Eco-project gives former criminals a new lease of life

Hindustan Times

Kumily (Idukki district), July 10

ONCE THESE tribal youths worked in tandem with the forest mafia. Now they help in arresting poachers and ganja cultivators.

The Periyar Tiger Reserve has 23 such poachers-turned friends-of-the-forest. The tribal youths living on the edges of the wildlife sanctuary were sucked into the world of crime by poverty and alienation.

Chekku, of Mannakudy in the northern edge of Periyar Tiger Reserve, inherited a huge debt when his father died. Forest sharks lured the 15-year-old to do their dirty job. Neck-deep in trouble, he embraced wine and drugs and his protectors ensured a steady supply. When he was about to graduate into the big world of crime he was spotted by volunteers of the eco-development project. His cases were settled and he was trained by the forest personnel. Now he sports the olive uniform and earns a decent living as a tourist guide and helping foresters in their work.

"I was convicted thrice. When I was out last time I was approached by few officials and promised a good life if I gave up unlawful activities", says another tribal of Pulayankudy.

The credit for the turnaround goes to an interactive programme called India Eco-Development Project. Started in 1996 in three reserve forests including Periyar, the motto was eco-development, biodiversity conservation and sustainable growth.

"Our aim was to wean away these youths from destroying forests and using their energy to enrich green. We provided alternative employment to make them responsible", says Deputy Director of Wildlife Education K G Mohan Pillai.

Some of them were dreaded and rightly qualified to be the cousins of Veerappan with 15 to 20 poaching, smuggling and ganja cultivation cases to their credit. Transformed now, they are ace guides for tourists, best informers for foresters and responsible members to their families. If forest officials are to be believed, it is a success story: The green cover stretched and poaching has become an occasional incident in the reserve.

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Referred by: Benjamin Kaila
Published on: July 11, 2001
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