A resettlement scheme for tribals in Kerala goes really wrong, pitting humans and elephants in a conflict that hurts everyone.

BY SURESH P THOMAS

PHOTOGRAPHS BY PHILIP DEEPU

301 colony, on the banks of the Anayirangal dam reservoir in Idukki, Kerala, gets its name from the government scheme which created it in 2001-2002: it is a settlement for 301 tribal families as part of a rehabilitation project. The spur for the scheme was the Kudilketti Samaram (hut building agitation) by Adivasis under the leadership of  social activist C. K. Janu. They took their protest to Thiruvananthapuram, where they built makeshift huts on the pavement outside the state secretariat. The protest lasted 48 days, and ended when the government agreed to set up a Tribal Resettlement and Development Mission (TRDM) which would allot one acre to every landless Adivasi family and provide financial assistance until they were completely self-reliant in their new environment.

As part of the project, various rehabilitation colonies were set up in 13 of the 14 districts in the region, the prime centres being Kannur, Palakkad, Wayanad and Idukki.

Paraman was in his early twenties when he first heard of the scheme. A Hill Pulaya tribal, a stocky middle-aged man now, he was living in a tribal colony in Marayur, bordering the Chinnar wildlife sanctuary, about 60 kilometres from Anayirangal. A piece of land he could call his own was a dream he’d had since he was a child, and when news of TRDM reached him, he didn’t think twice about applying. The Pattayamela (function to distribute title deeds) was held in 2003, and attended by tribals from various communities across the state who had agreed to relocate to any place where they were given land. None of them had seen the land on which they were supposed to build their future.

“In any case, given the circumstances, we had nothing to lose, and so were least bothered about the kind of land given to us. All we needed was a title deed,” says Paraman.

That title deed, however, was to come at a very high cost.

Those who moved to 301 colony and nearby Vilakkupadam colony learnt of the life that awaited them on their first land survey. They were welcomed by a herd of wild elephants which forced the survey team to run for their lives, and then went on a rampage. Only then did the Adivasis realise the land was part of a thriving elephant habitat: Anayirangal literally means “where the elephants come down to”. This area—a pine plantation before the land was taken for the project—was a favoured destination for water and forage. Rehabilitation for homeless people was, to elephants, displacement from an already shrunken habitat. Resistance, therefore, was predictable.

Following frequent elephant raids that sometimes lasted all day and all night, almost 100 of the 301 families abandoned the land in the first week itself and went back to where they came from. Tactics to scare the elephants away—bursting crackers, making noise, lighting fire lamps—had all failed. There was no fencing available and it would have taken a while to build trenches. A third of the families did not think a struggle of such magnitude was a worthwhile option.

Over the years, six people were killed and many injured in elephant attacks in this colony. Most houses have been destroyed, and they are now scattered among the broken pine trees as abandoned evidence of a project gone horribly wrong. More families began to give up.

Today, only 20 families are settled here. Another 20 retain the land, but they come only to farm it. Fifty families of the Muthuva tribe too have retained their land, but they prefer, in strict adherence to their culture of exclusivity, to stay in a Muthuva colony, five kilometres from 301 colony.

Paraman is among the few residents of 301. The title deed, he says, is more valuable than life. He clings to the hope that one day this land will turn habitable. “It might not happen in my time, but if I stay my successors can live here. I mean, I have to rationalise why I am still here, right? Even if it makes no sense,” he says. He cultivates ginger and tapioca, but does it more out of a sense of obligation than with any conviction or a well-defined plan.

“I have this land, and I need to do something with it. What’s the point planning against elephants, anyway? And as if that wasn’t enough, we also have to deal with a water crisis—drinking and irrigation—despite being so close to a reservoir,” he says. His only consistent source of income is from his mandatory days of labour as part of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. He also looks after a herd of buffaloes owned by people from outside the colony who employ Adivasis to manage their cattle and use their land for grazing. He is paid Rs. 150 a month for each buffalo he tends.

The situation is worse at Vilakkupadam colony. Only one old man is left of the 68 families that initially relocated. Even he has abandoned the land allotted to him and stays on the fringes, on encroached land.

***

More than 97 per cent of Idukki district’s land is mountain and forest in the Western Ghats. The high ranges of the district, populated mainly by tribals, estate labourers from Tamil Nadu, and migrants from the plains, have long seen human-wildlife conflict, particularly human-elephant conflict. The problem has worsened as the pattern of land use changes. Vast tracts of forest have either been encroached upon for cultivation or converted into plantations—tea, coffee, cardamom and pepper. The subsequent loss, fragmentation and degradation of the forest are the major reasons for the exacerbation of the conflict. Various eco-insensitive projects and an unscientific tourism model that led to a mushrooming of resorts and homestays in the region have contributed their share.

