Over 100 families living in Akaraipatti, Keezh Valasai and Mel Valasai tribal villages, located atop the Kalvarayan hills in Thandrampattu block in Tiruvannamalai, have been living in darkness for decades. The villages are less than 300 km away from Chennai. Except for about three years when solar power lit up their modest dwellings, all trappings of modernity have eluded them. Indeed, they trek for miles to fetch water and procure supplies from the closest fair price shop.
On the flip side, the lack of access provides them ideal cover for brewing illicit liquor and smuggling it into Villupuram district, grumble revenue and police department officials. “They leverage their locational advantage to brew arrack without fear of being caught,” says a revenue department official, requesting anonymity.
According to officials, their efforts to dissuade the villagers from pursuing illegal activities failed as there are no alternative sources of income. “Deficient rain coupled with lack of waterbodies has made life difficult. Raising crops here is a herculean task. We don’t even have potable water; where will we get water to raise crops?” asks Sivakumar, who is in his mid-30s.
No wonder, many youth have already migrated to the plains and neighbouring cities in search of sustainable livelihood. Most of them work as daily wage labourers in construction sites in Bangalore. “Unless villagers are provided regular income sources and basic amenities, it will be very difficult to wean them away from illicit brewing,” says a government employee who accompanied District Collector Dr Vijay Pingale to the village.
“To access the nearest ration shop or medical facility we need to walk about 8-10 km,” says a 58 year-old woman of Mel Vasalai, which is around 3 km atop Keezh Valasai. “The men in the village carry individuals with aliments in ‘doli’ to Beemarapatti for treatment. Pregnant women have to walk or be carried down for delivery. Not even a single medical camp has held at our village in the past 50 years. Many here die without knowing their disease,” she adds.
“Former Collectors Kannaki Packianathan and R Rajendran visited our village in 1998 and 2008 respectively and promised to provide basic amenities. In 2008, the government provided solar lighting facilities to each habitation village. It was in good condition for nearly three to four years, after which its batteries expired. They are yet to be replaced,” says Jayakumar.
Overhead tanks were constructed five years ago in the three tribal villages, but lack of electricity made them useless. “In fact, overhead tanks and electric poles erected in the villages make a mockery of our living conditions. Women here still walk for miles to fetch water. We drink, bath, cook and wash using the same water,” says Sivakumar, another youth.
Will things ever change for the better? Villagers here prefer to keep their fingers crossed.