As far as Kamaraj S is concerned, he bought the land that he lives and works on nearly 40 years ago.

But now, when the 62-year-old wishes to live a quiet, retired life, he worries about being displaced. It would be the second time he is uprooted from his home.

Kamaraj is a Tamil repatriate from Sri Lanka, who lives in Ouchterlony Valley, more commonly known as O’Valley, in Gudalur in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district. Decades ago, his family were among the lakhs of Tamils, mostly Dalits, taken to Sri Lanka during British rule, to work in the quickly expanding tea estates on the island. Kamaraj was born in Badulla, a city situated in the hills of central Sri Lanka, surrounded by tea estates. (He and other repatriated people in this story asked to be referred to by pseudonyms.)

India attained Independence in 1947, and Sri Lanka in 1948. Since then, the lives of these Tamils have seen frequent upheaval. The Sri Lankan government refused to grant citizenship to the “upcountry Tamils”, as they were called. On the other hand, the Indian government argued that since the Tamils had lived in Sri Lanka for over 100 years, they belonged to the island country.

Eventually, after years of negotiations against a backdrop of violence between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, the two countries agreed that some Tamils would stay, while some would be repatriated to India. Kamaraj’s family was among those who were repatriated, decades later – they arrived in 1984 on the shores of Ramanathapuram, the coast in Tamil Nadu where most Sri Lankan refugees and Tamil repatriates first entered India.

From there, Kamaraj’s family made their way to the hilly region of Gudalur, on Tamil Nadu’s border with Kerala.

“We are hill people,” Kamaraj said. “And it only seemed right that we live in a region that is similar to where we had grown up.”

He then scraped together enough money from his savings to settle his family in the village of Gandhi Nagar. “We put everything we had into buying small pieces of land so we could cultivate tea,” said Kamaraj. He also took up employment as an estate worker in one of O’Valley’s largest tea plantations.

When Tamil Indians were repatriated from Sri Lanka, many chose to settle in the hilly region of Gudalur in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district. Many bought land, and took up work on estates. Photos: Johanna Deeksha

Years later, Kamaraj learnt that the person he had bought the land from was not its legitimate owner. Rather, the property was part of around 80,000 acres of land in the area that had a complex history and an indeterminate ownership status.

Prior to Independence, these lands were owned by zamindar families from Kerala, which were collectively known as the Nilambur Kovilagam, and which formed a kind of feudatory. The owners were known as janmis, and the lands themselves were known as “janmam lands”, referring to a system of hereditary property rights prevalent in Kerala. The zamindars had sold and leased out tens of thousands of acres of this land over the years to various lessees, including large plantations.

The terms of these leases extended into post-Independence India. In 1969, the state government introduced the Gudalur Janmam Estates (Abolition and Conversion Into Ryotwari) Act, aimed at the redistribution of this land to those who occupied and cultivated it.

Under the act, a person who owned a piece of land would be entitled to a patta, or title deed, over it if they could prove that they, or their family or employees, had cultivated the land for at least three years.

A tenant, meanwhile, would be entitled to a patta over a piece of land if they could prove that they, or their family or employees, had cultivated it for at least three years.

A separate portion of the law, Section 17, dealt specifically with lands that had been leased to plantations – the act gave the government the right to terminate these leases, and take control of these lands, with the payment of compensation to the lessees. It also allowed the government to impose “reasonable restrictions” on the use of these lands.

Unbeknownst to Kamaraj, the land that he had “bought” was actually in an area that was deemed as Section 17 land. He recounted that after he arrived in Gudalur and found a job as an estate worker, a resident of a settlement within the plantation land offered him his own plot of land for purchase, and assured him that he could live on it, and cultivate it.

“There were many such repatriates who found themselves in possession of such land,” said Kamaraj. So when the law came into force, Tamil repatriates like Kamaraj were suddenly considered “illegal” residents.

Though they have not been evicted from the land, the repatriates still live in fear of being uprooted.

