The lay of their land

Posted on April 20, 2016


The Kani tribals in the hills of Mundanthurai know what they want (and what they’re likely to get) from the forthcoming elections.

The forests of the Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, situated in the hills of the Western Ghats that slice through Tirunelveli, are a typically rough-hewn terrain, but P Veluchamy prefers to walk barefoot. If he wore slippers, the underside of his feet will turn soft, making it harder to climb the hillside trees for honey. And he needs that honey. Otherwise, he will be left with just one source of income, the tapioca crop he cultivates on a three-acre plot in the village of Periyamayilar, and the rain gods have not been kind this year. Veluchamy estimates his age as 46. After he becomes a senior, around the age of 60, he will get to append the name of his tribe to his name. He will become P Veluchamy Kani. For now, he lives with an initial from a language he doesn’t speak.

Veluchamy had come down to the village of Chinnamayilar, which is also home to the Kanis, along with Servalar, Thiruvattamparai and Injikuzhi. The winding, uphill road to Chinnamayilar begins at the edge of Papanasam, which lies 60 kms from Tirunelveli, and it stops at Karaiyar. To get to Chinnamayilar from there, you have to cross a wooden bridge across a small stream that flows behind the small shop that sells chips and biscuits and candy for just a little more than what these items cost at the bottom of the hill. Perhaps “bridge” is too advanced a term for this assembly of stilts and sticks. The Kanis built this bridge themselves, because they’re seen as squatters and the government cannot build bridges for squatters. That’s why the Kanis are looking forward to the elections. They want a new government in place so they can get the patta, the title deed, for their lands. Despite the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, which has been implemented in the case of tribals in other states, cases filed by environmentalists and conservationists have prevented the Kanis from owning land.

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Veluchamy was accompanied by his friend M Ganesamoorthy, 32, who held in his hand a copy of a court order. He said, “The government could have ordered the [Chennai] High Court to issue the patta.” But that did not happen, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which, in February, issued this verdict: “permit/allow the state of Tamil Nadu to issue patta, community rights to the claimants approved by the Grama Sabha and District level committee [01/02.2016] [Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.” Were it not for the elections, the Kanis would have got their patta-s already. The land they have lived on for generations would finally have become their land. They could have gotten loans using these lands. Now, they will have to wait till June.

What will the Kanis do with loans? They certainly won’t buy household appliances. Those, they already have. “A few months back, Amma gave us mixers, grinders and fans,” said Ganesamoorthy. “And a few years ago, Thatha gave us TV sets.” The Kanis paid Rs. 600 for a round trip in an auto to the nearest town, Vikramasingapuram, to pick up these appliances. They weren’t bothered by the minor inconvenience that there is no power supply in Chinnamayilar, Periyamayilar and Injikuzhi to run these appliances. Ganesamoorthy shrugged. “People like freebies.”

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But a loan will come in useful to buy, say, a solar-power unit. It will take a while, after all, for the new government to give the Kanis what many of us take for granted as markers of modern life: roads, electricity, health centres, drinking-water facilities. A handful of Kanis have already taken refuge in solar power. The electrified fence around Ganesamoorthy’s two-acre plot in Periyamayilar? That’s solar-powered, like the “street light” near his plot that burned for five years before giving out. Veluchamy took a loan of Rs. 13,000 from Pandyan Grama Bank and bought his own solar-power unit, which can power three lamps at once, along with an LCD TV he bought for practically nothing, a “China piece.” He has paid off Rs. 7000. The rest will have to wait, despite repeated warnings from the bank. That’s something he can use a loan for, to repay this loan. But he couldn’t have waited because his daughters need those lights to study. The older one, Charu, is doing her plus-two, thanks to an Italian sponsor. “With the income from honey, I would never have been able to make her study,” Veluchamy said. The younger daughter, Sania, is in her fifth. Yes, she’s named after the tennis player. Kani girls are no longer called Aruvi and Kuruvi, names that hark back to nature. Charu, in fact, doesn’t want anything to do with nature. When Veluchamy told her he wanted her to join the Indian Forest Service, she said she’d rather become an accountant.