Chinnakanal, Anayirangal, Marayur, Vattavada, Pooppara, B. L. Ram, Chembakathodukudi, Aaduvilanthankudi, Singhukandam and Suryanelli are among the worst affected. They also have the most plantations and estates. Crops and farming equipment are destroyed with such regularity that farmers and labourers now worry only about the degree of carnage.

“One way or the other you have to die,” says 87-year old Eenasumuthu who lives in B. L. Ram. He came to Idukki from Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, as a cardamom estate labourer in the early 1940s and went on to become president of the Chinnakanal gram panchayat. Two sons and a brother have been killed by elephants.

“What can we do? I have been caught helpless in front of an elephant four times, yet nothing happened to me.”

Eenasumuthu lives alone and still goes out occasionally to the cardamom farms, a site favoured by elephant herds on account of their lush forage. “If I am meant to be killed by an elephant, I can do nothing about it. It doesn’t matter if I stay at home or go out to the forest.”

In the last 15 years, 29 people have been killed and more than 100 injured in elephant attacks, most of them in cardamom farms. Some of those attacked were on their bikes when a herd of wild elephants appeared out of nowhere on a hairpin bend winding up the hills. Most of those killed in the farms were either Adivasis or hired labourers from Tamil Nadu.

Thomas, a member of the Malayaraya (Christian) tribe, and a resident of Vilakkupadam colony has faced what he perceives as “pure elephant wrath”, at three levels. He believes a particular elephant has a vendetta against him. After he built a house and started farming in land, an elephant began to raid his crops regularly. He then built a trench around his house. One day, when he was returning from Chinnakanal, the same elephant—he claims—attacked him. He tried to run but the elephant got hold of him and, in his words, “mercifully spared me with just a shattered right shoulder” which he still can’t hold up. After a few months, “the same elephant” crossed the trench and destroyed Thomas’ house. He now lives in a ramshackle shed he built on encroached land on the outskirts of the colony, and earns his living from a small shop set up at Chinnakanal with the help of the government scheme for the differently abled. He is certain that the same elephant is still “thirsty for revenge”.

His understanding of the attacks is based on an image that has mythical status in this part of the world: the elephant as a creature with the wildest of rages and a memory that perpetually fuels this rage. “It is not my fault,” he says, “nor is it the elephant’s fault. The place where I built my house must have been special for the elephant. He doesn’t know that it’s the government which put me there.”

Thomas, and everyone else here, also know the reasons for this rage: encroachment of habitat and its subsequent shrinkage which inhibits a creature whose movements are by nature uninhibited; shortage of water and forage in the forests; and threat to life due to poaching. They understand where the rage comes from but, like Thomas, prefer to put the onus on the state to devise a solution. Until such a point arrives, Thomas, like Eenasumuthu, thinks it’s better to reconcile with the perils of this co-existence, reasoning it is the “life I was meant to live.” He even jokes at his plight: “But I hope the elephant doesn’t think so.”

There are a few electric fences around human settlements, but they have done little to stop the elephant attacks. Elephants are intelligent enough to break trees and use the wood to insulate themselves against electric shocks. As for 301 colony itself, there are no fences. When the residents had tried building the fences, there was resistance from the Muthuva colony and other locals who were worried that the elephants would be diverted to their settlements. Both groups are more empowered than the residents of 301 colony, and the latter were forced to abandon the initiative.

To protest against political and bureaucratic apathy, they often hold blockades on NH-49 (Kochi-Madurai-Dhanushkodi). Except for five mass lights between Pooppara and Anayirangal, nothing has come out of those protests. The elephant squad, they say, is ineffective, and invariably comes to a place of conflict only after the elephants have gone.

There are no fences in the colony. When they tried building the fences, there was resistance from the nearby Muthuva colony and the locals who were worried that the elephants would then come to their place. Since both the groups were more powerful than those at the colony, they had to abandon the plan.

The squad is also mocked for the way they use tiger sounds to scare away elephants. “If they had done something and then failed, we would have understood,” says Thomas. “But they just don’t do anything. They don’t make trenches for us. They don’t even know how to scare away elephants by bursting crackers. They say they will put some collar on the elephants, but it’s only talk and no action. And on top of all this they don’t allow us to do anything.”

