In the hills, they hope for change

Posted on May 7, 2016


The tribals of Sathyamangalam are seeing red during these elections.

The Oorali tribals of the village of Kaalidhimbam, in the Sathyamangalam hills, say that the houses they live in were built during Kamaraj’s rule, some sixty years ago. They want new houses. And the government says they can get new houses under the Pasumai Veedu Thittam scheme, houses measuring 300 square feet and costing around Rs.2 lakh, all of which will be borne by the State. There’s a small catch. These villagers have been told the money will begin to come in once they start building the house, and they want to know how they can afford the steel and sand and cement needed to begin construction. R Ranganathan, a 19-year-old first-time voter who works in a T-shirt manufacturing unit in Gobichettipalayam, gives a future-tense answer when asked who he is likely to vote for. “Yaaru nanmai seyyarangal0.” By this, he means whoever is going to make good on the promise of free housing, which is just one of the demands of the people in Kaalidhimbam.

The meaning of “nanmai” has changed in these parts, which have themselves changed after Veerappan’s death. Today, there is a lot of development in these hills. One can even catch sight of farm houses with fancy names. But when the brigand was roaming this region, the tribals found themselves caught between his threats (if they revealed his whereabouts) and those of the Special Task Force, who believed that the tribals would lead them to Veerappan if appropriately coerced. Those days, “nanmai” simply referred to someone who helped them survive, someone who could intervene on their behalf.  “A lot of those who helped us belonged to the Communist parties,” says BL Jeevabharathi, Secretary of the Erode Branch of the Tamil Nadu Tribal People’s Association (Tamil Nadu Pazhangudi Makkal Sangam).

Jeevabharathi was in his twenties when the efforts to apprehend Veerappan were at their most intense. He is from Kaalidhimbam too. The family moved to Dhimbam, which is about 4 kms away, to farm a two-acre plot belonging to Jeevabharathi’s grandfather. He saw members of the CPI intervene on behalf of tribals who “were afraid of anyone wearing a pant and shirt.” He saw them talk to the police if tribals were taken away. He saw them take his people to the hospital if they needed medical attention. They saw them get a teacher from an NGO to educate tribal children. Jeevabharathi was inspired, and today, his outfit helps tribals in various ways – say, getting their community certificates on the Internet, or securing admission for tribal children in colleges in Erode, Gobichettipalayam, Sathyamangalam and Coimbatore.

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All of which appears to explain why the people in these parts voted for the AIADMK the last time. It was because CPI was in a coalition with the party. It’s likely to be different this time. “Earlier, our people used to vote for whoever gave them money and vetti/selai,” Jeevabharathi says. “But they have become smart now. They will accept freebies, but they are very clear about who they are going to vote for.” His thoughts are echoed in faraway Uganiyam, which lies in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. B Periyasami, who ploughs others’ lands with his tractor, says with certainty that it’s going to be a new government this time. It’s going to be Vijayakanth. Again, this has less to do with the DMDK leader than the fact that he’s allied with the Communist parties.

There’s no electricity in Uganiyam – not because there aren’t power lines, but because most villagers cannot afford to fork out the money (around Rs. 10,000) for meters and wiring and everything else. They want free electricity. They already get rice at no cost. Their goats are from the government too. Why should they pay for power to watch programmes on their free television sets or operate their free mixers and grinders? In other words, people may want change, but there doesn’t seem to be much change in their expectation that the government will continue what was referred to in these pages as “the politics of patronage.”

K Ramar lives in a village that bears his name: Ramar Anai.  The flagpole at the entrance to the village carries a red flag. A lot of work has been happening at Ramar Anai. The 1.5 km path that forks off the road from Thalavadi to Dhimbam and leads to the village has just been laid. 15 houses are being built, under the auspices of the Indira Awaas Yojana, instituted to provide housing for the rural poor. All of this, Ramar says, is due to the efforts of the CPI MLA, PL Sundaram. He grimaces when he hears J Marai, a resident of Kotagiri who has come to Ramar Anai to visit her sister, get emotional about her vote. She refers to the free rice, free saris, the pension she gets from the government and says, “Kanji ootharanga. Avangalukku dhaane vote podanum.” (Amma feeds us. How can we vote for anyone else?)

Ramar says, as the village elder, he will have to round everyone up and have a serious talk. “They think only in terms of arisi, paruppu. They don’t think about the future.” But daily wage earners, inevitably, think about the present. Almost all able men in Nagalur – a village that comes under the purview of the Forest Department, which means that one cannot enter without special permission – are engaged in uprooting what will amount to four tons of tapioca and loading a truck, which will take the crop to a mill in Athur, to be pounded into flour. The payment – Rs. 5 per kilo – will come a few days later. V Kothalimathan, who is 54, is the only one available for a conversation. He is happy that the village has a voting booth for the first time, the residential school built in MGR’s time. But he rues that there is no unity. Everyone seems to be voting for a different party. He thinks the “third team” will come to power, and adds that TV news is so confusing. “Each channel says something different.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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