Taps now, water later: Come election, Karnataka's tribals say politicians lure them with half-baked sops

For the families that opted to be relocated, hoping for a better life, the situation is much worse.
Taps now, water later: Come election, Karnataka's tribals say politicians lure them with half-baked sops

BENGALURU: Crammed into a tiny room and learning for about five to six hours may not be what children look forward to.

But it's obvious that the seven-odd children, aged between 3 and 10, are really happy to be sitting inside the spanking new anganwadi at the Nagarhole Gadde Hadi, a settlement consisting of about 60 families of the Jenu Kuruba tribe in the forests of Nagarhole in Karnataka.

The children are aware that it's a privilege that no one before them had enjoyed: the anganwadi is the only pucca construction in that forest settlement.

The 12x12 room suddenly popped up in July last year, after years of cajoling, possibly because the election is around the corner, said anganwadi worker JK Bhagya.

"We even got a toilet. Before this, we were operating from a shed," she added, pointing to a bamboo structure with a tarpaulin for the roof next door.

These few and far between ‘sops for votes' are the reason why the Jenu Kuruba community, which has been fighting the government for decades for even the most basic amenities—like land rights, access to water and electricity—bothered to cast their votes, said JK Thimma, head of the settlement, as well as the president of Nagarhole Budakattu Jamma Paley Hakkustapana Samiti, the banner under which the community often holds protests demanding their basic rights.

According to the official website of Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, the forest is home to 45 tribal settlements, or ''hadis'—1,703 families belonging to the Jenu Kurubas, Betta Kurubas, Yeravas and Soliga communities.

It is further stated that for the tribals residing inside the forest, Central and state governments have conceptualised many welfare measures.

Thimma, though, has a different story to tell.

"For years, they tried to evict us from these forests by denying us everything. Over the years, we have learned that even if there are many welfare schemes on paper, it rarely reaches us. The Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006 to address the historical injustice done to us," he said.

"We submitted our applications as per its provisions in 2009. But we are still waiting. Those who are employed by the government to implement those schemes receive their salaries on time, but we hardly get any of those intended benefits," Thimma told PTI.

Taps now, water later: Come election, Karnataka's tribals say politicians lure them with half-baked sops
Not a drop of water flows from Modi's 'Jal Jeevan taps' in this village in Karnataka

For the families that opted to be relocated, hoping for a better life, the situation is much worse.

From near Nagarhole Gadde Hadi, about 74 families were relocated to what was earlier known as Begaru Parai, now called Nanachi Gadde Hadi, in the Ponnampet taluk of Coorg district, in the 1970s.

While the coffee plantations just across the road enjoy round the clock electricity and tap water, the Jenu Kurubas have to depend on primitive water holes dug by them – ironically, even deep in the forest, their community members have access to proper wells and a NGO distributed solar set-ups that light up a bulb or two in their homes.

But come election season, things trickle in, said 43-year-old J S Ramakrishna, who makes ends meet by working as a farm hand in nearby plantations as well as with occasional gigs as driver.

"Not so long ago, vehicles could not come inside our settlement because of the trenches made to prevent elephants crossing over to the coffee plantations. We just needed a bridge connecting us to the road. After years and years of begging, we were finally granted during the last assembly elections," said Ramakrishna.

Now, prior to the Lok Sabha elections, under Jal Jeevan Mission, six months ago, each household was given a tap connection and most have been sanctioned 400 sq ft pucca houses under PM JANMAN – some have started building.

"But there is no water coming in the tap yet. I suppose we will get them by next election," said Ramakrishna.

Things are not that different in Erumad, a small town about 70 kilometres from Nagarhole, on the Tamil Nadu side of the Nilgiris biosphere. Kurumbas who live here have gained prominence among locals and nearby towns for their traditional bone-setting practices.

In one of the settlements of Kurumbas, called ‘kudi' (each ‘kudi' consists of about 40 families), tribals scoff when election is mentioned. However, they are also aware that it's when they must push their demands the most. By increasing the pitch during election time, slowly, over the years, the Kurumbas in Erumad have ensured their access to water and electricity and pucca houses.

But 64-year-old Kannan, from a family of shamans who were traditionally the only ones allowed "to heal" people, said the solution to the biggest problem they face still eludes. The demarcation of states after independence meant the areas that they lived in fell under Tamil Nadu and, according to Kannan, their community was clubbed under Kurumbas in Tamil Nadu.

"We are Mulla Kurmans, originally from the Kerala side of the Nilgiris biosphere, where 90 percent of our community still lives. The certificates issued to us, categorising us as Kurumbas, is useless in Kerala, where often our children are married into. But they are not eligible for the benefits enjoyed by the Mulla Kurmans there.

"We have been struggling to get ourselves recognised as Mulla Kurmans here in Tamil Nadu too since 1947. Before every election, politicians promise us, but we are still waiting," Kannan told PTI.

The Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka will be held in two phases on April 26 and May 7 for 28 constituencies.

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