“The estates have profited enough from the lands over all these years,” said MS Selvaraj, the state head of a farmers and workers organisation. “But it is the smaller land owners on these estate lands that live in fear of eviction.”

Meanwhile, the repatriates also worry that the plantations they work on may be shut down, under the provisions of Section 17. In the years after the law was passed, some estates secured permission from courts to continue operations – but the threat of legal and administrative action looms over them, and the workers. “We had no idea that this land was on lease and that we could lose our jobs if the estates get shut down,” said Kamaraj.

But they are determined to fight for their survival. “We have so many problems,” said Ethiraj, a friend of Kamaraj’s, who is also a Tamil repatriate, and an estate worker. “But whatever happens, we are not going to leave this land.”

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The repatriation of Tamils from Sri Lanka has its roots in the long-standing hostility between the two major ethnic groups in the island country – the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.

This spilled over into violence incidents, beginning in the late 1950s, and continued for several decades. The year 1983 saw the worst of these, on a day known as Black July, in which 3,000 Tamils were killed. The next year, civil war broke out in the country.

Lakhs of Tamils fled for India through this time.

In parallel, the two governments conducted years of negotiations with each other about the fate of the Tamil population. On October 30, 1964, the Sri Lankan prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and the Indian prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, signed the Sirima-Shastri pact to deal with the matter. Under the pact, Sri Lanka would grant citizenship to 3 lakh Tamils, while 5.25 lakh Tamils would be repatriated to India.

The process was slow: by 1981, only 2.8 lakh Tamils had been repatriated. In 1984, the process came to a sudden end with the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war. Kamaraj came to India in 1984 on a boat, just before it was halted.

Kamaraj recounted that his grandfather was from Thanjavur and that he was taken to Sri Lanka (which Kamaraj still refers to by its old name, Ceylon) in the early twentieth century. His parents also grew up to become tea estate workers. As a 23-year-old in Sri Lanka, Kamaraj was forced to return to a motherland that he had never set eyes on before.

“We had nowhere to go,” he said. “Old neighbours and relatives in India had taken over our land in our absence. We knew nothing about this country.”

He decided to travel to the Nilgiris after hearing about its vast tea estates from others at a government camp for repatriated Tamils in Ramanathapuram.

His friends, Ramakrishna, Subramani and Ethiraj, all recounted almost identical stories – of leaving Sri Lanka between 1979 and 1984, and arriving on the shores of Ramanathapuram, where they settled in temporary government camps. At the camps, the men and their families were registered with the government. From there, they made their way to the Nilgiris, and settled in Gandhi Nagar.

M Chandrasekaran, a senior member of a repatriated peoples’ organisation, recounted that the private plantations of the Nilgiris, which intended to employ the repatriated people, paid for their travel expenses. The Central government provided families with loans of around Rs 3,000, to help them restart their lives in Tamil Nadu.

“Most of the working class in Gudalur consists of Tamil repatriates and most of them are Dalit,” said Selvaraj.

MS Selvaraj, state head of a farmers and workers organisation, said that large estates in Gudalur had profited from disputed lands over the years, while smaller owners, including Tamil repatriates, live in fear of eviction.

The men arrived in Gudalur and settling down with their families. Within a few months of their arrival, all the men, except Ethiraj, who was still a child then, bought some land with whatever savings they had managed to bring back from Sri Lanka. They managed to buy between a quarter and one acre of land each from landowners in O’Valley.

According to a 2002 fact-finding report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the repatriates, who were “unfamiliar with the law, were often duped on their arrival into buying small plots of land and were given fake documents”. It added, “The government’s failure to explain land laws or Section 17 clearly to these repatriates – or indeed, to anyone – was held to be responsible for this situation. In strict legal terms, these individuals are also encroachers.”

The repatriates said that it was only in the early 2000s that they began to be informed by local authorities that the land they were living on was contested.

The 1969 act was notified in 1974; shortly after, nine estates filed petitions against it. After the Madras High Court dismissed the petitions, in 1977, the estates moved the Supreme Court.

