It was in the year 2000 that Manoharan P joined as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) promoter with the ST Development Department of the Kerala government. For 20 years after that, he acted as a link between the tribal people of his colony and the government, conveying what the people wanted to the department and ensuring that their demands were fulfilled. During the local body elections held in December 2020, Manoharan, a CPI(M) candidate, got elected from the Chaliyar panchayat in Malappuram. He became the panchayat president of Chaliyar, reserved for a member of the ST. He is believed to be the first from the Paniya tribe to occupy this post.
"The Paniya (Paniyar) is the largest among the Adivasi tribes in Kerala. Wayanad has the highest number of Paniyar. I have checked and found that Manoharan is the first in the Paniya tribe to be panchayat president," says tribal activist Chithra Nilambur. According to the Kerala Institute for Research Training and Development studies of SC/ST, the Paniya are the largest of the 35 major tribes in the state.
Chaliyar panchayat alone has 37 tribal colony settlements, says Manoharan. He comes from the Peruvambadam colony.
"In my 20 years as an ST promoter, I have made it possible for 17 families to get 33 cents of land to build their homes, helped get their ration cards and with job opportunities. Now I am trying to work out a way to uplift the community without changing their ways, like how I have been able to grow in all these years," Manoharan says.
The ST Department defines â€˜ST/Tribal promotersâ€™ as those selected and appointed to function as "facilitators in tribal areas for channelising and extending the benefits of tribal development schemes to the STs. They will also make a link between the scheduled tribe beneficiaries and the local bodies and line departments."
Giving foods kits to tribal people
As a panchayat president, Manoharan has not been able to put his plans for the people into action due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he made sure that ration kits from the government reached all the settlements and the COVID-19 vaccination programme was conducted. "Everyone aged 18 and above has been administered the first dose. Doctors and health workers reached the settlements to give the vaccine," Manoharan says.
More than 50 people of the tribal settlements in the area contracted COVID-19 recently, with whole families getting infected. Manoharan spoke out against the Nilambur ST District Officer for not checking on the COVID-19 patients of the colonies or arranging basic requirements like food in time.
Manoharan says that he hopes to improve the means of living of his community. "The Paniya have been at the lowest rung of the ladder. I really want to uplift the people. Many of them finish their school up to Class 12 but then are reluctant to go out and look for jobs. They end up staying home. The grownups have been making a living out of daily wage work. They don't have the space to farm," Manoharan adds.