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Slowly, people began to gather and talk about the elections. P Arumugam Kani, an elder in these parts and the head of the Society for the Development of Podhigai Malai Adivasis, said that the Kanis have been voting since 1952. He looked like a politician himself, in his spotless white shirt and veshti, which dazzled in these surroundings like something out of a detergent advertisement. He also displayed a politician’s tact. When asked who he thought would win, he smiled and said, “Yaaru vandhalum sandhosham.” (I’m happy whoever wins.) A few hours later, possibly emboldened by the confessions of other Kanis, he said that his vote would go to the DMK, who helped the Kanis get the “jaathi certificate” that granted them Scheduled Tribe status.

R Mani, though, is a CPI(M) man. “Tamil Nadu needs an alternative from Amma and Thatha,” he said. “They only serve themselves or their family. We need someone who will serve the people.” Mani is the treasurer of the Society, and it’s his job to collect money from Kani households – about 60 families in these parts – for initiatives that will help everyone, like buying the Jeep that connects the 6.25 kms of road between Chinnamayilar and Periyamayilar, though perhaps “road” is too advanced a term for this path scooped out of the hillside, strewn with pink and blue wrappers from candy bought in the store in Karaiyar. The vehicle cost Rs. 1.2 lakh. Each family contributed Rs. 1000, and the remainder came from the sale of an older Jeep. Later in the afternoon, while returning from Periyamayilar, the Jeep shuddered to a halt. Mani picked up a stick from the ground, stuck it into the gas tank and declared there was no diesel. It was going to be a walk back to Chinnamayilar. He had no worries about leaving the Jeep behind. “This is everyone’s vandi,” he grinned. “They look after it like a child.”

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Ganesamoorthy, who drove the Jeep to Periyamayilar, learnt to drive in a school in Vikramasingapuram. Taking a turn over a spectacular view of the Papanasam dam, he began to name the trees along the way. Pongu. Nangu. Vaagai. Eetti. Veluchamy, who was sitting at the back, said, “Outsiders like you cut these trees and make furniture and make lots of money. But we revere them as gods.” The front of the Jeep had a sticker that said Sri Guru Agasthiyar Thunai, but the great sage is, apparently, another outsider. “He came from the North and encroached upon our gods,” Veluchamy said. The Kanis worship spirits of the dead, which is why their deities aren’t called saami but saavu. On the way, he pointed out Sumaithaangi Saavu, a small rock which was just rock, with none of the anthropomorphising features that make deities out of rocks. The name of the deity comes from the fact that people from Periyamayilar who cannot afford the Jeep (Rs. 400 per round trip; Rs. 500 with luggage) stop here on the way down to rest, laying down their burdens, the baskets of pepper and chilly and ready-to-fry tapioca slices being carried to the cooperative society market every Saturday, to sell to traders. Rocks covered with freshly cut tapioca slices are bright-yellow bursts of beauty in these arid surroundings.

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The path traversed by the Jeep is something of a cooperative effort as well. Each Kani family maintains 100 metres, clearing out shrubs and other roadblocks. Clearly angered at having to do everything by themselves because the number of tribal votes is too small for the government to get actively involved, Mani said, “In the next panchayat elections, we’re going to say, ‘If you want our vote, then you have to give our candidates a seat.’ Otherwise nothing will get done here.” The Jeep stopped at the end of the path, beyond which lay a boulder-studded slope, beyond which lay the houses of the Kanis in Periyamayilar. It was hot. Despite the elevation, there was no respite from the humidity. Shirts clung to the backs, and the dust kicked up by the Jeep clung to the shirts. The dust was fine, powdery – there have been no rains this year.

