The 12 families from the Araikap tribal colony talk to TNM about the dire conditions they were forced to live in, their fight to survive, and why they were pushed to become homeless.

Residents of Araikap colony who left homes in protest
news Tribal welfare Sunday, October 03, 2021 - 12:19

A couple of kilometres away from the Idamalayar dam in Ernakulam district, amid the thick dense forest that covers the region stands a single-storey stone building with a leaky roof. At first glance, it looks like an uninhabited structure in the middle of the wilderness. But, this is the Idamalayar tribal hostel. Where, since July, 38 tribal people, including children, have been residing, after they were forced by circumstances to leave their homes and livelihood. Now, they look at possible eviction from here as well.

What forced the 12 families of the Araikap tribal colony, who once lived on 2-10 acres of land, to voluntarily leave everything that belonged to them? And how did this dilapidated building come to become their temporary new home?

Amid a downpour, the residents sit under the leaky pavilion, which serves as their kitchen. They talk to TNM at length about the dire conditions they were forced to live in, their fight to survive, and allege that it is state apathy that has forced them to become homeless.

Life in Araikap 

Araikap is a small tribal hamlet located in the interiors of the Idamalayar reserve forest, across the Idamalayar reservoir. According to the residents who now reside in the tribal hostel, about 45 families had been living in Araikap (around 30 still remain) since the early 1980s when they were displaced there, from their original homes near Vaishali Guha, during the construction of the Idamalayar dam. However, Araikap is an inaccessible area and they were cut off from the rest of the world. In case of a medical emergency, they had to travel over 80 km to reach a good hospital, and even to buy essentials, they had to walk four to six hours to reach the nearest ration shop or grocery store.

“Our colony was located in hilly terrain in the forest. Downstream is the Idamalayar reservoir and the surrounding area is a mountainous region with big rocks and boulders. And every year, since 2018, the colony has been hit by landslides. During the rainy season, we used to live in fear as we lived in huts made out of bamboo or metal sheets,” says Thankappan Panjana, the 'mooppan' or chieftain of the tribe that belongs to the Mannan community.


Tribal chief Thankappan Panjana

“There are no roads, hospitals, or schools in Araikap. In summer, we even faced a drinking water shortage,” says Thankappan. The nearest area with road accessibility is Malakkapara, which borders the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, falling under the Thrissur district. “To buy rations, to visit the grocery store, or the panchayat office, we had to go to Malakkapara, which is a four-hour hike on foot," he adds. Moreover, the trek is treacherous, as they have to climb up a steep hill to reach Malakkapra.

Unable to access medical services

Even the sick who are in need of medical attention have to cross this rough terrain to reach Malakkapara, and then travel 80 kilometres more to reach Chalakudy, which has a proper hospital. "Imagine carrying the sick and trekking up and down the hill. There have been instances where those carrying the unwell person have fallen ill themselves along the way," says Chellappan, another member of the tribe.

Women face added ordeals. "Pregnancies are a nightmare due to this issue. In 2018, my sister-in-law lost her child as she could not be taken to the hospital on time,” says Rani Manikuttan. Because of this, pregnant women and their families are forced to rent rooms near the hospital, weeks before the delivery date. “This is a huge expense for us,” adds Rani.


Idamalayar tribal hostel

The erstwhile residents of the colony also recall two men losing their lives since they couldn’t be taken to the hospital on time.

The Araikap colony was earlier part of the Kuttampuzha gram panchayat in Ernakulam district, but a few years back, it was made part of the Athirappilly gram panchayat in Thrissur district at the request of the people. "To avail any relief or benefits from the government, we earlier had to travel on the river for eight hours, in order to reach Kuttampuzha. But even after the change, finding a means of transportation or even a road for commuting was a challenge for those who live in Araikap," notes Chellappan.

No education facilities for children

Apart from having to deal with landslides, lack of transportation, and no access to healthcare facilities, something far more important pushed the 12 families to make the decision to leave their homes. It was the concern they have for their children’s future.

“We don’t need our children to live the lives we did. This is the main reason why we left,” says Anjali Ranjith, whose child is studying in Class 2. Since there were no schools in the region, from Class 1 onwards, the children had to stay in tribal hostels for students.


