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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Scope for tribals is non-existent, says first time voter from Tamil Nadu

The Betta Kurumbar are among the particularly vulnerable tribes of India and number not more than 10,000 people in all.

lok sabha elections Updated: Feb 18, 2019 10:08 IST
Sibi Arasu
Sibi Arasu
(Sibi Arasu/HT Photo)

It is at least an hour’s drive from the nearest town to 19-year-old Vignesh’s village of Thenambadi. A Betta Kurumbar settlement in the mountainous Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, Thenambadi is nestled between areca nut plantations and tea estates.

The Betta Kurumbar are among the particularly vulnerable tribes of India and number not more than 10,000 people in all. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, they have practised shifting cultivation and beekeeping in the past, but today most members of the community work as labourers in tea estates.

Vignesh is among the first set of people from his tribe to receive a formal education. “I was supposed to complete my high school last year, but I had to drop out to help my mother with household expenses,” says the soft spoken Vignesh, sitting in his tiled-roof hut, surrounded by his family’s goats and hens. Since dropping out of school last year, Vignesh has been working as hired labour at local construction sites to supplement his family’s income. “I have been going for coaching classes, though, and I hope to clear my 12th this year and pursue a Bachelor’s in political science after.”

The Nilgiris is home to seven particularly vulnerable tribes who make up only about 5% of the district’s population. While most of them existed within their own habitats until recently, and some such as the Cholanaikkans, who number fewer than 500, continue to do so, tribes such as the Betta Kurumbar have begun to assimilate with the general population over the last few decades. This has brought in some benefits of being part of a civil society, such as inclusion into the public distribution system and access to school education. There have been undesired effects as well, such as increasing alcoholism, drug addiction and crime rate. “The situation has only gotten worse with time,” said Sobha Madhan, convener of the Adivasi Youth Forum.

The district has also been in the political spotlight because of conflicts over land and wildlife conversation, showing up poorly under scrutiny from national and international rights organisations for adivasi communities. Recently, the Supreme Court’s order to shut down resorts obstructing elephant corridors renewed national attention on the region, with several luxury properties forced to move out. More controversial has been the lack of implementation of the Forest Rights Act, which came into effect in 2008 seeking to correct “historical injustices” committed against forest dwellers in India. The law provides adivasis the rights to collect minor forest produce, to practise agriculture in their community lands, and to hold title deeds for land historically considered theirs.

‘Like Che Guevara’

Like many other adivasi communities in India, the Betta Kurumbar’s living conditions are abysmal. While no concerted survey has been conducted so far, most of the people from the tribe are not educated. There are no members from their community in the district’s politics, nor in high offices in the bureaucracy. They are largely ignored by mainstream political outfits as their meagre numbers don’t make up an appealing vote bank.

There are signs of hope though. Community groups such as the Adivasi Youth Forum and Nilgiris Federation for Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups have been formed in the last few years, led by and consisting only of the adivasi people. In 2016, Vignesh joined Adivasi Youth Forum and has been an active member since.

“I want to be like Che Guevara, helping my people and tribal people everywhere,” declares Vignesh when we talk about his idols. “Opportunities for us adivasis to develop are non-existent. Our education levels, our aspirations, ways of thinking -- everything is extremely backward,” Vignesh said. “I also feel many people don’t want us to become better and start thinking on our own. This is because people who are on top, such as estate owners, higher-caste people, want things to remain the same so that we can continue to work in their estates, houses etc,” he elaborated.

He points out that he has been a victim of this oppressive structure. “I was in love with a non-tribal girl, who I had met on a local bus, and we were going out for two years. One day, her father, from the land-owning Moundadan Chetty community, called me and said I should not see her anymore because I was a tribal.”

Once he completes his education, Vignesh hopes to take up a job that is useful to his people as well as environmentally sustainable. “I either want to become a teacher or start an organic farm for rearing chicken,” he said.

Politics, not politicians

While generally interested in politics, Vignesh seems to have nothing but disdain for politicians and electoral promises. “All politicians seem the same to me. In our village, for example, we have been asking for a stable electricity connection ever since I can remember, but nothing has happened till now. When they come asking for votes, all politicians promise a lot, but after elections they deliver nothing.”

Historically, the district has not supported any one political party and corresponds to anti-incumbency in both state and general elections. Vignesh says his mother used to vote for the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) because of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, but she too has become indifferent since the death of “Amma”. Successive governments have ignored their constant demand to implement the FRA, marking Tamil Nadu as among the worst-performing states in pushing the reform.

“Politics should be about helping people solve their problems but I feel like politicians in Tamil Nadu only confuse people and use the confusion to their advantage,” Vignesh said. He brings up the long purported ban on Tasmac (Government-owned liquor retailers) outlets in the state. “Everyone knows how much trouble these shops create. The politicians keep saying they will shut them down but nothing changes.”

His acerbic comments are not reserved for local politicians alone. Talking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vignesh says, “When he came to power there was so much fanfare but since then no one seems to know what he’s doing. The things his government have impacted have only become worse. For example, during demonetisation, most of our people who go for daily-wage labour had no work for months. It was really difficult,” he said. He also worries about the priorities of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “The BJP is also always talking about caste and religion. I don’t think they will ever help adivasis at all.”

It’s not that Vignesh thinks the Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi is any better for his community’s prospects. “The forest rights’ act can change our lives completely. As I understand, it will not only give us our ancestral land but also assist us in selling our produce. I wish some politician or the other makes sure that the law gets implemented here. Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening anytime soon - under any party.”

His idols are not politicians but YouTube stars. Vignesh is a fan of the Tamil YouTube vlogger Madan Gowri who has more than 1.6 million subscribers. “He makes some very good points on politics as well as life. I like his style as well as what he says. All my friends also watch him,” said Vignesh. The smartphone is his primary source for news and entertainment. Earlier, he got his news from browsing his Facebook feed, but now he has moved on to news apps. “On Facebook, there were so many memes and pictures that it takes you so long before you can find what you want. These news apps are good because as soon as you open them, everything is there,” he explained.

‘People not happy’

It’s while watching an eponymous Tamil film that Vignesh recently discovered the concept of Nota (the none of the above option). He decided that his first vote will be for no one. “I thought that was a good idea. I’m going to ask my mother as well as friends to do the same on the election day,” he said. “I feel at least this Nota vote will let the government know that people are not happy.”

Asked what he would like politicians and governments to focus on in an ideal world, Vignesh said, “I wish they improve government schools, hospitals, etc. It is because state facilities are in such bad shape that people go to private institutions.” His most important requests are reserved for the betterment of the adivasis, though. “I consider myself an Indian first and a Betta Kurumbar only after that. Having said that, I hope us adivasis are allowed to decide what is best for us ourselves, instead of some NGO or some government officer. We just want the government to stand behind us.”

First Published: Feb 18, 2019 08:09 IST

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