For TN’s displaced Anamalai tribals, it’s been a decades-long fight for their rights

Hundreds of indigenous tribals residing in Tamil Nadu’s Anamalai Tiger Reserve have become the living victims of rapid urbanisation, infrastructure development and government neglect.
A young woman walking out of her dilapidated hut
A young woman walking out of her dilapidated hut

Over the past six decades, nothing has changed for 65-year-old Vellachi and her family, barring the recent tragedy of losing her 45-year-old daughter to an illness due to lack of access to a hospital. Her family has been residing in the same rickety hut in Navamalai village in Tamil Nadu’s Pollachi forest range since the early 1960s — when they were displaced as part of the eviction drive to construct the Aliyar dam.

With time-rendered damages on the structure, snakes often take refuge inside the hut, especially during winters, which sometimes forces the tribal family to sleep outside. It was during one of the recent chilly nights that Vellachi’s daughter Chellammal started running a high fever. However, due to heavy rains, she could neither be taken to the nearest hospital, which is 16 km away, nor to the Pollachi Government Hospital, which is 35 km away. Despite decades of requests and protests for a medical facility, the government has not acted. With no treatment or access to medicines for four days, Chellammal died on November 20.

“I could not get my daughter timely help. It was pouring heavily and there is no hospital nearby,” says the devastated Vellachi, who belongs to an indigenous tribal community called Malasar. “But this is the condition of every tribal person living in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve,” she adds.

Hundreds of tribals residing in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR), one of the most protected forest regions in Tamil Nadu, have become the living victims of rapid urbanisation, infrastructure development and government neglect. Though people from these indigenous communities call the forest their home, they are often displaced in the name of development — dam or resort construction — or by calamities such as landslides and floods.

Even when they are evicted, the government officials leave these tribals to fend for themselves, offering no support to rebuild their lives, the tribal residents and activists tell TNM. Many indigenous families have had to build huts on their own, and survive with no electricity, toilets and medical facilities for decades.

Today, they are treated like outcasts, desperately seeking help and attention from the district administration and state government. “Somehow, the tribal population in Anamalai is not part of the government’s development plan or even qualifies for basic rights,” says tribal rights activist S Thanaraj. 

Vellachi's daugher Chellammal lying on the floor while she was running high temperature

The affected tribal residents

ATR is part of four revenue villages spread across three districts: Pollachi and Valparai in Coimbatore district, Udumalpet in Tirupur district, and Kodaikanal in Dindigul district. About 3,000 tribals from 581 families inhabit four forest ranges — Pollachi Forest range (106 families), Ulandy range (116 families), Valparai range (118 families) and Manampalli range (139 families). The Navamalai and Sarkarpathi villages, which have 300 members from 102 families, are part of the Pollachi range. However, these are not considered forest villages as they do not come under the ‘forest reserve’ demarcation due to their location near the boundaries of the reserve.

In Pollachi and Valparai taluks, there are 19 hill villages, inhabited by six indigenous communities — Malasar, Malai Malasar, Eravalar, Kadar, Pulayar and Muduvar — classified as Scheduled Tribes (STs).

“This is very unique in the entire Tamil Nadu and probably the only tiger reserve with diverse groups of indigenous people,” says the Forest Department on the ATR website. It also says that Anamalai could well be termed the “Anthropological Reserve” as it is native to many primitive tribes. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) refers to Anthropological Reserve as natural areas that humans depend on for their livelihood, without extensive cultivation or causing major modification to the vegetation and animal life. “These individuals or societies may require special protection to maintain their existence,” it says.

Before the forest witnessed major infrastructure developments, its dwellers say that agriculture was their major occupation. They cultivated ragi, corn, millet and pulses. This was not only self-sustaining, but they also made a livelihood by selling their produce to neighbouring villages. However, with development projects over the years, such as dam construction and thriving tourism, these indigenous tribes had to give up their occupation; they also do not have patta (title deed issued by the government) to cultivate. 

Indigenous tribals living in the fringes of the forest in ATR

Deprived of basic facilities

The Forest Rights Act, 2006 protects the tribal population from eviction without rehabilitation and settlement. “The Act empowers the forest dwellers to access and use the forest resources in a manner that they were traditionally accustomed… protect forest dwellers from unlawful evictions and also provides for basic development facilities to access education, health, nutrition, infrastructure etc,” says the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

“But even asking for our rights and getting it fulfilled takes decades,” says Murugan, a resident of Navamalai, which is located on the banks of a stream near the forest. “All we ask for is basic facilities. A long-pending demand of patta and a permanent house with electric supply.”

According to Murugan, whenever they ask for basic facilities, the district administration has made attempts to move them out of the forest area instead of granting them access inside the forest. He recalls a recent incident where the district officials visited their village and asked if they would move out of the forest area if they were provided with alternate land. “We urged them to come inside our huts and look at the state of our lives. But they alleged we were being arrogant and left mid-discussion. It was demeaning, but we only ask for our rights,” he says. 

A child seen reading inside her hut in ATR

While the lack of access to housing and electricity is a burden for the tribal communities, women here also point out the lack of sanitation, healthcare during pregnancy, and safety in general. Women, even during pregnancy, have to walk several kilometres to relieve themselves, they say.

“The Forest Department has set up a camp near our villages, so we cannot go there to relieve ourselves. If we go near the dam, we often find tourists in an inebriated state. So we have to walk further, although there is still the danger of snakes and other insects,” says Nadiya, a resident of Puliyakandi village in the Pollachi range.