The PUCL report notes that these cases crawled through the system for years, until the petitioners jointly withdrew them in 1999. Following this, Selvaraj said, forest officials and local authorities began to act more firmly against those they deemed encroachers on Section 17 lands.

The repatriates weren’t the only ones that the government acted against. According to Selvaraj, after the 1969 act wrested control of the lands away from the Nilambur Kovilagam, and deemed their status as indeterminate, the area saw a large influx of new settlers. These included what the PUCL report termed “encroachers” – typically “poor families that took over areas for direct cultivation or for their residence”. They also included “land grabbers”, referring to companies that took over larger pieces of land for commercial use, including to set up tea estates. In the early 2000s, the government began to act against these individuals and estates also.

“The fact is that the government did not do its job properly,” said Tarsh Thekaekara, a researcher-conservationist from the Shola Trust, a not-for profit organisation that works in the area. “The corruption and lackadaisical attitude of the officials has led to the influx in this region where people have no idea who the land belongs to.”

He described the situation as akin to “the Wild West, anyone can grab a piece of land and sit on it, because technically, everyone is illegal”.

For the repatriates, life became much more precarious after this. According to them, since the early 2000s, the area has seen high surveillance by forest department staff, who keep a lookout for any kind of new development in the undecided lands, which are scattered across Gudalur.

These staffers have barred them from cutting trees on their land or building any structures on it, even if existing structures were destroyed.

Some of the janmam land is also designated under the act as Section 53 land – these are lands that have to be scrutinised by officials, to determine if they should be categorised as forest land. The residents – mostly Adivasis – of Section 53 lands were also subjected to similar restrictions.

“At the start of our village, the forest department has a checkpost,” Kamaraj said. “Every time we walk in and out, we have to explain to the guards what our business is.”

This scrutiny prevents residents from making any improvements to their homes. “We are not allowed to bring any building material through the checkpost,” Kamaraj said. The repatriates said that they are not even allowed to build toilets for their houses.

“Why did nobody tell us that all of this was Section 17 land?” asked Ethiraj. “Why did they allow us to build our whole lives here, and why are they are now calling our land illegal?” Muthuraj K, another resident of Gandhi Nagar, who earns a living as a jeep driver, said that even the village’s panchayat office is on Section 17 land.

Basic necessities, such as electricity, have also proved difficult to procure. Some families were given connections in the mid-1990s under the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief minister M Karunanidhi’s rule – others have struggled. “Families who were unable to afford electricity when the first phase of connections was being initiated have been unable to get connections after that,” said Kamaraj.

In four of the villages that visited, street lights were run on solar power – some homes also managed with solar energy. Residents bemoaned the fact that they received little or no electricity during rains or in winters.

Residents of Section 17 lands have found it difficult to procure basic necessities, such as electricity. Many villages in the area have streetlights powered by solar energy. Some homes also rely on solar energy.

Selvaraj said a majority of those who were repatriated would have preferred to remain in Sri Lanka. Forced to move, now they were at risk of finding themselves homeless again. “It has been 52 years since the pact, many of those people are now in their late sixties,” he said. “Where will they go now?”

Selvaraj was particularly critical of TANTEA, a company set up by the state government in 1968, specifically to help rehabilitates Tamils who were being repatriated from Sri Lanka. He argued that the company had profited off these workers’ labour for years, but did not offer them assistance once they came under government scrutiny.

“TANTEA should take a count of all the repatriates on Section 17 lands and give them land to build their houses and continue cultivation, so that they have a roof over their heads and an income,” he said. “They owe it to them. When they were brought here by the Central government, they were promised a better life, but the authorities haven’t delivered on that promise.”

In May, Tamil Nadi chief minister, MK Stalin, stated that he would discuss the problem of Section 17 lands with ministers and officials of his government, to arrive at a solution. phoned and texted the collector of Nilgiris district, and a TANTEA representative, to ask about progress on this front, but had not received a response as of publication.

