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Behind the green curtain

Even during poll time, the adivasis of Kerala are invisible people for politicians, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Apr 26, 2009 21:13 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times

In this Keatsian land of natural abundance, it is hard to imagine the depth of deprivation and poverty that its original inhabitants, the adivasis, suffer. The trees groaning with jackfruit and mangoes are not theirs for the taking, they belong to wealthy absentee landlords. Many of Kerala’s 3.21 lakh adivasis live in its hauntingly beautiful hill regions like Wynad. They constitute the bulk of Kerala’s landless of 20.78 per cent. The national average of landlessness is 19.66 per cent. In north Kerala, 60 per cent of these unfortunate people live below the poverty line taking home less than Rs 1,276 per month per family.

An ideal setting for politicians to make tall promises. But in the state that has completed polling, netas no longer even bother to pay lip service to the adivasis. From the CPM to the Congress to the Indian Union Muslim League, parties give these areas a wide berth.

At the adivasi colony in picturesque Pandjara, the adivasis have no feel-good stories to tell. Nayika, 30, gets by on his Rs 80 a day work as a labourer. “I contracted an eye ailment and now cannot go out for work much. My family is on the brink of starvation,” he says. Pus oozes through a bandage on his right eye. The government gives adivasis Rs 1 lakh for housing. Unscrupulous builders have no difficulty taking the bulk of this money away from the unlettered and gullible adivasis. In the fetid squalor of the colony, which has no sanitation or drinking water, Nayakan, 60, hobbles around on crutches. “I fainted one day and the doctors found that my left leg was infected. It has been cut off at the thigh. I think it happened because I smoked too many beedis.” He gets by with his disability pension of Rs 140 a month and the bits of work his wife can get. Soman, 50, had his leg amputated and says he “is in desperate poverty”.

Bhaskaran, 50, the Congress ward president, has a pat explanation for their woes. “We are not in power in the state, so we can’t do much. In any case, what money the sarkar gives them is blown up on drink and tobacco.” The much-touted NREGS scheme is nowhere in sight. “There are no projects here, so how can we hand out money?” says a local official. But all the municipality officials admit that crores of rupees come in from the Centre for the adivasis but lie unutilised in banks. The general sentiment seems to be that ‘these people’ will blow up money meant for them, so let’s just leave them to their own devices.

In nearby Thirunelli village, the pathetic hovels in which adivasis live are approachable only by dirt tracks. Kali, 30, is clutching her nine-month-old baby Sandhya. “I used to work in a tamarind estate. There I met an overseer called Shashi who is the father of this baby. My own husband died years ago and I have a 16-year-old daughter by him.” Shashi, apparently, comes around once in a while and gives her money for the child. “I am grateful for this even though he won’t marry me as he has his own family,” she says sadly. Only the most optimistic would say that she and her baby can look forward to a better future. With an additional mouth to feed, Kali is likely to be preyed upon further by other rapacious overseers and her daughter stands little chance of getting away from this life of pain and deprivation.

Kali’s story of being left literally holding the baby is that of many women in this remote adivasi settlement. This area alone has 124 unwed mothers. After the children are about five years old, the payments dry up. What will these women with their on-again, off-again incomes do after that? Says Hamid Ali, 50, the local panchayat member, “They don’t know better, they believe that these men who approach them actually love them. But, in fact, they are just used and abandoned. The local government officials are not sympathetic. They feel these are women of loose morals and so not deserving of any help.”

The one time the government did offer Rs 25,000 to these women, no one went forward to take it for fear of public ridicule. P.P. Gopi, 57, the collector of Wynad, admits that the adivasis have been shortchanged. “A good percentage of the money that we give them goes into liquor. They are not particular about their children’s education. But, things are improving.” Other officials are less charitable. Their logic seems to be that since ‘these’ people will drink with the money given to them, the better option would be to deny them funds. The fact that many of them do not earn enough for one meal a day seems lost on officialdom.

Empowerment of the poor and dispossessed seems many lifetimes away in 100 per cent literate Kerala with its proud history of socialism. The Left still dreams of power at the Centre, indeed CPM general secretary Prakash Karat is the man who would be king. But in its stomping grounds like Kerala, the self-styled people’s party doesn’t seem to care less that it has abandoned large sections of people, condemning them to live on the margins forever.

The officials are dismissive of the adivasis as being no-hopers, and the politicians couldn’t be bothered. A rock and a hard place, really. Even during election time, these are invisible people for the political establishment. Mohana, 65, a daily wage labourer, says, “ They sometimes listen to our problems and go back and do absolutely nothing. Still we vote hoping to get lucky some day.” In the oppressive heat with swarms of midges buzzing about like vicious thunderclouds, the adivasi villages appear like festering sores in a spectacularly beautiful landscape.

Far away in the badlands of north India, at least some attempts are being made to cultivate the poorest of the poor. Here in Kerala, they are left to sink or swim. Sadly, for many the only option is to sink.

First Published: Apr 26, 2009 21:12 IST