The state has recently urged the Centre for Rs 200 crore for the relocation of tribal people from forest land and for forest conservation.

The Kerala governments contentious move to relocate tribals from forest landAll images from Thiruvannur Tribal colony near Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad.
news Adivasi Issues Tuesday, September 03, 2019 - 19:25

Kerala Forest Minister K Raju on Thursday, August 29, handed over a memorandum to Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar, appealing to the Centre for a Rs 200 crore package for forest conservation and relocation of tribal people from forest land.

The package sought is for relocating 1000 tribal families facing threat from wild animals, to a safer place. According to reports, the minister said that one thousand families will be moved in the first phase and the government will pay a compensation of Rs 20 lakh for each family. 

UC Kunchan, a member of the Irula community in Attappady in Palakkad district, who is also the chairman of Girijan Sevaka Samithi finds this argument by the government that relocation was to ensure safety of tribals from animal conflict strange. 

“We have been living in these areas for ages and we worship animals like gods. To us, they are not dangerous. Back in 1975, as many as 420 families from various tribal hamlets in Attappady were relocated with the promise to give five acres of land to each family as a part of the Western Ghats Development Scheme. They were landless families. They were relocated to places like Varadimala, Pothupadi, Chundakki and Karuvara farms as farm labourers. Varadimala and Pothupadi farms are now destroyed,” he says.

Kunchan reminds that those families were promised land and money in five years, but the promise has not been kept yet."A loan was taken from the Bhoopanaya bank (Co-Operative Agricultural and Rural Development Bank) Perinthalmanna in the name of each member of the 420 families for 'development'. Even that money was not utilised for the purpose. The only development was founding a government school in Chundakki,” Kunchan says.

While Kunchan spoke about unkept promises from 1975, Chithra MR, a member of the Kattu Naykkar community living in the Athamkappu hamlet in Nilambur says that examples from the recent past too have taught tribals a lesson that relocation exercises cannot be trusted.  

“The fund of crores which both the state and the centre government spend on adivasis is not beneficial for the tribals. We have learnt lessons from those who were relocated from Aralam farm in Wayanad, they have neither been relocated nor rehabilitated. 34 tribal families from Chaliyar in Malappuram affected by the 2018 floods had also been relocated. But all of them, including pregnant women, are now living in sheds covered with plastic. There are no toilets or drinking water. Is this the kind of rehabilitation the government advocates? The governments should relocate tribals to a safer place in the forest and ensure that the rights guaranteed to them under the Forest Rights Act are not trampled with,” Chithra tells TNM.   

Kerala has around 725 tribal settlements and more than 25,000 Adivasi families. Many Adivasi communities live all across the Western Ghats and are not believed to constitute one percent of the population in the region. For many years, consecutive state governments have relocated tribes from the forest, under many pretexts. Even as many of the older battles for the promised land remain unsettled, the LDF government’s thrust to relocate more people has created much anguish.   

Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, a pro-tribal organisation and other tribal organisations will protest against the move to relocate tribals, in front of the Governor’s residence at Raj Bhavan on September 7.

“It’s totally against the Forest Act Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The Act stipulates the relocation of tribals not completely from the forest, but to a safer location in the forest,” Geethanandan, Adivasi Gothramahasabha coordinator, tells TNM.

In 2015, 41 tribal families from Kurichiyad — a remote settlement inside Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, had been shifted using a special fund sanctioned by the state government. The UDF government had at the claimed that the families were being shifted out as the human-wildlife conflict was escalating. Though the tribesmen initially refused, the death of a tribal member in an alleged tiger attack prompted the government to speed up the procedure. The atmosphere of fear that existed after the death enabled the government to shift these people and the administration claimed that an amount of Rs 7.2 crore had been set aside to purchase 25 acres of land.

“The families who were relocated from Kurichiyad in Wayanad in 2015 have not been rehabilitated and now they have nowhere to go. If the previous UDF government had done it, the current LDF government is expanding the list,” Geethanandan says.