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It was a relief to reach the home of Srirangan Kani, a wiry man of 65 wearing a small red towel that did not allow him to sit cross-legged like the rest of the group on the elevated platform outside his hut. He recalled that there were rains when the DMK was in power. The irony of the calendar above his head, with a beaming Amma, completely escaped him. It must have been another freebie. Srirangan said that prices had gone up. His monthly expenditure for food used to be Rs. 100. It is now five times as much. He served a strong black tea and slices of tapioca, grown without fertiliser. Inside the hut, more tapioca was being sliced, for the market. When asked who he was going to vote for, Srirangan was unsure. “Maybe the Communist party or Vijayakanth,” he said. “I know they won’t win, but I still want to vote for them.” Ganesamoorthy laughed and asked if he knew about the NOTA option on the ballot. He shook his head.

Srirangan pointed to Kerala as an instance of a successful state. “They keep alternating between two national-level parties, the Communists and the Congress. We only have these two state-level parties.” By now, it had become a bit of an adda. Veluchamy spoke of a road through the forest that would reduce the distance to Kerala. The Kanis want easy access to those markets because they get more – Rs. 23 more per kilogram of tapioca, Rs. 150 more per kilogram of pepper. But because this is protected wildlife area, these projects never take off. The Kanis laugh when asked about tigers. Veluchamy started going to the forest in 1984, when his father said he could not afford Rs. 5 per month to keep him in school. “I’ve seen leopards, elephants, bears, bison. I’ve been bitten by snakes. But I haven’t seen a single tiger.” Srirangan grinned and said that the only tigers around were the ones painted on the signs all around.

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After taking leave of Srirangan, it was a small trek to get to the home of Kaaliyan Kani, who lives ten minutes away. Kaaliyan is an Amma loyalist. “I get free rice. I can eat and sleep in peace.” Rice didn’t cost much more when the DMK was in power. It was Re. 1 per kilo. But Kaaliyan said the free rice tastes better, and his dog likes it too. Her name is Kingini, and she lay sprawled in the centre of the hut, suckling a month-old pup. The women of the house – 57-year-old Ritamma, 48-year-old Valsala – said they too were voting for Amma. Valsala said, “She is doing things for people. She gave us a mixie, a grinder.” These appliances lay untouched in a corner, awaiting electricity. But Kaaliyan isn’t concerned. He spends most of his time in the clearing outside, where he is building a second house. It’s a skeletal structure now, see-through walls and a sloping timber roof, surrounded by teak trees. Mani pointed to termites climbing the trunks to make nests. He said they do that when it’s going to rain.

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During the walk back to the Jeep, Veluchamy became a tour guide. He held out what looked like a small red berry. “It’s a chilly,” he said, and issued a rather unnecessary warning about popping it in the mouth. He said the Kanis used it in their cooking, and that’s why they have such low incidences of cancer and diabetes. One of the dishes it’s used in, ground with coconut, is chammandhi curry, a kind of cure-all. New mothers have this to alleviate post-partum pain. Mani clucked at these digressions and steered the topic back to the elections. “No one comes to these parts to canvass,” he said. It isn’t hard to see why. Going to each house is a bit of an adventure sport. So the candidates come to Chinnamayilar, with its jackfruit trees and Ilayaraja songs wafting off radios. They ask the Kanis to assemble. They ask them about their problems. They say they’ll take care of it all. They leave.

Of late, they’ve begun to offer money. And a quarter bottle of liquor. This gives them the higher ground when the Kanis go back, after elections, with complaints about unfulfilled promises. They say: “Summaava potteenga? Panam vaangittu dhaane potteenga?” (“You took money, didn’t you?”) Mani said, “The men here, they know that whoever wins, there’s not going to be much change. So they might as well make some money from all parties, get some free booze. Ippo ulla ulagame quarter ulagam.” (“This is a ‘quarter’ world.”) Mani laughed when asked about the prohibition platform that keeps coming up during elections. “Some of our youths are ganja addicts. When something like that is so freely available, how can prohibition stop them from drinking?” The Kani men expect money this year too. But they won’t use this money to buy chicken and mutton for a meal, or a sari for the wife, or toys for the kids. They’ll buy booze and drink the money away. “Because some of the candidates we take money from are going to lose,” Mani said. “And they might end up cursing us. We don’t want this curse touching our families.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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