have been appointed by the state government to serve the tribal people in the neighboring state of Kerala. They appointed tribal youth in 1989 to serve as a link between the state and the people.
These volunteers visit two or three tribal villages and work in the government institutions including for children education, Anganwadis, and local welfare and government welfare programs. Their job includes making a list of beneficiaries, taking stock of the requirements for agriculture, selecting the right beneficiaries and helping the locals apply to the appropriate welfare programs and development programs.
They will duly inform the respective Departmental Officers on government projects and construction activities and their functions required for the villagers. They are also responsible for the provision of health facilities, drinking water, toilet facilities, distribution of civic goods and reporting other activities of the state for the tribal villagers to the government and also facilitate the provision of medical facilities to the tribal villages. About 14,000 tribal youth work in this program. They are each given a stipend of ₹12,000 per month.
They are also in charge of planning and organizing various cultural festivals that showcase tribal music and dance to enhance their community and bring awareness. Tamil Nadu, which has a bigger population and geographical size, does not have this scheme in place. On the contrary, most of the Tamil Nadu tribal welfare centers do not systematically compile details of tribal villages, their ethnic groups, their population, and their problems in the district. There are no good officers who are fully informed and aware of the situation.
Such an initiative by the Government of Kerala gives tribals great confidence in their state. It helps the people of that state understand that the state government functions for their welfare. However, in Tamil Nadu, contrary to this situation, over the past 10 years, over 300 Naxal police officers have been working in various tribal villages, claiming to be helping the local villagers.
The police department continuously monitors tribal villagers with suspicion. The tribal youth in Tamil Nadu claim that the police officers interrogate and harass anyone who lodges a complaint or raises a demand with the government. The officers also disturb the peace and unity of the villagers.
These officers who claim to help the tribals do not monitor or check forest encroachers, those who engage in activities that reduce and endanger tribal land, livelihoods and dignity, nor do they recommend action against these perpetrators. Viewing the socio-economic problem of the tribals as a mere legal problem will not help solve it. The Tribal Volunteer Social Service Scheme of the Government of Kerala has made tribal people rely on and trust their Government. On the contrary, the Tamil Nadu government’s Naxal Abolition Squadron Monitoring Service (CSR) has caused tribal hatred and fear in the state.
The allocated state funds for all the tribals are divided according to the population and district. Districts with fewer tribal populations receive only a modest sum. In particular, the Fund for the Protection of the Conservation and Development Program (CCD) has been partially funding housing, land, agricultural development, electricity and social development projects.
However, this scheme does not account for the most vulnerable tribes, such as Kadar, Mudavar, Paliyar, Malaimalasar, which should also be included in the list and special programs should be designed for their development. While planning and organizing tribal integrated development programs, tribal communities should also participate, keeping their welfare in mind. At the same time, there should be a holistic program designed with appropriate development and economic development programs.
In 2008, I went to a meeting on the Forest Rights Act for a resident of Kalaiman Nagar, near Idukkal in Tenkasi district. That village was near the tributary dam on the Western Ghats. There are a total of 9 families in the village. On my way into the village, I saw tribal boys and girls fishing in the nearby water. They were excited to see us and said, “Go into the village; we will come soon!” Shortly after they came into the village, they started to section the fish based on size such as large, medium, and small and the number of houses in the village and shared their favourite fish.
I watched with wonder as they shared the fish with everyone. They added two more fish in the last basket of fish. I asked them, “You counted all the fish from small to large, but why did you put more fish in the last one?” The children said, “There is a grandfather in that house. He is very old. He has no wife, no children, but the whole village will protect him. He likes fish very much, that is why we offered more fish to the house today.”
This act of these tribal children shows how everyone in tribal communities supports and protects the village elders. This is how our government must also protect the elders of the soil, the tribals.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.