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Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Unseen Indians: Fading tribal population of Wayanad

They were once well off with farming in acres of land and a simplistically comfortable lifestyle close to nature. Now they are invisible. They end as a name or number in the numerous lists made by government policies. Men and women fade away with booze and diseases. The story of the tribal population in Wayanad shall put us, the modern Indians, to shame.

Wayanadan hill ranges host the largest population of Adivasi community in Kerala. Paniyas, Kurumas, Adiyars, Kurichyas, Ooralis, and Kattunaikkans constitute significant tribes. Every aspect of the tribal culture is closely intertwined with the legends and history of Wayanad. Carriers of a rich agricultural legacy, the tribal population of Wayanad got sized into mere refugees along the outskirts of civilisation, as the colonial and postcolonial political and socio-cultural milieu pushed them aside to the margins. 

The misery of the tribes started with the colonial invasion. Through various draconian forest acts, the British punished the Wayanadan Tribesmen since the time they joined Pazhassi Raja to fight against foreign invasion. The colonial attack of the wild, uncontrolled hunting of wildlife and spread of monoculture cash crop farming in the hills affected the life of the forest tribes. After independence, the democratic secular state too neglected these hapless children of the ghats. Migration, encroachment, social forestry and other various development models acted as a means to push the tribals to the rims.

When the Hindu kings were ruling the country, the relationship between the land, ruler and farmers were more flexible. The land was never considered as private property in pre-colonial Kerala. Neither the rulers nor the people tried to assert ownership over the vast tracts of Forests across the western ghats. The various tribes of Wayanad also used to live freely in the forests with autonomy over their lifestyle practices and mode of sustenance. The forest dwellers could cultivate, eat and live without any interference from the outside world. They were offering a share of the forest produces or Paddy for upkeeping the temple rituals. When Pazhassi Raja fought against the British invaders, the tribes of Wayanad extended their full support to the Raja, and put up a heroic resistance against the British in the Wayanadan forests. British imperialism, guided by a racist and colonial philosophy hit the tribals very hard through their property rules and forest laws. Wherever the natives showed resistance, the British enacted their imperial morality with a vengeance.

Introduction of land revenue, money-based economic system along with criminal exploitation of the native population and the natural resources by the colonial morality altered the fate of the Adivasis forever. Large tracts of forests were converted into monoculture plantations. As a result, native adivasis were stripped of all the rights they have been enjoying in their woods. 

The business of Cash crop plantations in Wayanad was started by establishment of Parry and Parry plantation company in the 1830s. Mananthavady Colonials brought in migrant labourers in high numbers to work in these cash crop plantations. The resources from the forests became commodities. Indian Railway was financed with wooden rails, platforms and wagons by the rich forests of Malabar. This large scale reduction in the extent of forest cover and eviction of the Adivasis from the forests altered their food pattern, lifestyle and socio-cultural associations. Many of them had to depend on the local aristocracy for a living. By then, the land revenue system also had been altered by the British and new landlords were assigned to the various areas controlled by the British. Thus began the eternal story of marginalisation and deprivation of the native tribes.

The first world war and the accompanying economic slowdown along with the changing demography of neo Christian converts in Travancore led to the inflow of modern migration to Wayanad in the 1930s. Till 1931, the majority of the population in Wayanad comprised of Adivasi tribes. After World War II, the ‘Grow more food’ scheme enabled massive migration of Christians from Travancore into the forest-clad western ghats region of Malabar pushed the natives further into the margins of civilisation as they ended up losing the land remaining in their possession post the British high handedness. Panoor (1989) maintains that the peasant migration from Travancore to Malabar invariably destroyed the very basis of the tribal economy. It has been observed that the Christian settlers from Travancore were primarily responsible for land alienation of the tribal communities and subsequent uprooting of the tribals from their traditional life.

Land reforms undertaken by the Kerala government were namesake tenancy reforms merely to topple the status of the traditional aristocracy. The scheduled tribes were entirely left out of the ‘reforms’. The democratic State admonished them as unworthy of land ownership.

