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VOICES - TRIBAL

‘Living on the fringe’

We are the original people of the Palni Hills, existing here for thousands of years. They now call us Tribals. We call ourselves Paliyans and Pulayans. We once lived freely in the forests gathering roots, leaves or wild fruit and trapping fish and wild animals. We survived on wild yams, honey and monitor lizards.

A Tribal woman making cardamom paste

A Tribal woman making cardamom paste

Then came the greedy coffee and cardamom estate owners. They took our land and made us cheap labourers or forced us to flee higher into the mountains. The land owners not only considered us below caste, but inferior in intellect. They did not try to understand us; they just used us!

We still live on the fringe. Very few of us own any of the land of our ancestors. We have found ways to survive, tending sheep and cultivating the gardens of others. When we try to unite, we are denied our wages or the landlord rapes our women. We expect many of our children to die young.

We are happy to send our children to school. Often they are forced to leave. We welcome Grihini where our young women can gain the confidence and skills to earn their own living and support their families.

Leelavathi

Leelavathi

‘We have a right to our land!’

I was born in the jungle, a Tribal girl of the Paliyan people. We lived in the forests near Mooliyar. As a little girl I recall moving from one location to another in the forest because we were bonded to small plantation owners who had stolen our lands by deceit.

Our family had been bonded to landlords for generations. Bonding meant that my mother and father worked every day in exchange for rice. Another condition of our bondage was that young girls, when they came of age, should offer sexual favours to the landlords.

When I once asked why landlords came to sleep with girls that are going to school, I was told that, ‘You do not sell a cow without a rope’! All working women, like cows, are in debt to the landlord for food and the rope is the sexual extension of that indebtedness.

By the time I was ten I too was working in the coffee plantations. I knew about children who went to school and also wanted to go but because we were deep in the forest my parents said it was not possible.

When I was 16 we were visited by Malarkodi who had just completed the first Grihini course and was very enthusiastic. Ironically, Malarkodi belonged to the same caste as the landlords who were oppressing us. Because of her Grihini experience, however, she was ready to shed her caste and join the struggle of women like me.

I jumped at the chance of being free and so became the first Tribal woman in the Grihini program. Grihini was different! Everyone was willing to share everything—food, work, dreams and even saris.

As soon as I returned to my village I began urging people to clean the streets and consider going to the government to claim our rights. The big question for me already then was why our land should be owned by others when we had never sold it to them.

In 1995 the central government ruled that local governments should have 33% women in their ruling body. That was my opportunity. I ran for office and won a place, the first Tribal ever to be elected in my village.

My approach was simple. I would first appeal for our rights as Tribals, rights to water, shelter, health and so on. When appeals proved futile, I would organise protests.

I was involved in many protests for water, for wages, for schools and especially for land. Since the British Land Act of 1890, all forest land was declared crown land and at the disposal of the government. Since tribals had no land title deeds, they had no legal right to any forest lands. The government is ready to set aside land for wild life parks but not for Tribals. Animals, it seems, have more rights than Tribal people.

Eventually a group of tribal families took matters into their own hands and cleared a small area of their traditional land for gardens and cultivation. As a result 35 were accused of violating the forest land act. At first I thought the local Non-Government Organisation (NGO) would support our right to land. I filed a case against the forestry department claiming this land was rightfully ours. Alas, I was tricked by the NGO into signing a paper that indirectly supported the position of the forestry officials. I was left to fight for myself! They used my finger to pierce my eyes!

As a result, I became an independent campaigner and organised the Palni Hills Paliyan and Pulayan Coordinating Committee to fight for the land rights of the Tribals of my area. Currently I am president of this movement and involved in protests for land rights both local and nationally. As I write, we are in the middle of this struggle expecting that any day we may be forced from our land. Our struggle appeared in the local Hindu newspaper on Tuesday June 20, 2007. It was Grihini that inspired me to fight for the land rights of my people!

Leelavathi with Tribal leaders seeking to regain their land

Leelavathi with Tribal leaders seeking to regain their land.

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