With reports of human-elephant conflicts increasing, the wildlife department has set up a rapid response unit. One of its objectives is to educate people about the gravity of the problem, and to inform them of the dangers of their usual stop-gap arrangement—blocking the way to the forest for a wild elephant herd trapped in a settlement. They plan to hold workshops and form vigilante groups. Thomas has a pamphlet from the department that describes in detail the preventive measures people need to take. As he reads the points aloud—“Don’t venture out into the dark”, “Don’t block the way back for the trapped elephants” and so on, the sarcasm is evident.

***

The 20 families that remain at 301 colony have formed an Oorukoottam—a self-governing body. Its purpose, according to its secretary Samuel Issac, a Malayaraya tribal, is to ensure that they manage to get from the authorities what is legitimately theirs. The three immediate demands are: water for drinking and irrigation; a road to replace the narrow mud track that runs through a portion of the colony; and evict all those who, by manipulating the Adivasis who left, leased their land cheaply for use as farmland.

The first two demands are common to most tribal settlements in Kerala. The third, however, is a problem specific to colonies set up as part of TRDM in 2001-02. Like 301 colony, several settlements were built in areas through which elephant corridors pass. As a result, a lot of families had to abandon their land. It would then be “leased” at throwaway rates—Samuel says a recent deal at 301 colony was closed at Rs. 50,000 for nine years—by non-tribals, though the title deed clearly defines it as an illegal act. However, little can be done because the occupants say they are merely working as labourers for the Adivasi owners. In 301 colony, Samuel says the habitual offenders come from neighbouring Suryanelli and Pooppara, mostly small and medium-scale farmers.

“For those who abandoned the land, Rs. 50,000 is a big sum and they fall for the bait,” he says. “These land grabbers then keep pestering those of us who have stayed back too. I have even been threatened a couple of times. Their grand plan is to take over the entire colony by evicting all of us.” Despite many attempts to raise the issue officially, Samuel says the bullying has only gained momentum.

Samuel and other Oorukoottam members feel the only way their demands will be met is by persuading those who abandoned their land to return. “If they come back, the land grab issue can be tackled without fuss,” Samuel says. The other two issues—water and road—also can be negotiated more effectively if the colony has sufficient people. “No one takes us seriously because there aren’t many of us here. So it is easy for the authorities and politicians to shun us.”

More importantly, he feels the only solution to human-elephant conflicts is to increase the population in the colony.

“We can then set up strong vigilante groups and manage them. Elephants will gradually shy away from entering thickly populated regions. It will increase the efficiency of farming. What happens now is that all through the night we stay awake guarding our land, and when it is time to work in the day we are too numb with sleep.”

He points to the nearby Muthuva colony where 50 families with land in 301 colony live. There have been very few instances of elephant attacks in that colony. Samuel attributes this to their strong sense of community.

The same example is used to expose the utter lack of planning that went into the TRDM at its conception. According to Samuel, if the tribal communities were allotted separate and distinct blocks instead of randomly mixing them up, the initial exodus would not have been this massive. “Whoever devised this plan did not understand that within Adivasis the sense of community is territorial. It is difficult for one tribal community to mix with another so freely.”

Efforts have already been made to realise the objective of getting people back, but Samuel feels it will be a tough ask. He is disappointed that despite various awareness and mobilisation campaigns at a political level, Adivasis still do not recognise the value of a title deed. “If they understand what this deed means, not just for them but for their future generations, elephants will never scare them away,” he says.

***

Unscientifically conceived and executed tribal rehabilitation projects are the latest in the list of reasons for human-elephant conflict in the region. The 1,600-sq km stretch from Thekkady-Periyar tiger reserve to Chinnar wildlife sanctuary was at one point filled with fertile evergreen forest, grass banks, and shola forest. The first threat to that ecosystem was the arrival of the British, who cleared large areas and built tea estates. Since then, plantations, farms, various projects (hydro-electric and irrigation dams) and massive growth in the tourism sector have resulted in a substantial shrinkage of elephant habitat, forcing the animals to withdraw to tiny, isolated patches.

According to P. S. Easa, former director of the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) and an expert on human-elephant conflict, it isn’t the plantations or rehabilitation colonies that trigger conflict, but their faulty design which hampers the free movement of wildlife. He cites the Mattupetty Indo-Swiss cattle project. “They went for a barrier to protect the fodder, forcing animals to seek alternative routes for movement which resulted in frequent conflicts. Remember, the elephant is a vagabond that needs a lot of land for forage and water. A herd may need 300 to 700 sq. kilometre as home range. Therefore, whenever they are deprived of movement, there is every chance of conflict.”

