Students from a Kerala tribal community have filed a complaint against the Forest Department for making tribal women provide firewood for their outpost in Puthukkudy (Societykkudy) near Edamalakudy, Idukki district.
Ramchandran, a tribal youth, told TNM that he had questioned the legality of the practice last month via Whatsapp messages. “The officials and the people of our hamlets don’t understand the fact that collecting firewood from the forest for our own use is our legal right,” said Ramachandran, who is a law student.
However, he alleged that after he and other activists raised their voice, the Forest Department officials threatened the women who collect firewood. “The Munnar Forest Range Officer had said that if they collected for their own use, they would be arrested,” Ramchandran alleged.
Fearing this warning, the people of Idalippara settlement agreed to resume providing firewood. The Forest Department did not speak to us directly. Instead, they spoke to the head of the hamlets,” he claimed.
There are 28 hamlets in Edamalakkudy, and the Forest Department outpost, for which firewood is being supplied, is located in Puthukkudy. The women of Chettukkudy, Andavankudy, Kandathikkudy, Edalipparakkudy and Ambalappady provide firewood for the outpost. At least one woman from each family has been following this practice for generations as forest officials would allegedly arrive once a month to demand firewood.
Incidentally, as per the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, the Forest Department is prohibited from taking away the resources that the tribal communities have access to.
After this, another student R Sarath, who is a Student Police Cadet member, filed a complaint against the Munnar Forest Range Officer, urging authorities not to prevent tribal communities from collecting firewood. The complaint was sent to the Human Rights Commission and Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe department director on November 30.
“The duty of the forest officials is to protect us and our rights. This practice has been there for decades, but no one has ever dared question it. The Forest Department has no right to make us slaves. They are angry because this is the first time it was challenged,” said R Sarath, who filed the complaint.
Ramachandran alleges, “They can’t threaten educated people like us. It’s easier for them to threaten others and make them fearful by forbidding them to collect firewood for their own use. Even a section of people in the hamlets views our action as a disturbance to their peaceful lives. Only a small group of us see this as a problem. The rest say it is a part of the system that should be followed. And those who want to speak out stay silent out of fear.”
When TNM contacted Munnar Forest Range Officer S Hareendrakumar, he denied receiving any complaints against the Forest Department but saw some messages in this regard on WhatsApp groups.
According to Hareendrakumar, nine guards of the Forest Department are from the tribal hamlets.
“Based on the WhatsApp messages, I carried out a preliminary inquiry. I found that the acquaintances or family members of these nine guards might have provided firewood. I am doing a detailed inquiry on it and if there is any truth in the allegations, I will take action,” he said.