Chuppi is busy planting paddy in the field, bending low without even looking up once. Her legs up to the knees are covered in mud, but she effortlessly pulls herself out when she needs to plant the seedlings in other parts of the field. As she continues with the planting, she shoos away the cranes and a few other migratory birds in the field who have come to eat up the small fish, worms and seeds that can be found there. The field has a stream that flows from the Baveli river that runs in parallel to the paddy cultivation. The field is near the Baveli bridge, from where it's impossible to take your eyes off the beautiful sight of the Kabini river. The Baveli river is a tributary that joins the Kabini. It is on the banks of this river in Kerala's Wayanad that Chuppi and hundreds of other tribal people live, planting paddy and taking care of the crops till harvest time.
After her morning's work, 60-year-old Chuppi rushes home to have lunch. In the one room house, she serves rice and a side dish made of bamboo shoot along with some dried fish from worn out aluminium vessels. This is where she sleeps too. Taking her meal outside, she sits on a rock, looking at the pretty view of the unending paddy fields. But, Chuppi does not own any agricultural land. Not even a tiny piece. "We are Paniyars (tribal caste). We are meant to be paniyar (labourers) throughout our lives," says Chuppi, smiling. She earns Rs 300 a day for her work at the paddy fields. The work is inconsistent and seasonal. On some days, she falls sick and cannot work. This puts her annual income at Rs 40,000, which means she's destined to be a 'paniyar' and never a land owner, as she puts it.
In his poem Kurathi, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan articulates how powerful, privileged people have turned the tribal people into slaves. In the poem, the Kurathi (a woman belonging to the Kurava tribal community) says, "Remember how you became yourself? We cooked wild tubers for you, we gave pure water from wild streams. When you slept after eating them, we guarded you from wild animals, though we turned into their prey ourselves. We tamed elephants, dogs, cows for you. We cut trees and built houses for you. We thought you were one among us, but when we slept, we were trapped. You made us slaves, burnt our backs, shunned our intelligence and you rule us."
The government as well as society assumes that tribal communities have progressed a lot. But though this poem was written decades ago, there is not much of a difference in their lives when it comes to earning a livelihood. Except for a few communities like the Kurichyar and Kurumar, many others from the Paniyar, Kattunaikan and Adiya communities are still dependent on irregular daily wages. They sleep under leaky roofs and can only afford to eat what the government gives as free ration, leaving behind their rich food culture. They were once forest dwellers, but the forest is no longer theirs. They don't have any land to cultivate or even rear chickens. Many of them also become bonded labourers â€” a form of modern day slavery â€” knowing that with their meagre earnings, they can never own any land.
A research paper by Professor Damoradan Rajasenan and Rajeev Bhaksar of Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) and Augusto De Venanzi of Purdue University Fort Wayne, Estados Unidos, which was published in 2020, says, "The Paniyan is the poorest group among the tribes: only 1.7 per cent of members are cultivators, whereas 65.7 per cent are agricultural wage labourers. Communities like the Kurichian, the Malayarayan and the Muthuvan include a greater number of cultivators, whilst the majority of the Adiyan and Kattunaikan are agricultural wage labourers."
Kerala was envisioned to be a Zero Landless [Citizens] State by 2015 and the project to provide land to the landless was launched in 2012 by a government notification. However, there are many tribal colonies in Wayanad that exist on lands without title deeds.
Wayanad tribal colonies are similar to labour camps
There are two types of tribal colonies in Wayanad; one, where people were settled by the government in their own land with title deeds, and the other where people settled on some private land (kudikidappu) decades ago, and the land is not owned by them. In the government assigned land, each house may own 5 or 10 cents of land.
"These colonies were formed as part of the old Zamindar system. The tribal people would come for work in the plantations or fields and settle down in some corner of the land owned by the Zamindar. They would work for the landlord and settle down there. They were not owners of the land they stayed on. It would be a tiny piece of land where three or more families stayed in a small shed. They had no land to cultivate or keep their animals," says M Geethanandan, state coordinator, Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (AGMS). According to AGMS data, there are around 2,000 colonies in Wayanad which are settled in private lands without proper documents.
"Migration of people from the lowland to Wayanad, construction of dams and reservoirs by the government, deforestation etc., were some of the reasons that these tribal communities, especially Paniya, Adiya and Kattunaikan of the district, remained landless," Geethanandan adds.
During migration, when outsiders with money bought land in the hills, the poor tribal people were ousted from their homeland and had no place where they could resettle. Many of them also lost their settlements due to government plans like hydel projects. They also lost their land when some parts of the region were declared as reserve forests.
Geethanandan points out that when the government provides them houses again, they are shifted to colonies with poor infrastructure. "They are just given a small amount of money to construct tiny, low quality houses on a small area of land. That is not resettlement, these are equal to labour camps. We seek resettlement land for them to cultivate and turn them to farmers," he says.
