Lush greenery, stark misery: Election vignettes from Kerala's Achankovil forest

The Achankovil Forest division has three forest ranges -- Achankovil, Kallar and Kanayar. A two-week-long stay in the jungle, braving wild animal attacks bring in around Rs 500 per day, depending on the season.
76-year-old Sarasamma and 73-year-old Zeenath Beevi seen in front of their houses at Padinjara Puramboke near Achankovil. The two neighbours have both got no title deed to their name.
76-year-old Sarasamma and 73-year-old Zeenath Beevi seen in front of their houses at Padinjara Puramboke near Achankovil. The two neighbours have both got no title deed to their name.(Express Photo | BP Deepu)

Forty-seven-year-old Suku has been the lone priest at the Kodamala Appooppan Kaavu for over 18 years. This sacred grove within a forest patch, just a few minutes walk away from the motorable road along the Punalur-Achankovil stretch, is a relatively lesser known site that does not usually catch the eyes of tourists or travellers.

"Here resides the eternal being. Appooppan (Grandfather) knows it all, senses everything and blesses everyone, irrespective of caste, creed, belief or even absence of it. Pour out your mind to him without any qualms. He sees your mind, listens to your heart and never gives up on anyone," avers the stony-faced priest with unsullied faith.

A couple of rudraksha-beaded chains adorn his neck, his stern looks belie his gentle demeanour.

"See this yard here, is called Appooppan Kalari. He's believed to be Adithyaputhran (Offspring of the Sun God), and was born to Mannadi Amma at that distant fort along Kizhakkummala," explains Suku, pointing to a distant hillock along the mountain ranges on the eastern frontier.

Suku claims that Appooppan has been the mala daivam for 101 hills in the region (a guardian angel of the hills), thereby earning the name Malamoorthy, Oorrali Appooppan, Kodamala Thevar or Kodamala Appooppan. A couple of minor deities including Ammumma (Grandmother) and Sivan are also part of the Kaavu.

"These hills have their own rituals and practices. The Padayani offering with 51 tender coconuts is what he likes the most. Offering muthukuda (ceremonial umbrella) and roosters - not to kill them but to set them free - are the two favourite offerings here," says Suku who seems more than eager to acquaint us with all the jungle lore.

As priest, he offers regular poojas here on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

But does it enable him to earn his daily bread? No. For that, he has no choice but to foray into the jungle along with others to collect honey.

Suku, he of the unsullied faith.
Suku, he of the unsullied faith.(Express Photo | BP Deepu)

A left-leaning priest

Suku, who belongs to the Malapandaram tribe, is one among close to 300 families in the Girijan colony, a tribal settlement spread over 105 acres inside the Achankovil forest range.

The land was originally given to 45 families who in time started spreading out to different places in and around the two wards of Aryankavu panchayat in Punalur assembly constituency. Originally, each family got 2.5 acres each, but it started shrinking with time, and now only a few cents are what each one owns.

As you near Girijan Colony, a substantially big flex board of Kollam's Left candidate M Mukesh is seen leaning against a shanty that Suku calls home. A wall graffiti seeking votes for the candidate is also seen. What is it that makes a priest let his house be generously used for such electoral sloganeering?

"I'm an ardent believer, but a Leftist too. Don't get me wrong. It's not all about ideology, but I genuinely like what they have been doing," explains Suku, whose political affiliation began with the NCP, later shifted to the CPI and now stands with the Ganesh Kumar-led Kerala Congress.

Vagaries of life

A day's travel through the lush green Punalur-Achankovil- Sengottai stretch, an around 80-km long forest path that begins from Kerala's Kollam district and culminates at Tenkasi district in Tamil Nadu, during election season leaves one pondering deeply about the vagaries of life.

A short untarred road from Punalur's Alimukku Junction takes you deep into the forest stretch that begins with acres of plantations that appear to spread further into the buffer forest zones too.

On the way, you come across 55-year-old Murukan, a paraplegic seated on a wheelchair. His wife carries him to and fro on her shoulders everyday.

"She takes me from that house there (pointing to a shack uphill) and leaves me here till evening. Passersby tend to give me something or the other," says Murukan, who also warns us that the narrow stretch endowed with longish curves falls in the elephant corridor. Subtle hints and warnings about the imminent danger of animal crossings come your way all along the route, as you proceed further.

A land of laments

The return to Girijan colony is a return to a land of laments.

"Only during votes the politicians want us. During that time, all of them come here. After that they don't want us. We have been given temporary title deeds. But no steps have yet been taken to make it permanent," rues 49-year-old Rajeevan.

People here are not happy with how politicians treat them as mere vote banks.

The flex board promoting film star and LDF candidate M Mukesh.
The flex board promoting film star and LDF candidate M Mukesh.(Express Photo | BP Deepu)

In spite of the facilities that the governments claim to have given, most families depend on the jungle for forest produce as a means of livelihood. At times, they work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. But foraying into the forest is what sustains their lives, says 48-year-old Yasodharan.

Venturing out into the deep forest to collect honey, kunthirikkam and vayana is often more than an adventure. The forest department has given them passes through the Vana Samrakshana Samithi (VSS) to enter the forest and stay for days. Going in batches of two-three families, they settle into camps, once inside the deep jungle.

The Achankovil Forest division has three forest ranges -- Achankovil, Kallar and Kanayar.