Even the voluntary relocation project at the national level was slammed by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in its 2017 report, for it was against the law. The voluntary relocation, in effect, was coercive in nature. When the tribals are relocated, they would lose access to the resources of the forest, they would lose their livelihood, and would be forced to live on land which won’t in any way be liable for the tribals. Hence, in due course, certain tribal clans may even become extinct,” Geethanandan says.

He adds, “The Planning and Economic Department in principle has approved Rs 105.91 crore for relocation of tribal settlements in the forest under post-flood Rebuild Kerala initiative without any consultation with the Scheduled Tribe (ST) department. The director in charge of the ST department is an IFS officer Pukazhenthi. Since 2012, there is no IAS officer to head the department apparently in a move to weaken the department.”

In May this year, a meeting of the State Level Committee for voluntary resettlement of tribals in Wayanad Sanctuary, approved the implementation of Phase Two relocation, which includes about 630 families in 12 settlements and also directed to prepare a detailed proposal for the same.

"It was decided to re-allot the balance amount of Rs 7.44 crore withdrawn by the Government during 2017-18 for the resettlement. It was decided to initiate the process of relocation in the remaining four settlements - Pankalam, Kolot, Manimunda and Pampankolly in Phase 1 by utilising Rs 12.52 crore. The SC /ST Department has agreed upon meeting the expenses of Rs 52,88,488 required for the land purchased for the 75 families relocated in Kurichiyat colony," the minutes of the Committee state.

“The higher officials had also decided to give Rs 52 crore from the ST Development Fund for the voluntary resettlement. Why the government is so keen on the voluntary resettlement, which even the CAG asked to stop and why are they asking for more funds from the Centre,” asks Geethandan. 

Minister of Forests, Raju, however, says that the government is not forcing anyone to relocate. 

“People living in the protected areas like tiger reserves and those who live in the interior forests would be relocated. The government’s plan is to provide Rs 20 lakh per family and the government has sought funds from the union government for that,” he tells TNM.

On the Rs 105 crore approved under the Rebuild Kerala initiative, the minister says that the fund was not for resettlement of tribals. On Pukazhenthi being given charge as ST Department director, he says, “It’s not the Forest Department which appointed Pukazhenthi as ST director. We would be happy to get him back in the service of the forest department.” 

Dr Amitabh Bachan, Forest Rights Act expert and member, species specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) tells TNM that the right to decide on the habitat of tribals lies with the tribals only.

“The development of conservation zones without human beings is a colonial era concept. Nationally and internationally, their rights and their living in the original habitat to maintain the ecosystem have been recognised. In the 2012 amendment of the Forest Rights Act also, it is mentioned that it’s for the people living in the particular region to take a decision on their tribal habitat. And the grama sabhas (village committee) should approve that. Even if they are resettled in the forest area itself, it should be done by ensuring sustainable livelihood,” he says. 

According to him, resettling tribals by giving Rs 10 lakh or 20 lakh, is not proper.

“If a tribe of Kattu Naykar community lives in ten cents of land, he would have farmland of acres of land and would have access to 1000 hectare resources. How can they be resettled with the government’s package without ensuring all these, without telling the exact location to resettle them — by simply offering money and a mere shifting — itself is in violation of the law. By doing so, the government is already saying that their rights are amended. In the CAG report of 2017, it was said that the relocation of tribals from Kurichiyad is in violation of the Forest Rights Act. 

“The big motive of keeping tribals away, of separating man from nature and away from forestland, is to privatise forests for big lobbies. A draft has been prepared by the Centre in which there is a clause for entrusting forest conservation with private companies. The concept of nature without human beings won’t sustain, the ecosystem won’t sustain. It is the tribals who wont have written documents to claim land rights which also makes them vulnerable for relocation,” he says.

Read: Dalit MLA from AP visits Ganesh pandal, faces casteist abuses for ‘polluting’ deity

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.