In the morning, a conference was organized at the Gandhi museum. Rajagopal spoke about the importance of the Satyagraha and explained the role that the media can play to support the struggle of poor people. Mr. Mariappan, a senior Sarvodaya activist and advocate, helped us understand the history of land-struggle in Madurai. The presiding deity of Madurai Meenakshi Ammal temple owns thousands of acres of agricultural land in the nearby villages. Traditionally, farmers would cultivate this land and offer a portion of their returns to the deity as a rent. But in the early part of the 20th century, the leases for these lands in each village were transferred to a few rich landlords and poor tenant farmers lost their rights over these lands. Mr. Mariappan recounted a struggle happening during 1970s, carried out by tenant farmers to reclaim their rights over a land. In recounting this struggle, he wondered how long the same struggles for land will have to be carried on and hoped that Jansatyagraha will be a decisive struggle.
In the afternoon, the Yatra travelled to visit two Adivasi villages. The Yatra first visited the village of Alaghamalpuram. 17 Adivasi families belonging to the Paliyar tribe have been living in this village for over 25 years. These families had originally lived in the forest on the top of the Kudirai Malai hills at Marudaluthu point but were pushed out of the forest because of the Forest Conservation Act 1980. 150 families in Madurai district were evicted from forest villages. They are a hunter gathering tribe. Today they collect minor forest produce and sell it in the nearby market for their sustenance. The forest guards collect rents from the Adivasis for allowing them access to the forests. For the first five years upon descending from the hills, they were living on the lands of a landlord. One day, the huts they were living in, were burnt in a fire accident. Because of this, the landlord evicted them under the pretext that his farm produce was affected because of them. A generous lady in the village, Mrs. Alaghammal, gave them two acres of land to build their houses. The Government of Tamil Nadu had constructed a small house for each of the 17 families in 1986-87, but today the roofs of most of these houses have collapsed. The Adivasis have been requesting the government to reconstruct their houses but there has been no response from the government. Today, these houses are in a dilapidated condition and hence the people have constructed temporary sheds outside their houses. They cook inside their houses and sleep on the street. The roofs of three houses have totally collapsed and in the other houses the roof is in a precarious condition. These houses are unsafe for the families as they can collapse any time.
The agricultural skills of these Adivasi families are limited to cultivating millets. Because of cultural differences they are unable to work with other sections of the society. Hence, they are not given agricultural work in the neighboring villages. Only 4-5 families have MNREGA job cards and most of them have caste certificates but they have not received any work under the scheme. Caste certificates were issued after efforts of local activist groups. The families are requesting that the government gives them community titles to collect minor forest produce and instruct the forest ranger not to obstruct them from doing so. They are also requesting that the government gives them titles to forest land so that they can carry out subsistence farming. They say that they are not interested in living in the plains as their skill-set and lifestyle does not suit the current social and economic system. They just want to be left alone in the forest.
The next visit of the day was to Kurunji, a colony of 69 families of Paliyar Adivasis living in 39 houses. The village is in Usulampatti taluk and Thottapanayakanoor panchyat. Most of the houses were in a little better condition than the houses in Alaghamalpuram village. The reason was an international development organization that had renovated approximately 22 houses in the recent past. Yet, many of these houses were in dilapidated conditions. There were a few families that were forced to make temporary arrangements: 2-3 families live in an approximately 200 sq feet house. But they have a Sarva Sikshya Abhiyan school for their children.
These Adivasis have a similar history than the tribes in Alaghamalpuram village and come from the same area in the Kudurai Malai hills. They have their burial grounds and temples in the forest that is on the hills. Eight of them were arrested by the forest department in a case of cutting down rose wood and teak wood trees that were spread over an area of 5-6 acres. The Adivasis deny this charge and are not aware of who cut these trees. The forest department also does not have clear evidence on the Adivasis but have framed this case because the Adivasis are regular visitors to the forest. Tribal activists and Ekta Parishad coordinators supported them in being release from the prison.
There are logging companies operating in the area but the Adivasis seem to have been made a scapegoat. The families wonder why is it that the forest department on the one hand uses their services in putting out forest fires and on the other hand treats them with disdain. They are unable to make sense of this treatment. They also do not get the remuneration that they deserve for their services in putting off the fire. When they submit applications for this remuneration, they are accused that they set the forest on fire in the first place. The Adivasis have also been asking for their rights over forest land. They feel that the forest guards are behaving in an oppressive manner because they do not tolerate Adivaisis questioning them or demanding their rights. But the Adivasis are asking for rights over their traditional lands. They say that their land is currently barren and they claim that they will be able to bring back the lost greenery of the forest through their farming activities and planting fruit trees.
The two villages that we met today are good case studies of government’s failures to mainstream Adivasis. The Forest Conservation Act of 1980 was used as an alibi to push them away from their traditional homes and the government has been attempting to mainstream them by providing them with schools and constructing houses. But the Adivasis’ fervent request to be allowed to go back to their traditional homes in the forest is a clear indication that the government’s efforts have failed. Instead of learning from this experience and sincerely implementing the Forest Rights Act, the government has been resisting the implementation of the act in the district. According to Ekta Parishad’s activists, the administration has in fact stated that there are no Adivasis in the district.