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Wayanad Tribals - Displaced by deceit

By R Madhavan Nair

In the bevening of his life, Ramu, patriarch of a family of the Kurumar tribe, spends his time reminiscing about his glorious past. His story is one of a tragic slide from prosperity to penury.

Like many other members of his tribe, which dominated Kerala's Wayanad district, Ramu (not his real name) was once well-off, owning 16 acres including eight acres of fertile paddy fields. Now he has lost almost all his land. The decline of his fortunes began with the arrival in Wayanad of Mathew (not his real name) from central Kerala in search of livelihood. The Kurumar patriarch developed a weakness for his illicit brew which cost just Rs. 5 a bottle.

In a few years time he and many other landowners went broke and started borrowing from Mathew and other settlers who had prospered at the expense of the local people. Many tribals had to hand over their land to the migrants to clear their debts. Soon the settlers, as the migrants came to be known, became prosperous owners of plantations. And the land-owning tribal families slid into poverty.

The tale of Wayanad's tribals is one of betrayal and exploitation by "settlers" and successive Governments. Of the more than one lakh tribal people in Wayanad, nearly 75,000 are landless. The remaining, mainly Kurichiars and Kurumars, were once landowners but had to give it up to settlers to clear debts and other obligations.

The tribal people's demand for land rights in Kerala has been a cry in the wilderness. Not that attempts have not been made to provide land to ensure a decent livelihood to the tribes. It was the prime objective of the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act, 1975. But this has not happened even two and a half decades later. The reason — those who would have to return land to the tribals constituted a powerful vote bank. The political coalitions in Kerala led by the Congress and the CPI (M) have found it politically convenient not to implement the law.

Wayanad has the highest concentration of Adivasis in the State — nearly 1.2 lakhs, according to the latest survey conducted by the Tribal Welfare Department. Last financial year alone, at least Rs 5.7 crores were spent under Plan and non-Plan programmes by the State Department of Tribal Welfare and to pay the salary of the Department employees in Wayanad. This was in addition to several other schemes meant to benefit the Adivasis.

Yet, it is evident to even casual visitors to tribal settlements in Wayanad that the Adivasis lead a precarious existence. But the main tribal communities, Kurichiars and Paniyars, once had a glorious past. The Kurichiars are known to have fought the British forces for nearly nine years from 1805 along with Pazhassi Raja. The Kurumars once owned large tracts of land. But all the glory has faded from Wayanad's tribal landscape.

The Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restrictions on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act of 1975 came into effect from January 1982 in the State and it was included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution making it non-justiciable. It made all transfer of property "possessed, enjoyed or owned" by tribals to non-tribal people between 1960 and January 1, 1982, invalid and ordered restoration of such land to Adivasis. But the law remained on paper.

In 1993, Nalla Thampi Thera, a non-tribal in Wayanad, gave a fillip to the Adivasi struggle when the Kerala High Court passed an order on his public interest litigation directing the State Government to implement the 1975 Act. In 1996, the High Court set a deadline of September 30 to evict the non-tribals. The Government responded with an amendment to the 1975 legislation. By the 1990s, signs of discontent emerged from the tribal people especially in Wayanad where some extremist groups had been active.

Flexing their political muscle, the settlers forced the LDF and the UDF to amend the "impractical" provisions of the 1975 Act under which they should hand over land in their possession back to the Adivasis. The result was the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Amendment Bill 1996 passed by the State Assembly almost unanimously (there was only one dissenting vote). But the President returned the Bill. Another Bill was passed in 1999 which said only alienated land in excess of two hectares possessed by encroachers would be returned to the tribals. The Kerala High Court however rejected the Bill. The State Government has gone in appeal to the Supreme Court and obtained a stay order.

The Adivasis are no longer asking for restoration of alienated land. Instead, they want five acres for all landless families. There was a proposal to give 85 per cent of the forests taken over by the Government to the tribals. But the Centre's Forest Protection Act, 1980, made it difficult to implement. A demand has been made to interpret the law in such a way that settlement of Adivasis inside forests could be made a part of forest protection measures.

This experiment has been tried with some success in the Sugandhagiri project in Wayanad where Adivasis have been provided decent wages and daily work in a cooperative society which grows cardamom.


The Hindu

March 9 2003