Seventy years after Independence, adivasis in the Nilgiris say they still haven't got their due

With the who’s who of the state machinery in attendance, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was celebrated with much pomp and fanfare in Ooty on 9 August. While the traditional dances and official speeches painted a rosy picture, it was what was left unsaid during the celebrations that deserves looking into.

“It’s great that there were celebrations here in the Nilgiris, it’s some sort of recognition,” says Shobha Madhan, 32, of the Betta Kurumbar tribe. Madhan is the convener of the Adivasi Youth Forum, an organisation run for and by the adivasi people of the Nilgiris.

The Nilgiris are home to seven primitive tribal groups — all of them with current populations not exceeding a few thousands. These groups are the Kotas, Irulars, Paniyars, Todas, Mullu Kurumbars and Betta Kurumbars.

3. Senior officials from the district at the World Indigenous Day celebrations. Photo: Sibi Arasu

Senior officials from the district at the World Indigenous Day celebrations. Photo: Sibi Arasu

4. Senior officials from the district posing with Toda children at the World Indigenous Day celebrations. Photo: Sibi Arasu

Senior officials from the district posing with Toda children at the World Indigenous Day celebrations. Photo: Sibi Arasu

Madhan adds, “At the same time, when it comes to adivasi issues here, I will have to say even seven decades after independence, we haven’t got any independence. Many of our leaders have fought for our rights both before and after independence but nothing has changed. In terms of the Forest Rights Acts also, it’s been 10 years since it was made a law but nothing has been implemented in Tamil Nadu. It’s almost as if the officials are trying to forget that there’s even such an act.”

Almost as if to prove Madhan right, the day after the Indigenous People's Day, officers from the state revenue department oversaw a demolition drive, evicting 60 families belonging to the Irular tribe from the village of Vazhaithottam, near the Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve.

“This is the land of our ancestors that is why we built our houses here,” says K Sujatha, a resident of Vazhaithottam. “There are so many big resorts all around but they don’t do anything to them. Our small hamlet though is demolished because it’s apparently in the elephant corridor. Now we’re all homeless.”

While state officials said that alternative arrangements have been made for the Irulars to shift into, till the time that these get finalised, the 60 families are effectively sleeping with the sky as their roof, that too in a wildlife intensive area.

1. A view of the Vazhaithottam hamlet near the Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris

A view of the Vazhaithottam hamlet near the Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris

2. Irular people collecting their belongings from what were their homes, post the demolition on 10 August.

Irular people collecting their belongings from what were their homes, post the demolition on 10 August.

Unfortunately, the Vazhaithottam incident is just the latest blow dealt to the adivasi people of this region.

Ignorance is bliss

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was passed on 18 December 2006. The act was a culmination of decades of agitation by adivasis and tribal rights groups and years of drafting and political negotiations. The act was notified a year later and came into effect on 1 January 2008. The FRA seeks to correct “historical injustices” committed against forest dwellers in India. It is also an attempt to improve the lives and livelihood of the adivasi people, who are among the poorest of the poor in India.

If implemented in its entirety across India, the FRA would benefit 400 million people, about a third of the country’s population. It would also affect about 40 million hectares of forest land, which is more than half of the area currently under the purview of the Forest Department. It would essentially be the largest land reform instituted by any government in the world.

5. A Betta Kurumbar tribal home in a dilapidated condition at the village of Bokkapuram near the Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris. Photo: Sibi Arasu

A Betta Kurumbar tribal home in a dilapidated condition at the village of Bokkapuram near the Mudhumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris. Photo: Sibi Arasu

Another dilapidated house in Bokkapuram that belongs to a member of the Irular community. Photo: Sibi Arasu

Another dilapidated house in Bokkapuram that belongs to a member of the Irular community. Photo: Sibi Arasu

“These are the first governance laws based on participatory democracy, not just representatives but people themselves,” says CR Bijoy, a long-time campaigner for indigenous people’s rights and a member of the national collective Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD). “If you look at the legal history India, essentially what we have is a colonial administration where a subjugated land and people had to be governed. In the revenue, forest and other departments, this whole attitude, culture, continues. The FRA was a decisive step against this colonial mind set.”

While a few states in India have been proactive about implementing the FRA, Tamil Nadu is among the worst. According to state government records 21,781 claims have been filed in Tamil Nadu out of which 3,723 titles are ready for distribution. Till a few months back not a single claim was distributed.

A view of the Nilgiri hills. Photo: Sibi Arasu

A view of the Nilgiri hills. Photo: Sibi Arasu

It was only in the last month that the distribution process finally began after the decade-long wait and 472 Individual Forest Rights (IFR) were distributed in a few districts in the state. In the Nilgiris, despite 505 claims for FRA rights being finalised, none of them have been distributed so far. More than 2,500 claims have been filed by individuals and communities across the district, the bulk of which has been “in process” for the good part of the last decade.

As Madhan says, “All adivasis here are only becoming more vulnerable and increasingly poor.” She adds, “This is because our people are voiceless and there are also so many resources in areas where adivasis live. So the government just tries to push us away and take our resources. The adivasis also don’t think like others about money, land titles etc. This is also one reason it’s so easy to step all over us.”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in the Nilgiris. He tweets @sibi123


Published Date: Aug 13, 2017 12:48 pm | Updated Date: Aug 13, 2017 12:48 pm


Also See