On the doors of hundreds of houses in the hill villages in the state one can find pasted official notifications indicating the home quarantine status of its occupants.

Vegetables and groceries from state government to tribal hamlets in coronavirus containment area in Kalvarayan hills, Vadakku Nadu panchayat, SalemVegetables and groceries being provided to tribal hamlets
Coronavirus Tribal rights Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 18:37
Written by  George Rajasekaran

On April 23, an ambulance and some government vehicles rolled into the calm tiny hamlet of Valasa Valavu in Vadakku Nadu panchayat in the Kalvarayan hills. As the innocent tribal folk of the hamlet looked on in surprise and shock, 35-year-old Govindaraj, his pregnant wife Rajamani, his nine-year-old daughter and five men who had returned from Kerala along with Govindaraj, were driven off in the vehicles.

Sixty-five kilometres away in Salem, they were subjected to confirmatory tests. Govindaraj was declared positive for COVID-19 and admitted to the coronavirus isolation ward in the Government Mohan Kumara Mangalam Medical College Hospital, Salem while his wife and the five men were taken to a government isolation centre.

Thus the nondescript, idyllic Valasa Valavu with barely 52 families of 174 residents belonging to the Malayali tribe became one of the 13 containment areas in Salem district.

“We couldn’t understand what this sudden focus on our little village meant. The entire village was in a state of shock,” says 37-year-old Kumar, the Oor Gounder or traditional village chief, on the strict round-the-clock vigil clamped on Valasa Valavu and other habitations falling within a 3-km radius.

Dr J Nirmalson, Deputy Director of Health Services, said that Govindaraj’s primary and secondary contacts, about 80 people, were traced and all were found negative for coronavirus. There is no spike in the number of cases in the hill areas, he said, ruling out community spread among the tribal population as on date.

Up till May 12, 1,158 Malayali tribesmen who returned from other states to their hill villages in Gangavalli, Attur and Pednaikenpalayam blocks have been home-quarantined, according to Durai, the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) of Attur. In Yercaud, a major hill block, 93 are under home quarantine, informs the Salem RDO. With the lifting of the travel blockade, hundreds of stranded migrant labourers are returning after mandatory tests and staying in government quarantine centres.

“People who have cattle or fodder sheds in their agricultural lands accommodate family members who return from other states in them for 14 days. But those who have no land or have land without sheds have no choice but to risk being exposed by sharing their small two-room houses with kin who return,” says ST Ramachandran, a tribal youth from Selliankurichi, a hamlet neighbouring Valasa Valavu.

Fear is so conspicuous that the people of these small hamlets whose lifestyle is marked by community bonding now block entry for fellow tribesmen from neighbouring hamlets and take turns to guard their settlements. Not just in Salem district, but this has become common in most hill settlements in Tamil Nadu.

On the doors of hundreds of houses in the hill villages in the state one can find pasted official notifications indicating the home quarantine status of its occupants.

Underlying health conditions

The report ‘Situation of Indigenous Peoples and Rights to Health’, submitted by the Indigenous Women’s Network, India to the UN Human Rights Council’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, lists about 100 communicable, non-communicable diseases under nine major categories.

In Tamil Nadu, the tribals are afflicted commonly by blood disorders like sickle cell anaemia, thalassemia, anaemia, etc. due to marrying within close relatives. Tuberculosis, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, and alcoholism are other major health concerns.

“If the returning indigenous folk bring with them the lethal virus to their vulnerable native villagers with underlying compromised health conditions, the COVID-19 impact can be disproportionately higher impact on them,” says a statement from Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples.

Story of neglect and exploitation

With the reverse exodus of migrant tribals raising concerns over future scenarios, tribal organisations are urging governments to address immediate needs and revisit the long pending demands which led to their displacement.

Tribal areas everywhere in India share similar structural factors but Tamil Nadu features specific systemic issues.

“Ours is a story of neglect and exploitation,” says C Ponnudurai, former President of Vadakku Nadu panchayat and a descendent of the former Jagirdar (land-owning chieftain of the Malayali tribal community and a traditional collector of land revenue).

Ponnudurai has been supporting local farmers who are opposing a move by the state government last year to divert the main stream that runs through the Kalvarayan hills into a dam. Located on the western side of the foothills, the dam will support the irrigation needs of the well-to-do and the politically well-connected non-tribal farmers in the plains.