Migration induced agrarian transformation has proved fatal for the tribal communities of Wayanad. The tribal communities who already were pushed aside by the British forest laws and plantation now wholly lost their native lifestyle. Schemes and policies introduced by the bureaucracy and political establishments could not be of any help.
Health and Human Development
Although Kerala has the highest Human Development Index in India, which is on par with the Scandinavian countries, the situation of malnutrition, anaemia, and maternal mortality in the tribal communities is alarming. They remain confounded by the changed socio-economic lifestyle practices along with the compulsion to adapt for accessing the ‘civilised’ world’s health delivery systems. The inability of the government system to gain the trust of the native tribes keeps them away from accessing the government schemes and amenities. Thus, the mothers and children in the tribal hamlets remain most deprived and neglected sections in health and development. 

Health problems such as underweight, anaemia, stunted growth and low birth rate were grave among the tribal communities. A CAG report in 2014 pointed out that during 2008–09 to 2012–13, there were 51 maternal deaths, of which 32 were tribal women in the age group of 19–35. As per a UNICEF-assisted survey by the District Administration, among under-five children in four village panchayats, the infant mortality among the tribal population was as high as 41.47. In 2011 to 2014 around 324 newborns died in the district. Experts attribute undernutrition, underweight, early pregnancy as the reason for the bereaved health indices. The high prevalence of moderate and severe anaemia among tribal women and children are mainly due to the changed food habits and lack of nutritious food. Alcoholism and tobacco chewing habits also play a significant in leading to this deprived economic state as well as malnutrition. 

More than 28% of the tribal population in Kerala is without houses as per the 1996 economic survey. Exposure to chemical fertilisers and pesticides, poor sanitation and housing are also the reason for the poor health. As the tribal communities are still not adapted to the changed financial relationships, money based handling of the daily living, which demands careful saving of money and accumulation of property for a healthy, prosperous life.

Sickle Cell Anemia is another chronic illness that is prevalent in the ethnic communities in Wayanad, mainly Paniya and Kattunayakan tribes and the Chetty community. Many studies suggest that pregnancy in Sickle Cell Anemic women can lead to maternal and foetal mortality. A few months ago, Sickle Cell Anaemia Patients Association in Wayanad accused the Kerala government of neglecting the affected people in providing healthcare and rehabilitation. According to them, there are around 800 people affected by the debilitating illness. 

The State government acknowledged in October 2016, the existence of around 326 tribal unwed mothers in Wayanad. The number of real victims would be much higher. In the late 90s, the State Government and the Women’s commission initiated a project to conduct DNA tests to identify men who have fathered the children of the unwed tribal mothers of Wayanad. These unfortunate women are victims of the appetite of men outside their hamlets especially the politicians, police, forest officials, contractors, farmers and other settlers in the area. Widespread alcohol and tobacco abuse among children makes them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

On the other hand, they are arbitrarily slapping POCSO [Protection of Children from Sexual Offences ] Act on the men from Paniya, Kattunayaka community for following the traditional marriage system of the Adivasi community. Twenty boys were arrested in 2015 under the POCSO Act from Wayanad. Ironically, the Padre who headed the district Child Welfare Committee which arrested the tribal boys was very lenient to the rape accused from his own ilk. Both the issue of unwed mothers and misuse of POCSO Act happens because with the advent of ‘civilised modernity’ the tribal Hamlets lost the traditional system of tribal chieftains having a say in the affairs of the socio-economic administration of the hamlets.

The advent of settlers from Travancore and State induced agricultural policies opened the door for Intensive food farming, and Cash crop farming altering the demography and ecology. The farming tribes are no longer considered as farmers by the State. The Settlers replaced the natives as farmers as well as landlords. Every policy decisions and schemes introduced by the State for the farming crisis in Wayanad addresses only the woes of the cash crop agriculturists migrated to the district. Considerably, the worldview of the migrant settlers and the native tribes are on opposite poles, which is why the native tribes lost their home, heritage, and existence. Several migrant settler farmers committed suicide in the late 90s and early 2000s due to crop failure and price fluctuation for the cash crops. Then Wayanad became a hotspot of State intervention to save farmers. Crores of fund flowed into the district, though the tribal population could not benefit. They are invisible when it comes to State’s policy formulation concerning farming and other “civilised” affairs of humanity. 

The Wayanadan Adivasi community is the last reservoir of indigenous farming wisdom, medicinal plants, healing techniques, unique folk cultural practices and knowledge. In olden days, the Wayanadan tribes could accumulate the food for the day from the surroundings. Due to unavailability of forest produce and alineation from land, poverty prevailed, and the communities began to rely on the Public DistributionSystem for food. They used to eat lots of leaves plucked from nature, mushrooms, and animals hunted down from the forests and paddy fields. Wayanad, as the name suggests, housed several varieties of indigenous paddy. With modernity, the traditional farming methods, as well as the ethnic seed varieties, also lost significance. Likewise, millets and other regular dietary supplements also disappeared from the menu of the tribes. Climate change provoked a reduction in the number of honey hives in the forests of Wayanad. The aboriginal tribes who used to be the procurers of wild honey lost their means for sustenance.

