“Lord Ayyappa was also born in an Adivasi family like ours. Everyone goes to Sabarimala to pay their respects to Ayyappa while we continue to live in poverty and isolation,” one Adivasi man says.

Fighting for basic rights dont care about womens entry Adivasis near SabarimalaAll pictures by Prajwal Bhat and Korah Abraham.
news Sabarimala Monday, November 05, 2018 - 14:20

Around 35 km away from the Sabarimala temple, 21 families of the Malampandaram Adivasi community live in the forest areas in the foothills of the shrine. They have been displaced from their homes on the hill because their water has been contaminated, allegedly because of the influx of pilgrims who climb the hill to visit the Sabarimala shrine, and leave human and other waste on the way. For decades, the community has been demanding permanent homes from the government near Laha – but their demands, they say, have not been met.

The community members are devotees of Lord Ayyappa and visit the hilltop shrine once every year. But ask them about the agitation over the Supreme Court’s verdict to allow entry to women of all ages into Sabarimala, and the Malampandaram community members say, they don’t really care. “When we are fighting for our own rights, how can we worry about the Sabarimala issue?” asks 52-year-old Balan.

The community faces serious health hazards due to the influx of visitors to the temple during the pilgrimage season. “Their tents and food materials get infested with flies and insects that breed out of the food and toilet wastes created by the devotees, which pose various health problems for them,” says KG Raghesh, Range Forest Officer in Laha.

The Adivasi community has repeatedly complained that the water they use is often contaminated, even with plastic, making it difficult for them to live in the area. The members of the tribe also point out that e-toilets built for devotees along the main road to Sabarimala do not have water.

The move to Laha

Twenty two-year-old Ratheesh’s eyes narrow in concentration as he scrapes the wooden handle of his handmade axe. He continues scraping until the skin of his palm smarts and peels off. “We left Nilakkal and relocated here (in Laha) around a month ago after the water in our well was contaminated,” he says as he picks up the foliage of peeled wood scattered on the ground.

“We have always moved from Nilakkal at the beginning of the pilgrimage season in Sabarimala, and we go back to Nilakkal a few months later when the Sabarimala season is over,” he explains, “But this time, we don’t want to go back since there is a pond in Laha that we can draw water from and find work in the forests here.”

Ratheesh

Balan and Kunjumon

No homes, no basic facilities

The community has been engaged in an uphill battle for basic amenities, as they live in temporary settlements along the foothills of Sabarimala. While the Tribal Welfare Department in Ranni gives them 15 kg of rice every month, and provides them some clothes, there are no schools or health facilities nearby. In fact, the children in the community have to travel at least 20 km to attend schools in Vadasserikkara and Attathode; the nearest hospital is at Perunad, which is also 20 km away.

For decades, the community has demanded resettlement in permanent houses – but to no avail, they say. Balan says that in 1990, the forest department had promised around 220 hectares of land, along with houses and jobs for the members of the Malampandaram community. “It has been 28 years since then and we are still wandering from one place to another in search of a livelihood and survival,” says Balan.

“Once in a while, we do odd jobs, like going to the forests to collect honey, frankincense and cinnamon, which we later hand over to the various cooperative societies in Pathanamthitta. Sometimes, we earn money by cleaning and de-weeding the sides of the main road,” says 32-year-old Kunjumon.

State denies

The claims of neglect made by the Adivasi community, however, are dismissed by KG Raghesh, Range Forest Officer in Laha, who says that the Forest Department built houses for the community. However, since the community is nomadic, they refused to stay in them, he claims.

“We had given them homes with all the necessary facilities in Gurunathanmannu, which is 15 km from Laha in Pathanamthitta district. But they don’t want to live there. They like to keep moving from one place to another in search of water and other resources necessary for survival. The Panchayat also lost a lot of money in building homes for these tribals,” says Raghesh.

“We cannot change their way of living suddenly,” he claims.

‘Poor resettlement plan’

However, the resettlement plan did not include all Adivasis living in the area, the community members say.

According to Yamuna, a Scheduled Tribe promoter from Attathod, around 12 families were resettled in houses but around 21 other families continue to live in small tents propped up along the road. While these families have constantly moved from place to place over the years, they say that they prefer to settle in Laha as they have access to good water and that they can find work in the forest.

Raghesh admits that plans to resettle them have not been implemented in the last five years.

Health hazards

Over the years, the forest department and the health department have taken measures to prevent such infestations in the areas where Adivasis are living. “During the Sabarimala season, the health department fumigate the areas of tribal settlements with a medicinal spray, which prevents the breeding of flies and other insects,” he adds.

However, for the community, this is not even close to a permanent solution.

“Lord Ayyappa was also born in an Adivasi family like ours. Everyone goes to Sabarimala to pay their respects to Lord Ayyappa while we, Adivasis, continue to live in poverty and isolation,” says Balan.

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