“The government’s priorities deprive the tribals even the little natural resources they could depend upon. Depletion of ground water by landed interests has not been mitigated. Because of lack of water and support for inputs and market access, tribals have no motivation or means to work on their lands and are forced to migrate to other states where they are forced do the same work they used to do in their own lands for alien land owners,” says Ponnudurai.

Tribal farmers in Kolli Hills in Namakkal district have a similar issue of diversion of the tributaries of the Ayaru river for an upcoming mini hydroelectric project.

Unmitigated land grab and illegal transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals

“In many of the tribal areas of Tamil Nadu, the land settlement process is not completed yet. The tribals possess patta lands, conditional patta, forest patta and revenue assigned lands and so on, and also bring under cultivation poromboke lands by invoking traditional use rights. Politicians and landed interests in the plains have bought lands in the hills extensively and tilt the development focus towards their interests,” Ponnudurai adds.

Though no law exists in Tamil Nadu to prohibit transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals, GO No 15/40 of the standing committee of the Revenue Board has frozen sale of tribal lands to a non-tribal.

“At least 14,000 acres of lands in the Kalvarayan hills (in Salem district alone) have been sold off to politicians and wealthy persons from the plains. The tribals are cheated with low prices for their lands and also by fraudulent practices in measurement and registration. The land transfer process can otherwise be termed land grabbing, according to the Tamil Nadu Scheduled Tribe (Malayali) Peravai. The organisation represented the issue to the Chairperson, Parliament Standing Committee for SC /ST on July 27, 2018 and is continually seeking reversal of the illegally transferred lands.

Tribal organisations have also been making strong demands to implement the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution in tribal dominated areas of Tamil Nadu. The Fifth Schedule provides for ensuring state protection of Adivasi communities, in their traditional habitats, from legal frameworks that will result in them losing their rights over their lands, habitat and forests or that will destroy the traditions that define them.

The Supreme Court had recognised and upheld this constitutional mandate in its famous Samata judgement of 1997.

Being non-scheduled areas, the development programmes in tribal areas of Tamil Nadu are carried out under the Tribal Sub Plan (TSP). The report ‘Situation of Indigenous Peoples and Rights to Health’ states that in the five-year period 2012-2016-17, fund allocation to the TSP on average is over 50% less than what is due. Only 7% or 22 schemes out of the total 303 under the TSP have direct relevance to Scheduled Tribes.

A three-member committee of Advocate Commissioners appointed by the Madras High Court conducted a study on February 21, March 6 and March 13, 2015 on the problems faced by the Malayali tribals in Kalvarayan hills. Their report highlights seven factors that hold back the progress of the tribals. These include lack of access to primary facilities like drinking water, roads, electricity, medical aid, schools, transport and employment.

These translated into land alienation, high mortality rate, illiteracy, high dropout, high indebtedness, seasonal migration, food insecurity, etc. It also reported extensive tribal land alienation and low level of settlement of claims for forest lands under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) (ST & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

Low human development index and lack of economic opportunities led to the labour flight from tribal areas for livelihoods, the report points out.

Fear and uncertainty

Currently it is the season of the migrants’ return for their annual break. Before leaving their villages for out-of-station work, they would plant rain-fed cash crops like tapioca on their lands. On their return, they would harvest tapioca and plant short-term vegetable crops like tomato and brinjal.

Dharmalingam, a tribal farmer in Valasa Valavu, says that the tomato yields this March and April could not be harvested because of local transport disruption caused by the lockdown.

“Agents offered Rs 150 per 25 kg bag out of which they demanded Rs 100 for the transport. The returns were not even sufficient for a day’s wage. The usual return used to be Rs 450 per bag,” he says.

Kumar, the village chief of Valasa Valvu, says the migrants used to work in each other’s lands and the disruption of this practice due to the coronavirus scare hit their incomes.

This means those who returned will be in dire straits. And as the conditions that forced the people to migrate would remain with COVID-19 bringing in new livelihood challenges, this is not going to be a final reverse migration, most of them will want to leave once the situation normalises,” says Prakash, a young tribal activist member of the Tamil Nadu Scheduled Tribe (Malayali) Peravai.

With no clues about their future, the tribals wait with fingers crossed for better days. Many organisations are flooding the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on their behalf with representations to fix the tribal question once for all and also initiate measures to deal practically with the impact of COVID-19 now and in the post lockdown situations.

G Rajasekaran is a senior journalist based in Salem and reports about development issues in the western districts of Tamil Nadu.