Ineffective Government policies
The government had formed large scale rehabilitation projects for the tribal communities in Wayanad such as Sugandhagiri Cardamom Project, Pookkodu Dairy Project, Priyadarshini Tea Estate and Cheengeri Coffee Project. All these projects aimed at enhancing the livelihood of the Adivasis failed to produce the desired outcome mainly due to bureaucratic control and a faulty implementation which failed to motivate the beneficiaries. Most of the alternative government actions to address the tribal issues were unable to provide expected results as corrupt bureaucracy and the middlemen who take advantage of the Adivasis. For example, most of the land allocated for the Cheengeri estate has been encroached upon by the migrant settlers. A large number of programmes for health and education lacks touch with the realities of the Adivasi hamlets. The State measures virtually reinforce the intrusion and exploitation of the Adivasis by other non-tribal people, in varied forms. Mostly, Bureaucrats, contractors, and NGOs became rich in the name of tribal development and emancipation. Brown men replaced whites with the civilising mission. Every project implemented by governmental and Non Governmental bodies aims at transforming the Adivasis into ‘civilised’ modern man. 

Tribals often feel that the indifference of the governments is part of a plan to wipe out native tribes from the district. The alcohol infested, poverty-stricken tribal hamlets are often fertile ground for many vested interests who wish to create discord and chaos. They incite the Adivasis to wage war against the State. The presence of a visibly marginalised population had been an appealing feature for Naxals in the 70s and Maoists in the 2000s to make the tribal hamlets as their post. Over the years, these disruptive elements could successfully limit all the problems of the Adivasis into one point — Land. The so-called emancipators and activists are careful to keep the anger focused on the State alone, thereby condoning the Christian settlers from Travancore. Bloody agitations as happened in Muthanga cannot be the road to the prosperity of the Adivasi folks. It can only reduce the number of already dwindling population and accelerate more turmoil.

Decentralised governance entrusting powers to the tribal chieftains and more rights over forests area without bureaucratic control would have been more beneficial for the Adivasi communities. A clear distinction between the Settlers and Tribals has to be made in administration by forming tribal village panchayats modelled out of the internal hierarchical system as practised by the tribes a century ago. Instead of uprooting the children from the family to send them to government residential schools under the Tribal developmental projects, facilitating education that shall be sensitive to the unique cultural heritage of the Adivasi communities would prove productive. Even the nutrition schemes do not focus on the peculiarities and traditional practices of the community. Here, the State and the NGOs act as the true heirs of the colonial mission. A total rethinking of the philosophies that guide the government’s approach towards tribal Development is essential to protect these unique inhabitants of the Western Ghats from the verge of extinction.



  1. District Census Handbook — Wayanad; Census of India 2011
  2. Bijoy, C.R. (1999) Adivasis Betrayed: Adivasi Land Rights in Kerala. Economic and Political Weekly
  3. Bijoy, C.R. and Raman, K. R. (2003) Muthanga: the Real Story. Economic and Political Weekly
  4. Government of Kerala (2009), ―District Human Development Report;
  5. Marginalisation and immiseration of indigenous communities, Wayanad‖, State Planning Board, Trivandrum
  6. Philip RR, Vijayakumar K, Indu PS, Shrinivasa BM, Sreelal TP, Balaji J. Prevalence of undernutrition among tribal preschool children in Wayanad district of Kerala. Int J Adv Med Health Res.
  7. http://www.environmentportal.in/files/Health%20democracy.pdf
  8. https://english.mathrubhumi.com/news/kerala/in-last-3-years-264-tribal-infants-die-in-wayanad-english-news-1.669021
  9. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/maternal-deaths-high-among-tribal-communities-in-wayanad-comptroller-and-auditor-general/articleshow/36488526.cms?from=mdr
  10. https://scroll.in/article/822538/in-wayanad-an-adivasi-marriage-tradition-at-odds-with-the-law-has-landed-many-men-in-jail

Note: This piece has been authored by Anjali George, who tweets at @IchBinGorg

(Feature Image Source – Wayanad.net)

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