When the vehicle entered Chalakudy on way to Athirappilly from Vettilappara bridge, the road wore a deserted look on March 2, with public transport staying off road due to the nationwide motor strike called by trade unions to protest the increasing petrol and diesel prices. However, tea shops and food stalls remained open and private vehicles were heading for Athirappilly, one of the enchanting waterfalls in South India.
Our vehicle stopped near Kadar Colony, one of the biggest settlements of forest tribes in the lap of the Western Ghats. Around 10 men had gathered inside the community hall in the colony discussing about how to empower the male members of the community and free them from the clutches of drinking habit, which has been destroying generations of the community.
“The drinking habit is deeply ingrained in a majority of youngsters as well as elderly. Many children from the community study up to Plus II and even higher, but the drinking habit slowly conquers them. To address the problem, the ‘Purushaganam’ (male gathering) is being arranged every month to sort out our issues,” said P K Chandran of the colony who was leading the session.
Another member, O Saji, said, “We are deeply concerned with the proposed Athirappilly power project. The state and Central governments say that it is a closed chapter. However, concerns remain. If the government decides again to move ahead with the dam, it will destroy around 14 oorus (hamlets) of the tribes, mainly Kadar, Muthuvan, Mannan, Malayan and Ulladar and will displace more than 2,000 tribal people. In addition, the entire tract of Western Ghats and its biodiversity will be gone.”
Geetha Vazhachal, the only female ‘ooru mooppan’ of Kadar community, says the fear of constructing the dam has lessened. “However, we fear of a manmade disaster. Now, the state government has proposed Anakkayam dam. It is more than 10km upstream from Vazhachal. It will be a disaster to displace several settlements of forest dwellers and biodiversity,” she said.
Sandeep of the colony said, “The serious problem we face is the unavailability of land. The forest department had allotted only 4.5 acres for 60 families in 1960s to Kadar community. Now, the colony has 74 houses. The number of members has multiplied in the past 50 years and there is no place to construct any more houses. More than ten persons live like a joint family in each house. The government should address this issue.”
The mercury level was increasing inside the deep jungle as the leaves have withered in summer heat. The vehicles carrying tourists moved to Valpparai from Vazhachal through the road close to the colony. Our vehicle moved to Vellikulangara, which lies in the mountain valley.
Many villages border the mighty hills. Posh houses are also seen everywhere and vast tracts of farm land sporting cocoa, arecanut, nutmeg and other aromatic trees. After a drive of more than 20km, our vehicle reached Itholi, a sleepy village in the dense forest. Man-animal conflict is frequent here. Herds of elephants enter human settlements for water and food, giving sleepless night to the residents.
K O Paul Kavunkal at Vellikulangara has not yet recovered from the trauma caused by a herd of elephants which invaded his farm and destroyed crops in the early hours of February 28. “Three elephants destroyed coconut, plantain and other trees and destroyed the pipes of the lift irrigation system. In the last 50 years, it was the first time wild elephants had reached our area. The herd entered the farm around 3am and wreaked havoc for two hours. The crops of many people were destroyed. We informed the forest personnel who arrived and pushed the elephants back using crackers and torches. We live in fear that such incidents will recur,” Paul said.
T V George Thazhekadan said the forest department had constructed solar fencing in the areas under Kodali forest range, but there no fencing in Pariyaram range and it is helping the wild elephants to reach human localities. Mattathur, Naikundu, Chokkana, Ithanoli and other places bordering the forest have been witnessing repeated man-animal conflicts. The compound wall and crops of Presentation FC Convent were destroyed by elephants. “We have been living in fear at night,” said Sr Acqalina, head of the convent.