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Twenty seven-year-old chekkoth karian janu has never attended school. But this has not prevented her from becoming a champion of the rights of the adivasi community -- native to Wayanad (Kerala) -- to which she belongs. From being a domestic aid at the age of seven, Janu became a literacy instructor in 1988. Her forays into public meetings arranged by activist groups nudged her into full-time activism, something she undertook in 1992. Articulate as she is on tribal concerns, Janu has all the legal information regarding tribal rights on her fingertips. Here, she shares the struggles of her community with Anto Akkara
How strong is the adivasi community in Wayanad?
Wayanad's adivasi population is the biggest in Kerala. Out of the 3.2 lakh adivasis in the state, Wayanad has about 1.3 lakh. We constitute 20 per cent of Wayanad's population.
Why is it that your people have been marginalised in their own homeland?
Since my people were illiterate, it was easy for migrant settlers to grab our lands and exploit us. Besides, government officials, including those belonging to the police and forest departments have only been busy filling their own pockets.
Why are there no schools in Wayanad?
Though there are some schools, poverty makes it impossible for adivasis to attend them. It is also difficult for parents to send their children to school as they need them to supplement their meagre incomes. The children work as casual labourers for the settlers who now own most of the land.
How did your people lose their lands?
Since the first settlers arrived in Wayanad in the '40s, there has been a steady inflow of settlers who grabbed our lands by fair and foul means. In 1976, a sub-committee appointed by the state assembly visited Wayanad for a survey of the extent to which people were alienated from their land. Of the 300 cases presented before the committee, 71 were those in which land had been grabbed from the tribals by force. Sixty seven families had been paid meagre sums in compensation while 14 others had been duped into marking their thumb impressions on blank papers.
Has the Kerala government done anything to restore the lands to the adivasis?
The government has passed several laws to restore our lands but none of these have been implemented. According to the 1972 Kerala Private Forests (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 50 per cent of the private forests acquired by the government is meant for distribution among tribals. But so far, not even an inch of the 3,773 ha of land acquired in Wayanad district has been transferred to the adivasis. Similarly, the Kerala Scheduled Tribes Act of 1975 was passed with retrospective effect from 1960. The Act deemed all transactions concerning our lands invalid and ordered the restoration of the land to our people. We have filed 2,127 petitions in court. Even in the 103 cases where the court has upheld our rights, the settlers refuse to vacate the lands they have occupied and the law enforcement agencies are reluctant to implement the court's orders.
Can you point to a concrete example of the government's indifference towards the tribals and favouritism with respect to the settlers?
The Cheengeri Tribal Project is a fine example. In 1957, a 213-ha piece of land was bought by the government with money from the tribal development fund to rehabilitate 120 adivasi families. While more than half of this estate has been encroached upon by settlers, the remaining 101-ha plot has been developed into a coffee and pepper estate by the state farming corporation. In protest, more than 250 of us marched to the land on January 26, 1995, and occupied the estate. The police and forest department lost no time in destroying the hutments my people had put up. They arrested and put us on remand. Far from evicting the settlers, the government is planning to give title deeds to 143 settler families.
Was this the first time the adivasis of Wayanad had made a determined effort to demand the restoration of tribal lands?
No, the current agitation under the banner of the Adivasi Development Action Committee began on January 26, 1994, when more than 200 of us had forcefully occupied almost half of the 52-ha forest at Ambukutty in Mananthavady. On April 3, 1994, a 300-strong adivasi group seized another plot under government occupation.
Another attempt at occupation was made on March 5, 1995, when 102 families settled down on a new plot at Panavalli. While 47 persons were arrested, the police and forest officials burnt down the tribals' homes and their crops on March 27. After having spent 17 days in jail, my people returned to the same plot and now grow pepper and tapioca.
Has this forced entry into government lands brought in any positive results?
Yes. Seventy families have managed to retain the plots occupied. By doing so we have strengthened the agitation. We have managed to keep alive the issue of the survival of our people and are becoming increasingly conscious of our rights. Earlier, government officials spread terror among the tribals. But now we can no longer be taken for granted. This has really been a great achievement for us. We are trying to assert the fact that we too are citizens of India.
According to the settlers, the restoration of all tribal land will mean immense hardship to those who have actually bought land.Do you agree with this?
We are not marching to the settlers' homes demanding our lands. We are referring the issue to the government, which has remained silent and even abetted the encroachment and illegal transfer of our lands.
Has this alienation from land had an impact on tribal culture?
Adivasi lifestyle, culture, food and even faith are all dependent on land. Planned attempts are being made to supplant us from forests and put us in the villages, to incorporate us into the mainstream. For instance, adivasis are being taught to buy things like potato and dal (lentils) as our food items are said to be injurious to health. Because of such a campaign, many tribals have switched over to common market goods. But since they do not have the money to buy these, they are currently starving.
Quite a few incidents of rape involving tribal women have been reported from Wayanad. What is the real situation?
While the scheduled tribe department admits the presence of only 165 unwed mothers in the whole of Wayanad, we think there are around 1,000 of these unfortunate women, victims of the lust of politicians, police and forest officials.
The government did appoint a commission headed by a High Court judge to enquire into these cases. But on receipt of the report of the commission, the government decided that the only action needed was to provide welfare schemes and that the existing schemes were adequate to render support to the victims.
What is the attitude of the political parties towards the trend of growing tribal solidarity?
Political parties want to curb our movement. The growth of the tribal movement is a threat to them. False cases are being filed against tribal activists. They have even tried to confuse our people by saying that we tribal activists are only using them to become famous and that the political parties alone can bring good to the people. Politicians have never tried solving any problem. If only they had fulfilled even half the promises they made, we would not be in the pitiable condition we are in right now.
Do you receive active support from non-governmental organisations ( ngo s)?
Some ngo s have highlighted our problems. But nowadays, social work among tribals is a good moneymaker. Many ngo s, which have cropped up in the area, are all getting rich in the name of adivasi development and emancipation. One particular ngo had sent a proposal to Germany asking for funds to start a rehabilitation centre for the unwed mothers of Thirunelly. More than helping the victims, the intention seems to be to make a proposal on a burning topic so that the funding agencies will readily agree. In my opinion, putting all these unfortunate women together will make their lives worse. Once the rehabilitation centre is opened, it will be free for anyone to enter it at their own will, considering the kind of police protection extended to tribals.
Have you got any recognition for organising your people?
I have been chosen for three awards which I have accepted. The state award, however, created news. I was selected for the Kerala government's Best Social Worker Award (for the scheduled tribe category) in 1994. Just before receiving the award, I put forward five demands and sought the assurance of the state welfare minister on being granted these as a condition to accepting the honour. The minister refused to make such a public pronouncement and even threatened to arrest me at the public meeting. I stood firmly by the condition and finally walked out.
What is your ambition?
Tribals are right now being treated like stray cattle. I want to put an end to all the atrocities being committed. I also dream of the coming together of all tribals. On my visits to the Narmada valley, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, I have observed the rise in tribal resistance. It makes me happy.