Take a moment and imagine that you are living in the middle of a dense forest, on the top of a hill. You clear a small portion of the forest to carry out farming on a patch of land sometime in the latter half of the 19th century. You live with a small community of about 50-100 families and every 2-3 years you clear a new patch of your land and carry out farming. This way, you are able to produce about 80-100 bags of a grain every year. But then, the colonial rule takes over and you lose all your land to plantation estates. What are your expectations of a free India? What dreams, hopes and aspirations would you carry onto August 15th 1947? Right, you would expect that your leaders will return your land to you and you can go back to your way of living. But that is not what happened. The estates were sold to the likes of Tata Tea, Harrison Company etc. This is the story of Pulayars Adivasis in Pollachi district.
The Yatra visited the Satyamuthi Dam village. In several villages around the dam, Pulaiyar Adivaisis from Thirumoorthi hills have settled. Some of these leaders participated in a public hearing organized as part of the Samwaad Yatra. The clan is divided between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The government classified them as Scheduled Castes or Dalits in 1976. Until then they were classified as Scheduled Tribes. This is the first issue they raised. They are unable to take advantage of laws and Acts that are made for Adivasis because of this wrong classification. The same kind of problem, classifying Adivaisis as Dalits, is also seen with the Saheria Adivasis in Uttar Pradesh.
The clan is settled in 16 villages in the plains. Before 1974, they were living high up in the mountains for several 100s of years. During the colonial rule, they lost large portions of their lands to plantation estates and after independence the same land was sold to private plantation companies. According to Aandachi, a tribal leader, in a settlement in 1919 during the zamindari times, each village was given about 1800 acres of forest land. They still have the agreement document. The villagers used to carry out shifting-cultivation in these forests. Then in 1974, because of a famine, they were unable to cultivate enough for their families. In these precarious times, they came down the hill and used to feed themselves from whatever the visitors of the local Shiva Temple offered them as alms. They were pushed out of the forest under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 so that the forest department could plant eucalyptus trees on their lands. They were not allowed to return to their original lands. According to Aandichi, a women leader from Mavadaipu village, they were allotted 250 acres for 105 families in 1993 in response to their protest to this displacement. But the problem is that they are unable to grow more than 20 bags of grains from their lands.
Another village leader said that the land that was allotted to them was on a sloping hill. He said that their conscience did not permit them to cut the thick trees on that hill and that any grains that are sown in that area will all be washed away after a single rain fall. If a non-Adivasi person had access to that land, s/he would have had converted that land into a tea plantation. But the Adivasis never considered that as an option. Rather than seeing this as a failing of the Adivasis, we should see this as their world-view. They cultivate for subsistence and not for profit and exploitation of the land. They also do not believe in destroying the forest for satisfying their own needs. Today these people are all living in separate villages in the plains, far away from their traditional lands. They live a life that is different from the one their ancestors used to live. They are slowly losing their culture and are forced to become mere laborers for construction, agriculture etc. They have voted in the assembly and parliamentary elections but are ineligible for panchayat elections. Hence, they do not have a say in their local governance.