In between the tribal hamlets of Sholayar and Anakkayam, deep within the Vazhachal forests in Kerala’s Western Ghats, a rather mundane but highly peculiar event unfolded a few months ago. Members of the primitive Kadar tribe, a hyper-endemic tribal community found only along the upper catchment areas of the Chalakudy River in the Ghats, were restoring an ancient place of worship located in the forests between their villages. When passing forest department officials asked them to abandon this restoration work, they responded saying that the maintenance of the temple was allowed under their community forest rights and politely asked the officials to not interfere.
This exchange would have been quite uneventful anywhere else. But here in India’s forests, where adivasi communities exist in the fringes of society and are subject to the whims and fancies of the bureaucratic machinery, it was highly unusual. For the adivasis to not only be aware but also be able to assert their legal rights would have been unthinkable even a decade earlier ago, and remains so for many of India’s adivasi communities even today.
About 25 kilometers downstream, the Athirappilly waterfalls, sometimes called the “Niagara of India”, which sees a footfall of nearly seven million people every year, would be running dry if the Kerala government’s plans to build yet another hydro-electric dam on the Chalakudy River had come through. A three-decade struggle against the proposed project finally bore fruit in 2014. With the provisions of veto provided under their FRA-granted rights, the Kadars prevented the dam from being constructed. They not only managed to evade eviction from their forest hamlets, they also saved the scenic waterfalls from trickling its way into obscurity.
Google Earth imagery of Vazhachal Waterfalls
A sense of belonging
“They were literally smoked out for the benefit of various development projects,” says 51-year-old A. Latha of the River Research Centre, who has continuously carried out scientific research on riparian ecosystems and led struggles against unsustainable development in Kerala for the last three decades, despite her poor health. Meeting The News Minute at her office-cum-residence in Ollur, in the outskirts of Thirssur and about 60 kms away from Vazhachal, Latha was referring to how the 2,000 odd people of the Kadar tribe have been continually evicted from their various forest hamlets over the last century. “There are already six dams on the 144 kms long Chalakudy River. When these dams came, they were forcefully displaced, because they mostly live along the forest valleys, they don’t live up on the ridge. There was no rehabilitation, no displacement norms, nothing.” Now the Kadars are spread out over about a dozen hamlets in Kerala and Tamil Nadu’s forests, with most of them living in nine hamlets spread in the Vazhachal forest division in Kerala.
Latha speaks about the Kadar tribe
When the seventh dam on the Chalakudy River, the Athirappilly dam, was proposed by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) in 1982, the Kadars were in no mood to be kicked out again. After a prolonged struggle which involved many protests, countering false Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and at least four court cases, plans for the dam’s construction finally seems to have been dropped. The Kadars managed to secure 400 sq.kms under Community Forest Resources (CFR) shared by nine tribal hamlets under the provisions of the FRA in 2014. This proved instrumental in the end, since any development within a CFR area needs consent from the tribal gram sabhas. The Kadars had finally won.
Map Courtesy: Vazhachal CFR Coordination Sangham
“My father, Karumbaiyan, and our elders have told us about how we’ve been displaced many times before. It has always been for others’ benefits. From this dam, we won’t even get any electricity for our village, so why should we move again?” asks Geetha K, 30, the Ooru Moopathi or village leader of Vazhachal. A charismatic person, Geetha is the only woman leader in any of Kerala’s tribal gram sabhas. Her leadership and acute understanding of the provisions of the forest rights and what it means for her people has been key in the empowerment of her community. She adds, “Not just this dam, but any other development project within our CFR area will not be allowed. These forests are ours and we’re going to protect them to the best of our abilities.”
Life after FRA
Beginning in 2008, it took the Kadars eight years to obtain their rights under the FRA. NGOs such as the RRC and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the Hornbill Foundation provided their expertise and assistance in the mapping, claim-filing and other processes related to the FRA. “For us, it fits within our mandate,” says Tiju C Thomas, assistant coordinator for community oriented projects in the Western Ghats for the WWF. “We realized that without the support of the community, without their knowledge, we couldn’t do any conservation activity. We started with providing awareness about FRA and then assisted with GIS mapping and collating supporting documents and so on. Now, along with the community, we are planning on post-CFR activities. Even though not everyone knows about the benefits of FRA, people here are generally more aware of their rights.”
A Kadar woman in the village of Wachumaram
Tiju C Thomas of WWF
While opposition to the proposed dam is their biggest FRA success story, Geetha considers this only the beginning. She says, “Earlier whenever we went to a government office, they looked down at us, we were not treated as equals. Now there are changes. Whenever we go, the officers ask us to come and sit. They know that we have our rights and own our lands in the forests.” She adds, “Our interaction within the community has also become better. Now whenever there are any problems, the other village leaders contact me and when I need help, I get in touch with them. That kind of support system is maintained.”
Geetha K, the Ooru Moopathi or village leader of Vazhachal
Manju Kumar, village leader of Wachumaram
While the forest department’s Van Samrakshana Samiti (VSS) or Forest Support Group, employs many of the Kadars on a weekly wage system as well as purchases the Non-timber forest produce (NTFP) that they collect – like honey, gooseberry and so on - the Kadars are also trying to set up their own community enterprises through the FRA. There are plans to setup a reed unit to knit mats and baskets, a jackfruit unit and also to grow NTFPs in abandoned or disused plantations that fall within their CFR and IFR areas. The WWF and other NGOs are also assisting the community in setting up these livelihood opportunities that the FRA provides for.
“We also got a wholesaler to come here and take koova or arrowroot directly from us. We managed to make a better profit like that than going to Chalakudy and trying to sell it ourselves. This was also possible only after FRA,” says Geetha.
Despite the various positive outcomes, there are still lingering doubts on what the future holds for the Kadars and the region of Vazhachal. While the Forest Department here has been supportive of the community and enabled them to receive their rights, officials are still apprehensive about how this might work out in the long term.
“It’s definitely a useful law for tribes, the only thing is it should be implemented in a positive way,” says N Rajesh, District Forest Officer (DFO), Vazhachal, “It might disregard an existing efficient system. Tribes should be there, they are part and parcel of the forest.” Yet, he adds, “But coming to protection and management of forests, rather than entrusting everything to them, I feel the department should also be given a place," he says, adding, "There is a grey area in management and protection of forests. What is the infrastructure these poor people are having? That is our skepticism. Problems will definitely come up.”
N Rajesh, DFO Vazhachal, speaks about FRA
Meanwhile in the Vazhachal forest hamlets, there is hope. As Manju A from the hamlet of Wachumaram says, “Earlier, we weren’t sure when we’ll be asked to move. Our people have been displaced so many times. We’ve always belonged to these forests and hardly any of our people have ever left these forests.” She adds, “Now there’s a legal document that proves it.”
All images: Steevez Rodriguez
Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. He tweets @sibi123.