Denied road for decades, Nilgiri tribespeople trek 8km to bury their dead

Their battle is not just for a road, which might ease their daily burden, but longing for a life in the village and fear of losing ancestral homelands where they bury the dead.
Denied road for decades, Nilgiri tribespeople trek 8km to bury their dead
Denied road for decades, Nilgiri tribespeople trek 8km to bury their dead
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Kurumba tribal families in Vagapanai hamlet in Kotagiri in Tamil Nadu have moved out the lands where they once cultivated ragi and other millets because of livelihood concerns. Afterall, it isn’t easy to trek 16 kms up and down a day to buy essentials, take their kids to school or to sell off their harvest to make a living. The nearest road is 8km away from the hamlet once cohabited by Irula and Kurumba tribal families.

But everytime there is a death in the family, members of Kurumba tribe return to Vagapanai to make that trek carrying the corpse in makeshift stretchers. Burying their dead in ancestral lands is integral to their faith and there is no option for the kin when death comes calling. For the Irula tribe residents of the hamlet, with around 60 houses, the drudgery is however a daily routine. 

Their demand for a road is now more than four decades old. Vagapanai residents once had a cemented footpath and stairs till a cliff, a point to cool their heels during the arduous trek leading to the hamlet. The footpath and stairs were washed away due to heavy rains over the period. The route is slippery because of algae deposition and there is a deep gorge where the footpath ends. But tribespeople don't seem to be worried about the risky trek. Men and women and children walk together with loads of firewood, ration provisions and school bags on their heads to avoid encounters with wildlife, which could prove dangerous.  

“The maximum weight I can carry is the 5kg of rice provided by the government. Even to get this rice, we have to start walking at 6am, so that we can at least reach the Kotada tea estate by 10 in the morning. But our routine will be interrupted and we cannot exactly say the estimated time to reach the places, if either it rains or wild animals like elephants and Indian gaurs cross the path,” says 70-year-old Neeli, who also has to take care of her grandchildren. She doesn’t seem to harbour the hope of seeing a road being laid in her lifetime. “What can we do if the government is not laying a road to our village? Nothing. We have to walk till our end, it seems. We are somewhat accustomed to it,” says Neeli.

It’s not that residents of the hamlet want a road up to their doorsteps, which might be impossible due to the nature of terrain. “We don’t want a road that covers the entire stretch. But at least they can build a road till the cliff, which seems feasible,” says Vadugi, a tribal woman from the village. Vadugi recently returned to Vagapanai after staying with her daughter and says she used to stay away from the village for long periods because life wasn’t easy there. Accessing medical care during emergencies was the hardest. “If they lay a road, at least there would be auto rickshaws and our lives would become easier. It will also help generate more opportunities to work. Once the road is here, I would never leave this place,” says Vadugi. 

Pichaimuthu, a tribesman from Vagapanai, undertakes long walks on week days with his grandchild till the Kotada estate, where the child can board a bus to Kil Kotagiri. “I want him to study but it’s dangerous because of the presence of wild animals,” says Pichaimuthu. After his child boards the bus to Kil Kotagiri, where the school is located, Pichaimuthu would return to the village where he would work. “In the evening I will walk to the estate to pick him up,” he says. 

Balan, Vagaipanai’s tribal chieftain says the farming as a business activity has stopped and most members of tribes now work as labourers in tea estates. “If we arrive late at Kotada then we can’t get back to the village. It’s also hard for us if there’s a medical emergency,” he says. 

 Kengarai Panchayat president J Murugan says only people who don't know the lifestyle of the tribes would say they could shift to nearby towns. “Irula and Kurumba tribes are guardians of nature and have lived here for hundreds of years. They also have around 200 acres of community land which is enough to lead a sustainable life,” says Murugan. Many families left because of lack of amenities like roads. “They are not involved in agriculture anymore. They cultivate coffee every year, but the absence of facilities to transport it forces them to be at the mercy of middlemen who reduce the price. This is not about roads, it's about their life in their village without having to lose their ancestral homelands,” says Murugan. 

He has made an appeal for a road facility to the District Collector, Secretary of the Department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj and the Minister of Forest. He also got the No Objection Certificate (NOC) to lay the road for 2 kilometres, between Kotada B Division field number 3 junction and field number 4 and 5 inside the tea estate from the Stanes Amalgamated Estates Ltd. “Their burial rituals should be respected. The kin of the deceased want to conduct the last rites in their ancestral village. Imagine the plight of people who have to carry the corpse for 8km on makeshift stretchers through the forest. This is what is happening here,” says Murugan. further. 

Building a road not impossible

Thirumoorthy, a tribal rights activist from Kotagiri, says absence of village headsmen who can take up the issues and present them before government officials in advisory bodies  is also an issue. "Lack of communication skills is a problem. Also, we don’t have strong village headsmen who can speak their mind" says Thirumoorthy.

His village Chemmanarai got the road facilities recently. “Our leaders took up the issue with the administration frequently to get the work done. But today not many village headsmen make it even to the district's Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) Council, where leaders of tribal communities like Toda and Kota ignore our headsmen. In the Nilgiris, there are many villages that don't have road facilities. The mindset of the officials also cannot be ignored. They might wonder why spend crores to lay a road to a village which has just 50 households. But the mindset is not to be seen when similar petitions are moved by people of Toda and Kota tribes," says Thirumoorthy, pointing out graded inequalities. 

Jeyaraman, who heads the Nilgiris DRDA project, told TNM that they are not ignoring anyone. “I visited Vagapanai village after the District Collector's direction. The initial 2.6 kilometres run through a private estate but it has road formation. The next stretch at the edge of the estate starts with a stream and a rocky formation. We have to construct a small bridge if a motorable road is to be built. But after that, from the stream to their village, the path is only a metre-wide. Demolishing the rocky structures to widen it is out of question. Getting clearances from the forest department is also not possible. But a proposal for the road to Vagapanai has been sent to the District Collector’s office,” says Jeyaraman. To lay motorable roads to the tribal hamlets at least they require a width of three metres. 

“The government provides funds based on priorities but in some places, even though the funds are there, the forest department raises objections because the project has potential to harm wildlife,” says Jeyaraman, adding that they have proposed link roads to all the tribal hamlets in Nilgiris. “If permission is granted, we would definitely lay the road to Vagapanai but there are concerns about ecology and wildlife,” he says.

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