The tribal communities allege discrimination in electricity supply in Puliyakandi and Sarkarpathi villages, where the offices of TANGEDCO (Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited) are situated. “There are staff quarters, proper roads and electricity connection for TANGEDCO staff, while the tribal communities who have been living here for thousands of years are deprived of these amenities,” says Thanaraj.

Meanwhile, VS Paramashivam, Coimbatore district president for Tamil Nadu Malai Vazh Makkal Sangam (Tamil Nadu Hill and Forest Dwellers’ Union), alleges that in the name of forest preservation, buildings are being constructed spending several lakhs of money and electricity is being diverted to these buildings. “The tourist cottages operating under the Forest Department are charging close to Rs 4,000 per day. Though it is claimed that these funds are used for the welfare of tribal communities, it is not the case,” he alleges.

“But even asking for our rights and getting it fulfilled takes decades,” says Murugan, a resident of Navamalai, which is located on the banks of a stream near the forest. “All we ask for is basic facilities. A long-pending demand of patta and a permanent house with electric supply.” 

Eviction that left villages unrecognised

The Tamil Nadu government started evicting the forest dwellers before the Anamalai area was declared as a tiger reserve in 2007. However, it failed in most cases, says Thanaraj, who is also the Tamil Nadu state coordinator for Ekta Parishad (a non-violent people’s movement for land rights). He has been working in the region since 2010.

Incidentally, the residents of Puliyakandi were once inhabitants of Navamalai village. “A few decades ago, the government had shifted the Navamalai villagers to Puliyakandi for the Aliyar dam construction. However, only 50 families moved while the remaining refused. Though the government offered them 653.4 sq ft land in Puliyakandi, they refused it declaring that the forest is their home,” explains Thanaraj.

However, they are now forced to face the consequences. The Navamalai residents who stayed back at the time are now residing on the bank of the stream. “The Forest Department claims that the region is neither in the core zone nor the buffer zone of the forest, and so say the villagers do not come under the Forest Rights Act. Even the Revenue Department has disowned them,” says Paramashivam.

Similarly, villages such as Kavarkal and Kadambarai are not recognised by the Forest Department, alleging the villages were not on the records before 2008. 

Two tribal women, one carrying a child, walking through their village

A constant fight for rights

According to Thanaraj, due to multiple dam constructions such as Aliyar dam, Thirumoorthy dam and Amaravathi dam, the number of tribes displaced are significantly high. “The Malasar and Eravalar tribal communities, especially, have been majorly displaced during the construction of these dams,” he says.

“Yes, the dams are a lifeline to many farmers. Besides irrigation, they are used for drinking water and other purposes,” Paramashivam says. “But people who were evicted for the dam construction are deprived of their rights too.”

The Forest Rights Act guarantees forest dwellers the right to in situ rehabilitation, including alternative land, if they were illegally evicted or displaced from the forest land (prior to December 13, 2005) without receiving their legal entitlement to rehabilitation. “Yet, the government has not given them the land patta,” says Thanaraj. Most of the forest dwellers were evicted decades ago. The last set of dwellers who have been fighting for their right to patta was allegedly evicted in the 1990s.

In 2019, the tribal community of Kallarkudi village of Pollachi range protested after rains and landslides ravaged their settlements. Later, the dwellers allege, the officials tried to move them from the forest and force them to stay at a tea estate.

“We took this incident as an opportunity to speak about evictions, the decreasing population of Kadar and Muthavar communities, and how the forest dwellers are cut off from health, education and livelihood access in the name of the tiger reserve. Soon, the government paid attention to these concerns, and then Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami ordered the Director of Tribal Resource Centre to inspect the ground realities in ATR,” recalls Thanaraj.

However, nothing materialised. So, 300 members of six tribal communities conducted a rally from Valparai to Coimbatore on February 10, 2020 along with Thanaraj of Ekta Parishad. 

“We persisted and continued to protest. Soon, the officials provided one-and-half cents (653.4 sq ft) of land to each of the 700 families. We also protested and got alternative land for Kallarkudi villagers,” says Thanaraj.

‘Never denied their rights’: Officials

According to S Ramasubramanian, Field Director of ATR, “Since 2005, residents have been claiming individual rights such as housing and community rights for collecting non-timber forest produce along with grazing rights. The Forest Department has never denied them these rights.”

Regarding the allegations about TANGEDCO redirecting electricity bypassing the tribal settlements, he says, “Some of the hamlets are located deep inside the forest, so sometimes it might be difficult to lay electric lines deep inside the forest. People from outside who don’t understand the ground reality are distorting the truth. If any requests are given, the officer concerned will take action.”

Meanwhile, Coimbatore District Revenue Officer Leela Alex tells TNM that a comprehensive survey of the requirements of forest dwellers was done in November. A team set up by the district administration collected a database of the requirements of each settlement in the reserve, including housing, roads and electricity connection. All the details of the survey have been shared with the concerned departments so that the demands can be fulfilled.

“We’re issuing pattas to the tribals inside the forest and closely monitoring to ensure that none of the rights are denied. Even if the settlements are under the reserve forest, we have conducted inspections and issued pattas to the residents there,” she says, adding, “It is the right of all tribals to stay in the forest as it is their home; we cannot and have not asked them to move out.” 

Google Maps image showing the tourist attractions around ATR

Google Maps image showing hotels around ATR

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