Easa says the most important requirement is landscape level management with the active involvement of all stakeholders. “The present methods—solar fences, trenches, etc.—are ineffective because the beneficiaries are not interested in maintaining them. Government spends crores and all of that goes to waste”, he says. “Once proper measures are in place, no ex gratia for crop damage should be paid. Each human death should be analysed and if death has taken place inside the forest where people are not allowed, then no ex gratia should be paid.”

Easa also feels early action is imperative because with each reported instance of human-elephant conflict, the anti-conservation attitude strengthens in society. His claim is validated by tribals and non-tribals asking if the government is more interested in elephants than human life.

Ramesan M. and Jayasuryan K. K., researchers at the environmental studies department at M. G. University, Kottayam, have identified four major reasons for the conflict in and around Anayirangal reservoir:

  • In 1897, Udumbanchola taluk was announced as a cardamom field research In 1935, it was handed over to private individuals for lease. As a result, the elephant habitat shrank to the tiny Mathikettan forest region. The natural elephant corridor was severed.
  • The planting of pine on the banks of the Anayirangal dam prompted elephants to perceive the region as a safer habitat. The decision to convert these pine forests into tribal rehabilitation colonies was taken without conducting even a preliminary feasibility study.
  • The windmills constructed by the Tamil Nadu government on the grass banks of Chathurangappara have also inflicted irreparable damage on a prime elephant corridor.
  • The electric fences that protect cardamom plantations pose a major impediment to elephants. Having lost their connectivity with Periyar tiger reserve and Thekkady, elephants in the Anayirangal region are more or less genetically isolated. The only way to preserve them is by rebuilding the original elephant corridor.

Of the 1,600 sq. km stretch from Thekkady-Periyar tiger reserve to Chinnar wildlife sanctuary, only 365 sq. km is now a protected area. A standard elephant herd requires around 500 sq. km for normal life.

***

Kumareshan, a Hill Pulaya tribal, stays with his wife and two children in a house right at the edge of 301 colony, about 50 metres from the banks of the reservoir. The house belongs to his wife’s brother who was killed by an elephant. Kumareshan, who like Paraman was earlier living in a tribal colony in Marayur, came here in 2010. Neither his family nor his wife’s family favoured relocation. But Kumareshan, who used to visit his brother-in-law, had made up his mind. “I just liked the place. I cannot explain why. Maybe it’s the lake. Maybe it’s these grass banks. I don’t know,” he says.

During the day, he herds the 12 buffaloes of a cattle farm owned by a non-tribal. He believes buffaloes are helpful in keeping elephants away because elephants are finicky creatures who wouldn’t dine on food on which a herd of buffaloes has urinated or defecated. He leads his buffaloes through the pine trees, among the derelict houses, to the grass banks by the lake. It is these grass banks, contiguous with the forest land, that the elephants too come down to most often. Yet, Kumareshan is unfazed.

By the banks of the lake, he lies down, seemingly thinking about nothing, though he is fully aware of the hazards of his and the colony’s existence. “When I am here, I just try to listen to the stillness of these waves and to bird song”, he says. Across the lake is the tourist destination of Anayirangal dam. A couple of resorts can be seen which Kumareshan says are built on encroached land. “Nobody asks these people anything,” he says and wonders why the government cannot mandate a law for resorts in tribal areas to employ Adivasis.

It is from this lake that people of the colony take water for drinking and irrigation. The water is carried as head load. The same lake is used for bathing and washing clothes. On the banks lies a damaged steamer, provided by the government to the Adivasis to travel across to Anayirangal. Once the boat was damaged, it was never repaired or replaced. Now, instead of a five-minute ride across the lake, they walk five kilometres and then travel a further eight kilometres by bus to reach Anayirangal.

Once the buffaloes have had their fill, Kumareshan guides them back to the cattle shed. There is pretty much nothing to do for the rest of the day. His is the only house in the colony that does not have electricity, but even that doesn’t seem to deter him. Occasionally, he walks all the way to the other edge of the colony, to Singhukandam. If it is a lucky day, there are tourists waiting for a glimpse of a wild elephant. He approaches them and somehow conveys that he knows exactly where the elephants come down.

Suresh P Thomas is a Malayalam writer who has published three works of fiction. He lives in Kottayam.

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