Anjali

“When other children get to stay under the care of their parents, it is unfair that only our children have to be separated from us in order to attend school. I studied till Class 12, staying in different hostels. We know the pain the children feel when they are away from their parents,” says Anjali with tears in her eyes.

Ever since schools in the state shut down last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the students of the tribal colony have been unable to keep up with their education due to the digital divide. "Since it was online classes, our children haven't been able to attend classes for the past year. No one came to Araikap to check if our children have access to classes or not," Anjali adds.

Watch how students from marginalised communities remain excluded from digital classes:

‘We need help while we are alive’

Since 2018, when landslides became more severe in the region, the families say they have approached the state government multiple times, pleading to be relocated from Araikap. But the residents allege that the government took no action.

“The houses of two families, among us, are located right in the middle of two streams. We carry our lives in our hands during the monsoons. See what happened in Pettimudi. What is the use of giving lakhs of money after people die in a disaster? We need help while we are alive. We are aware that there are projects by governments to rehabilitate people. Then why are we suffering? That is why we decided to move out as our protest,” says Rani.

The migration to Vaishali Guha

On July 6, 2021, 11 families of the Mannan tribe along with one family of the Muthuvan tribe, moved out of their homes in Araikap, carrying all their belongings with them. This consisted of a handful of clothes, school books, and rice. The Muthuvan family that came with the group had been living isolated from other tribal colonies for the past 20 years after the couple was ostracised from their tribe for marrying each other.

Read: Ostracised for falling in love, a Kerala couple has been living in a forest for 20 yrs

The migration of these 38 people, including small children, started in the wee hours of the morning and took them through the tough terrains of the forest and only ended the next day when they reached near Vaishali Guha (Cave). They travelled nearly 28 km from Araikap by foot to reach this place. The people of the Mannan tribe state that Vaishali Guha – a region easily accessible via road – was where their ancestors resided.

“During the construction of the Idamalayar dam, our ancestors were displaced and that is how we ended up living in Araikap. I was a child then. You can still find the ruins of our temple near Vaishali Guha,” says Thankappan.

However, attempts made by the tribal people to construct huts at Vaishali Guha were hindered by officials who thronged to the spot on learning of their arrival. “Forest officials blocked us from setting up huts saying they will be held responsible if something happens to us while we stay there. Due to their pressure, we had to give in. They promised that the government would make a decision soon and that night, we were brought to the hostel here,” recalls Thankappan. However, the incident made news after the residents blocked the Forest Department officials from leaving the tribal hostel.

“This hostel was locked up, no one had the keys. The officials were planning to just leave like that, so we had to block them. It was then that the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) reached the spot and opened the hostel for us. But you have to note, all this while, our children and us were starving. We were not even given a glass of water. It was after we protested blocking them, that they brought us something to even eat,” recalls Rani.

Uncertain future

With the help of tribal activists in the state, the residents moved the Kerala High Court on August 27 seeking permission to occupy the Vaishali Guha region. “However, the state government is yet to intimate a final decision. We are hopefully awaiting it,” says Thankappan.

Meanwhile, the residents add that there are close to 30 families still residing in Araikap. “They are ready to leave Araikap, but they are waiting to see if our protest in leaving our homes will yield results,” says Rani.


Idamalayar tribal hostel

Meanwhile, officials in the state's Tribal Department say that rehabilitating the residents in the Vaishali Guha region will not be possible as the area is, according to them, frequented by wild animals. "As of now, no final decision has been taken by the government. Since it is up to the government to take a decision, we will implement whatever that is," says an official, who did not wish to be named.

Though the residents are residing temporarily in the Idamalayar tribal hostel and have a shelter of sorts, they have no means of livelihood and the families are struggling to make ends meet.

“We are now surviving on the provisions that are given by tribal activists. Our livelihoods depend on collecting forest produce and fishing. Vaishali Guha region was an apt spot for our livelihood,” says Chellappan.

Adding to their concern is the fact that schools in the state are set to reopen on November 1. “Hostels will also be reopening. We are not sure if we will be evicted from here also. Our lives are filled with uncertainty,” they say.

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