A two-week-long stay in the jungle, braving wild animal attacks bring in around Rs 500 per day, depending on the season.

Back home too, animals pose a major threat to their daily lives. While wild boars pose the biggest challenge, monkeys comprise the nuisance factor. Elephants and bisons too play their part in making life miserable for the tribals here.

Trade unions of plantation workers affiliated to various political parties are active in the region. While Suku claims things have improved of late, most families here seem to be in dire straits, as they go on to narrate a plethora of woes that await them everyday. That almost none of them have title deeds remains their biggest concern.

"The tribal families were given land of upto 4 acres under the Forest Rights Act for farming and housing. It can be treated as own land and handed over to future generations. But since it's forest land, it cannot be sold. No title deeds will be given. But as per the latest amendment brought in by the Union Government, those residing inside the forest before 1977 would be given title deed after joint survey by the forest and revenue departments," pointed out ex-forest minister K Raju, who represented Punalur in the Kerala Assembly.

'We won't even have a place to be buried'

Authorities do take steps to ensure that children here go to school without fail.

Thirty-two-year-old Sheeba and 37-year-old Santhosh have four children. Plus two student Sajesh, Agesh of ninth class, Sibijth of sixth and Abhi, a class three student at Orukunnu, a local school here. Two of them stay at a hostel, while the other two make use of the school bus. But often they miss school, as they go with Santhosh and Sheeba into the jungle.

"The government has taken steps to ensure better living conditions for them. In addition to free ration, hostel and travel facilities are given. Still a section of them choose to depend on forest produce. Kids often fail to attend school, as families take them along while going to jungle," adds K Raju.

With families spreading out, better housing is an urgent requirement for most. But having waited for long, most of them are desperate and have given up hopes.

Fifty-five-year-old Subitha lives in a what could be termed a ramshackle hut. Covered with tarpaulin sheets, traditional mats and supported by bamboo poles, the tiny shack could put even the most humble abode to shame.

"I've been waiting 12 years for a house. They don't even tell us when, or whether it'll be done. But it's fine. I don't want to talk about it," says Subitha with a resigned look. She's convinced that only through party network, such government facilities can be availed.

If Subitha, one of the first-generation tribals to move into the colony, finds herself in a precarious situation, a more painful picture awaits you a couple of kilometres down the forest path.

"No land. No title deed. At times, pensions too are delayed. We stay next to a water body, but water scarcity remains a routine affair. We have been on the margins for more than half a century. Promises galore, as polls approach, but to no avail. It seems, we'll end up with nothing. Even when I die, I won't get a final resting place." Tears seem to have long dried up, as 76-year-old Sarasamma speaks with innate indifference.

"Hey, cheer up!" consoles a pleasant-looking Zeenath Beevi, her next-door neighbour. "But it's true. We won't even have a place to be buried," echoes the 73-year-old a little while later.

'Once in power, they fail to even recognise us'

Close to 38 families, most of them settled at Padinjare Puramboke here for over five decades, are in dire straits. Most don’t have even an inch of land in their name. They have been living in shacks dubbed as houses, a few metres away from the road. Title deeds were promised, or rather are promised every time elections knock at their doors. But they continue living in these shacks, long after polls are over.

They are located only a couple of kilometres away from the sleepy township of Achankovil that serves as a constant reminder of all that they lack in life.

"Oh, you've come to ask us about elections? When candidates come to meet us, they are full of promises. Once they assume power, they are unable to even recognise us," share Manoharan and Indira, a couple with reluctant smiles perched on their faces.

The couple with the reluctant smiles.
The couple with the reluctant smiles.(Express Photo | BP Deepu)

After having lived here for more than 50 years, none of them want to move out. Title deeds for these tiny plots are all they ask for. But to no avail. Most of the elderly among the lot draw government pensions (either social security or welfare), their major solace. But when it comes to getting a decent abode, they feel a betrayed lot.

Not that there have been absolutely no government interventions. It does happen at times. But only a handful were fortunate enough. And those who are given land are not ready to move either.

"It’s an interesting phenomenon here. Earlier outsiders used to come to Achankovil for work. But now they go outside seeking jobs," points out Beevi.

Vast spreads of green that cloak misery

A drive through the curvy forest patch that leads to Shenkottai in Tamil Nadu leaves you perturbed. Enroute lies a solar-fenced enclosure of an upcoming teak plantation, an expansion that stretches beyond the hills.

Amid the thousands of tiny saplings stands a makeshift shanty, partly visible from the road. As curiosity gets the better of us, we get down, walk across, search for an entrance, fail to find one, call out to see if anyone is around.

A tiny, worn-out middle-aged woman walks towards us, closely followed by a small boy and a lively puppy. As she approaches us, she warns us not to touch the electric fence that is meant to keep the elephants at bay.

"We have been here since a couple of years to look after the plants. We need to take care of everything. We switch on the solar fence in the evening; otherwise, elephants would rampage the area," she explains.

They seldom go home as the saplings need constant nurturing. Their monthly income is however a paltry Rs 12000!

Such vast spreads of green cloaks many similar tales of human penury.

A drive through the Achankovil forest patches would never prove disappointing to those who love to immerse themselves in Nature's lap. The forest knows how to keep its secrets. One just needs to be adept at reading its silences.

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