Nature’s People

The bus journey to Meppady promises a magnificent scenic beauty of tea and coffee estates on either side of the road and ravishingly elegant misty hills in the distance. The fresh greenery after a heavy downpour added exquisite splendor to the nature, which I relished in my next two- kilometer-long walk through the tea gardens, climbing the steep narrow path laid out with mud and stones. I was heading toward my first ever encounter with any indigenous community. Wayanad, the high-range district of Kerala, which is also the state’s most backward one, has 17% of its total population constituted by indigenous people. Paniyar, Adiyar, Kurumar, Kurichyar and Kattunaikar are the major indigenous communities inhabiting Wayanad.

After trekking through the rugged terrain for about 40 minutes I was standing with my resource guide outside one of the houses of a tiny settlement belonging to the indigenous community of Kattunaikar. The resource guide had already provided me with some basic information about the colony that had about twelve families belonging to the same clan. Apparently, I found in the course of my studies that the indigenous communities who are living in partial isolation from the mainstream society prefer to live as a clan excluding other indigenous populations. The colony was relatively advanced compared to the other indigenous communities I had visited inside the forest during the latter days of my work. I introduced myself in Malayalam, the principal language of the southern state of Kerala. Most of the tribal communities speak a language that is a mixture of different languages and dialects though without a script, but they are fluent in Malayalam as well except for that, they speak with a distinct accent. Their very progressive chieftain, Krishnan, narrated to me a few astonishing stories of their ancestors. Their vibrant oral history reveals the prevalence of primitive forms of worship among them. They worship ancestors and have a spiritual orientation toward witchcraft. Their idea of pious living does not appreciate closer proximity with the mainstream culture. Therefore, they claim that their ancestors’ spiritual powers are no more visible in their true form. The changing lifestyle of today is creating a wide gap in the relation between these indigenous communities and Nature to which they owe the very essence of their existence.

After a series of tales and introduction to their culture, of which the most interesting is their unique burial system, I got to begin my work- to trace the latent conflict that is present in the democratic institutional structures of India. It was evident to me that there is shortage of certain basic amenities. In case of exigent health concern, it is impossible to provide immediate attention to the victim for a vehicle does not reach their doorsteps. One has no option but to walk in order to reach this community. It took me to bewilderment when I was informed of the entry of a new member into the family born in the wee hours of that day at home. Even today, it is in the distant imagination for many tribal communities to seek medical attention. In spite of six decades of India’s independence and being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, the Government of one of the world’s largest democracies has not been successful in meeting the ‘revolution of rising expectation’ of its citizens. The indigenous communities blame the lack of political will on the part of the government and various political parties to improve their living conditions. The surreptitious agenda of political parties to ensure the impoverishment of indigenous communities for them to seize a colossal victory during election has further deplored their woeful lives. In Meppady, there is the gross absence of direct supply of potable water. The people themselves took the initiative to connect a tube to the nearby spring from the forest, which is evidently not regular. They are left forlorn by policy rigmaroles. The government policies founded on democratic principles have forced these indigenous people to live as encroachers on the land where their elders were buried once upon a time. The Forest Department has the legal ownership authority over the piece of Earth where the indigenous people survive. The young children of Meppady are compelled to walk about two and a half kilometers through the tea estates of Chembra Peak to reach their school and then again walk back the same distance to reach home. They lack a positive environment facilitating their intellectual development and physical nourishment. While the government is exulting in pride for being able to implement reservation for Scheduled Tribes in higher education, in veracity they are flustering and rattling to ensure indispensable primary education for the future India. As I climbed down the narrow mud path appreciating the delicious black tea with cardamom and pepper, little children were joyfully returning from school. I watched in awe at those innocent faces, which are braving all odds to seek the treasure of education. There were no grumbles or protests in their voices except for their slight disenchantment in my polite refusal to spend a night at their colony.

The following Sunday I was travelling with a group of women who were working for government’s Reproductive and Child Care Project. The expedition to this site was in a hired jeep due to the dearth of public transport to this remote village in the interiors of forest. The indigenous community of Adiyar in the colonies of Pannikal and Tazhasheri of Chekadi owns the land but have very little knowledge of the external world. The neatly kept tiny huts with thatched roofs have many members of the family living together. Most of the indigenous tribes are skeptical about healthcare system that is foreign to them. They trust natural medication and often supernatural cure to illness. Consequently, continuing cases of home delivery do not unhinge them. They find respite in preferring a home delivery or depending on nature treatments than risking a parlous journey through the forests during emergency and encounter the insidious tuskers. There is deficiency of awareness toward healthcare and its unavailability as well. Local health workers like Dilla Joseph, Ponnamma, Princy and others pursue commendable task of educating the noninterested indigenous communities on healthy living and healthcare benefits and providing in-depth training on sexually transmitted diseases and sickle cell disease even when there remuneration does not reciprocate their hardship. Interestingly, some indigenous communities do not have a system of saving their earnings. They live as spendthrifts, and therefore in the long term always remain in abject poverty with no food security. In Pannikal colony, the high birth rate is stalling the advancement of conditions of living standards of people. Most of the families in this colony have about six to seven children. In spite various awareness camps conducted by the Health Department, the families are not prepared to adopt any mechanisms to control the rising birth. The health workers are encouraging sterilization to raise the families to better educational, health and social conditions. As an ‘outsider’, I played my role of an active listener well. They expected me to answer questions relating to my life and more than attempting to raise my enquiries. The health workers were enthusiastic in taking me along to display the ‘ideal family’ with a single child. Unfortunately, the theory of the ‘other’ stalled their plan. Although the indigenous communities took pleasure in interacting with me, they were overwhelmed by their obsession to distance anything from intruding their sphere of existence.

My initial fervor and exhilaration was waning toward the end of my programme as I could grasp from their voice a sense of dependence on me to improve their conditions. They were definitely convinced that less could be expected from a twenty-year-old student who is not directly involved with public policy, but they still could not hide their despair. I could not help much but hold myself guilty for making them the victims of this modern-day fragile civilization of ours.

Annapoorna Karthika

[Image courtesy:]