Finally, Thrissur Dist. Administration Cajole Tribals

(Special Story)
(By Mukundan C. Menon)

If you can't suppress them with State power and terror, cajole and befriend them using the same State power. This seems to be the golden lesson that the Thrissur District Administration in Kerala had at last learnt from its repeated failures of the past two decades to suppress the agitation of tribals in forests around Peechi reservoir area. This change of attitude, however, does not symbolise the Administration's and ruling politicians' genuine concern over the tribals' plight. For, it has more to do with the forthcoming Assembly general elections in which the precariously placed ruling LDF is under pressing compulsions of adding all available votes to its kitty.

The 64 tribal families and a few Dalits, who have been living in Thamaravellachal, deep inside the reserve forests under the Peechi Forest Division since 1980, have been agitating for recognising their colony as a tribal settlement and for issuing the necessary land documents ("pattayam"). The last two decades had witnessed their repeated agitations in front of Thrissur Collectorate, arrests, as well as booking them under various offences. In the absence of valid land documents, these tribals were treated as tresspassers of protected forest area by Forest officials. It also gave enough scope for the officials to harass the tribals during the past 20 years by slapping various charges on them. All these, however, failed to deter the tribals' determination and they continued to stay in Thamaravellachal by agitating for their right to live, in spite of the scarce facilities available in forests for bare survival and existence.

The batred between the district officialdom and tribals developed following the forest department's adamant stand that land documents can only be issued to settlers in forest areas prior to 1970, and refusal to "officially" recognise Thamaravellachal as a tribal settlement colony. There had also been attempts in the past to forcibly evacuate the tribals through deployment of police force on the grounds that Thamaravellachal is part of the State Reserve Forests. The tribals put-up valiant struggles and thwarted all these attempts. The administration's belligerent attitude towards the tribals continued despite, following recommendation of the State Revenue Ministers' Conference held in Delhi in 1995, the Central Government issued orders in February 1997 to provide valid Land Record of Rights to all tribal families settled in forest land up to 1980. Apart from threatening the tribals with charges of encroaching upon the Reserve Forest Area, the administration also allege that they had felled large number of trees worth millions over these years. According to the tribals, however, the Forest officials used to slap false cases upon them under clauses related to "forest destruction" and "stealing forest properties" even if they pick-up fire-wood for cooking food. This is especially so, since even kerosene, not to speak of cooking gas, still remains as a luxury in Kerala's tribal hamlets. The allegation against tribals of felling trees does not comply with the fact that there is no motorable road in the area to facilitate easy transportation of smuggled timber to the city depots for making profit.

In a bid to put an end to the prolonged harassment of officialdom, the Thamaravellachal tribals launched an agitation two years ago warning all officials, especially of Forest department, against entering the area. All attempts of the Administration to break the spirit and enthusiasm of the tribal agitators failed miserably. Realising seriousness of the situation, as well as their own folly, the officials were compelled to start "friendly interactions" with the tribals to "know and settle" their problems. This had paved the way for a "mass contact programme" being held today (February 22) at Thamaravellachal. Besides the Minister for SC-ST Welfare, K. Radhakrishnan, and Thrissur District Collector, P. B. Sidarthan, district department heads of forest, health, education and panchayat are also assembling to befriend the Thamaravellachal tribals - the hitherto "encroached" tribal settlement colony. Ironically, only two tiny Naxalite groups of "Red Flag" and "Janasakthi", and human rights bodies had rendered support to the Thamaravellachal tribals' prolonged agitation of the past two decades.

It is to be recalled that thousands of hectares of forests, including the ecologically fragile ones in and around the famous Silent Valley area, had "legally" fallen into the hands of powerful encroachers with due abetment and connivance of both ruling politicians and officialdom. There were even allegations that the Forest Department and government pleaders had "deliberately" moved weak arguments before the Court whenever cases of such encroachment came-up. Powerful giants like Tata's "Kannan Devan" tea plantations in Munnar, Idukki district, had encroached 50,000 acres of forest land, and they were supported by the ruling CPI "comrades". Besides, the powerful political lobby of various Kerala Congress fractions in both UDF and LDF act as the front-runners to safeguard the interests of forest mafia, but under catchy pet name of protecting the interests of "Malayora Karshagar" (hill area farmers). As their long list of "hill area farmers" only include the encroacher-settlers from the plains, all these ruling politicians belonging to LDF, UDF or BJP-led NDA remarkably exhibit their collectivity to thwart and negate the basic interests of tribals - the genuinely traditional owners, as well as natural children, of all forest areas.

Source: in-house report
Referred by:Mukundan C. Menon
Published on: February 23, 2001
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