Geethanandan, CK Janu and a number of tribal leaders have been a part of land struggles since 2001, seeking land for the landless tribals. It was in 2003 February that the Muthanga agitation took place. There was a violent clash between the police and the adivasi community who were fighting for land. Two persons were declared dead officially, but the tribal leaders of Wayanad allege that there were more deaths. Following this, there were many more land struggles. As a result of the struggles, many of the tribal people have got land, especially plots assigned to them in Aralam farm, Kannur. "Around 1,500 people have received land to cultivate as part of the struggles," Geethanandan estimates.
Colonisation leads to easy neglect
Vaishyan Colony in Kottathara Panchayath of Wayanad is home to 17 Paniyar families. The colony is in terrible conditions, among the worst in the district, and has many families who have been living on less than 30 cents of land for decades. The people still live in sheds, sleeping on plastic mats rolled out in the mud. When the authorities were asked about when the families would be shifted, they were told that their resettlement colony was almost ready and that their houses were being constructed. "The houses are getting ready, but we don't even have a small space to grow a plant. It's been years since they talked about a new house...maybe in another year, we can shift. But we are still poor, and have to depend on these irregular wages. It's not about being thankful. For people like us who have lived in these sheds for decades, the house is a gift. But don't you think that at least our children should escape from these living conditions?" Gopalan, who lives in Vaishyan colony, asks.
Keshu, from Chegadi Adiya Colony, wishes he could have provided better education for his son. "He completed his plus two, he wanted to be a Collector. I could have given him better tuition and support to get admission in good colleges. To get admission in good colleges, we need good marks. With a little support, our children can also do that. To improve our education and living standards, we need to earn. Nobody really wants us in the mainstream, this colonisation is also a part of the neglect," he says.
In nearly all the economically backward colonies, the people were frustrated that no one was there to listen to their problems. "Once in a while, officers come here and we keep telling them the same things. But their ears are closed. Also, for the powerful people, we are mere colony dwellers, with no land and no voice," Geetha, a resident of Koovana Colony in Vellarada, says.
Farming: A hope for development
The AGMS demands a minimum of one acre (43560 square feet) each for all tribal families who are landless. "With ministers and bureaucrats who have a good intention, it can be easily done. There is a lot of government land that doesn't come under forest reserve that can be assigned to these landless people," Geethanandan says.
"My grandfather worked for a janmi (zamindar), my father did the same and I too work in a plantain plantation here for Rs 500 per day. There will not be work every day and it's only on very few days that we all get work. Even my son has started working in the fields. Here, the fields are owned by people from the Shetty family. The difference between the past and now is that we get paid while my grandfather was not paid. But we cannot come out of this circle. On all those workless days, my family survives with just rice. We are trapped in a system," Kuliyan, a tribal leader of an Adiya colony near Baveli, says.
With the meagre income that the tribal people make, they will not be able to buy land. A proper resettlement will help them get a far better life.
"Just look around, you see lush green cultivations. Coffee, pepper, tea, plantain, paddy and so on. We cultivated them, and we worked day and night in farms. That proves that we are good farmers. A piece of land can bring a lot of change," 65- year old Kuliyan, a tribal leader of Chegadi Colony, says.
Land to retain their food culture
For the past many years, the community has largely depended on the free ration from the government. Recently, when COVID-19 struck, they were given pulses along with food kits though it was not part of their food culture.
"Forest products, tubers, some shoots, and vegetables are part of our food culture. We don't eat pulses," says C Manikandan, a teaching assistant at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University. He holds a Master's degree in Business Administration and hails from Wayanadâ€™s Paniyar tribal community.
Chopping the bamboo shoots they collected from forest borders for lunch, Uppa, a 60-year-old Adiya woman from Chegada Colony in Baveli, says, "This is the only forest product we consume now. Since the government provides free ration, we get food. Otherwise, with the income we get, we can't buy anything to eat enough."
Activists who work among the tribals point out that it's unfair to expect them to live on just rice.
"We have less than 5 cents of land. We will not be able to plant anything here. We have seen people cultivating in covers (grow bags), and when my son asked the rate of a single one, he was told it would cost Rs 20. We can't even afford that. Moreover, where would we keep them? We don't have a proper roof," says Uppa, pointing to the leaky roof that's been covered with a tarpaulin sheet.
The tribal people cannot walk into the forest and collect forest produce easily. "The pattern of the forest has changed. We are not allowed to walk inside easily. Wild animals frequent outside the deep forest these days. Moreover, hunting has been fully stopped," Kelu, a tribal leader, says.
While some of the hamlets have land to rear goats and chickens, the majority lives on minimal land. In Koovana Colony of Vellarada Panchayath, none of the families own their own land. They have been settled there for decades but are considered to be encroachers. They just have sheds made of tin sheets and tarpaulins.
Geetha, sitting inside the dark room of a tin sheeted cabin, says, "You see acres of plantain cultivation around our cabin. We are here in this one room, cooking and sleeping. We can't even keep any livestock or chickens. It is Rs 180 now for 1 kg chicken and for mutton, we don't even ask the price. Our children can just eat the rice. Now since COVID 19 struck, they give masala and pulses. Otherwise, it was just the rice."
Landlessness has kept the tribal communities of Wayand in poverty and slavery. If their living standards are to be raised, they should be given the resources to become farmers and not labourers.