The video of half a dozen tribespeople carrying a man, who was attacked by a bear, in a makeshift stretcher made of bamboo poles and cloth through the dense forest in Nilgiris went viral on social media last week. They had to take breaks in between while carrying him down the hilly terrain to reach the road where an ambulance service that could save his life could be accessed.
Soonan, a member of the Irula tribe, was attacked by the bear while engaged in work close to his home. He was bleeding heavily and tribesmen rushed him to the hospital in the makeshift stretcher to the Mettukal area. From there he was taken to the Kotagiri General Hospital by ambulance where he got first aid. Later, he was referred to the Coimbatore Government Hospital for further treatment.
This struggle to access the road during emergencies is neither new nor surprising to the tribal people of Kodagur village of Kotagiri. In 2019, tribespeople from Anaippalam had to wait for 17 hours to get an ambulance, to rescue people struck by lightning, due to the lack of road facilities. In Nilgiris, many tribal villages are deprived of the basic amenities and they have to fight with the local administration to have amenities like roads, electricity, and drinking water.
Kodagur, an Irula and Kurumba tribal hamlet, comes under Kengarai panchayat, located 35km away from Kotagiri. Once, more than 100 families lived there but due to lack of road facilities, most of them relocated to Metukkual. Less than 30 families are living in Kodugur and the residents have to walk three hours to access the road in Mettukal, where they can get autos to reach the nearest towns or villages. The journey between Kodagur and Mettukal is not safe because of the presence of wild animals.
â€śWhile on their way to ancestral villages, people have been chased down by elephants or bitten by snakes,â€ť says Murugan, president of Kengarai panchayat.
Residents of tribal villages say lack of road facilities have impacted their livelihood.
"Due to the lack of road facilities, I had to stay away from my home village. I'm a farmer, cultivating coffee and cassava. It was not easy for us to carry all the products on our shoulders from Kodugur to Mettukal and the markets. Many are now relocating to nearest towns and villages where the road facilities are available, '' says Sivakumar, a resident of Kodagur.
Mettukal has roads but the buses are rare. â€śPeople have to walk another four or five kilometres to get the bus. Students are the most affected. Literacy level here is low and these hurdles make them stay away from educationâ€ť says Murugan.
Karnan, a student from Kodugur, pursuing his graduation from Ooty Government College, said if there were proper roads and vehicle connectivity, they could stop worrying about worrying about the jumbos and other wild animals.
"With the allocated funds, we tried our best to introduce facilities in the villages. But roads cannot be made with the fund. Ooty DRDA (District Rural Development Agency) is the nodal office for road schemes. We have approached the local administration multiple times but it was not fruitful. In cities like Chennai and Coimbatore, bridges worth hundreds of crores were erected just to avoid traffic jams. But people here have to walk through jungle paths to make a living,â€ť says Murugan.
What does the DRDA say?
â€śWe inspected all three villages in Kengarai panchayat and have given our project estimate to the district collector. But constructing roads there involves many practical difficulties," says Jeyaraman, who heads Nilgiris DRDA project.
According to him, the nature of terrain, permissions required from the Forest Department, presence of hamlets inside the reserved forest in remote areas, and the nod of private tea estate owners are all real obstacles. â€śDespite this we are trying to construct roads to the tribal hamlets in Nilgiris," he adds.
Several tribal hamlets have roads but minibus operators are not showing interest in operating services to the hamlets since the tribal population is low and hence not profitable.
Itâ€™s not just about the roads
Vagapanai, Nattakkal, and Kambaiyur are some villages in Kengarai panchayat yet to have road facilities. More than 1,000 members belonging to Irula and Kurumba tribes are living deep inside the jungles without road facilities. "This struggle is not only about getting road facilities. Even to get the electricity we had to approach the Madras High Court," says Shoba Madhan, Nilgiri-based Betta Kurumba tribal activist. "Comparatively tribal villages in Gudalur have better road connectivity than the villages in Coonoor and Kotagiri. Adjacent tea estates located next to the Vagapanai and Johee Kombai tribal villages have all the basic amenities but after the tea-estate boundaries, there is nothing, no roads, no schools, and no electricity. Nilgiris is the PVTG (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups) area. The government may not put effort into bringing such amenities just to pacify the people. The roads would improve the livelihood of tribal people. The officials might be wondering why tribespeople need such development" she adds.
Johee Kombai, Chengal Kombai, Ojaoor Kombai, Mallikorai, Mel Korangumed, and Semakarai in Coonoor, Anil Kadu, Vagapanai, and other areas in Kotagiri still don't have electricity, says Shoba. â€śIn some places, the tea-estate owners are not ready to give their land for road construction and the Forest Department often cites a reason that high voltage electricity lines cannot be drawn inside the forest. But, they are happy to provide such facilities to the tea estates. We write letters to every department but replies come only from the Tribal Welfare Department. But there is no action taken. I don't know what is happening with the fund the government allocates for the tribal welfare," says Shoba. .
Fund utilisation not efficient
According to an RTI reply obtained by Madurai-based RTI activist Karthik from the Tribal Welfare Department earlier this year, altogether, the Union government and the State government of Tamil Nadu allocated Rs.1310.94 crore to the Tribal Welfare Department between 2018 and 2021. In the said fund, only Rs.1045.24 crore was spent. The balance of Rs. 265.70 crore was sent back to the treasury. Out of this amount Rs.129.9 crore was shared among the Forest Department, Department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, and town panchayats. Several social activists including Shoba Madan have raised their voice against the authorities for not utilising the fund for the tribal communities.