Activists argue that the government-owned TANTEA, set up to rehabiliate Tamils, had profited off the labour of repatriates for years, but had failed to support them when their homes and livelihoods came under threat.

On a cold September afternoon, I made my way in Muthuraj’s jeep up to Athoor, a village perched at a higher altitude than Gandhi Nagar. Apart from the occasional jeep, and, once a day, a rickety government bus, no other vehicle traverses the rocky road leading up to the village.

The residents of Athoor will be among the first to voluntarily move out of Section 17 lands en masse. In a few months’ time the village will be mostly abandoned. One of the main reasons they are choosing to leave is the state of the road that leads to their homes.

The village has a primary government school where, currently, three students are enrolled. “The children have to leave early in the morning and return late in the evening because of lack of proper road access,” said 60-year-old Paramasivam C, a Tamil repatriate who returned to India in 1979.

“We didn’t go to school but at least our children should be able to do so,” he said.

Residents of the village of Athoor will be among the first to move out of Section 17 lands en masse. The poor condition of the road that leads to their homes is one of the main reasons they are choosing to leave.

Residents have tried several times in the past to get a proper road laid out. But when they approached authorities, they were told that since these were Section 17 lands, authorities could not build roads within them.

About 16 of 144 homes in the village do not have electricity. These families too, are glad to finally be moving away. “Imagine, even in this day and age, we have to cook by the light of a candle,” said 68-year-old Priyamani M.

All the villagers that spoke to in Athoor said that they were glad to be leaving. They were being given pattas to new lands as well, in the Gudalur town area, something that had been unimaginable in the decades that they had remained in the Section 17 lands.

Aarai, the village’s oldest living member, who estimated that she was about 80 years old, was the first to receive a patta.

Aarai arrived in Tamil Nadu as an adult in the 1960s, along with her family. She is the only one among them who remains in the village today – her husband died years ago, and the rest of her family has moved out.

Aarai, a resident of Athoor, who is around 80 years old, was the first in the village to receive a patta. She was repatriated from Sri Lanka to India in the 1960s, and is the only member of her family still in the village.

Aarai is particularly glad to be leaving behind a danger that she has lived with for some years: elephants. When they moved into this region years ago, they rarely ever spotted an elephant, locals said – now, incidents involving the animals are common.

About two years ago, while Aarai was away visiting her grandson in another town, elephants moving through the area damaged her home. The lock on her front door is still intact but the rear of the house, where the kitchen was located, was destroyed. It has remained mostly untouched since the night of the incident, with broken bricks still littering the ground.

“The elephants destroyed all my kitchen utensils. I was left with nothing,” she said. “The only reason I am alive today is because I was not at home that night.”

Many in Athoor are relieved to be leaving because the village has for some time seen considerable elephant activity. About two years ago, an elephant destroyed the rear of Aarai’s house, where her kitchen was located.

Indeed, all the workers that spoke to in Gudalur said that their biggest worry was of elephant attacks. During the drive to Athoor, Muthuraj pointed out a place where a middle-aged woman had been trampled and killed recently.

“Even if we call the forest department for help, they come and chase it away, but don’t even stay till it has left the area properly,” said Kamaraj. “There is more protection for the elephants than there is for us.”

Almost every house in Athoor has pieces of cloth, plastic or rubber sheets nailed or plastered on walls to cover gaping holes in them. While some of this damage had been a result of floods and landslides, some had been caused by elephants. Forest department officials do not allow residents to bring in any material to repair the damaged houses; thus, they have to come up with other solutions.

Many houses in Athoor use materials like cloth to cover holes caused by floods, landslides and elephants. Since the village is on Section 17 land, forest staffers stop residents from carrying in material for repairs.

A government official who asked to remain anonymous said that Gudalur, especially O’Valley, was the site of three elephant corridors, and that elephants in the region used the area for their movement during their migrations.

He noted that these areas had been thick forests before encroachments began, after the passage of the 1969 act. “One can see that farmers grow plantains and areca nuts in the hill slopes of the forest areas,” he said. “Of course, the elephants are going to come.”

Tarsh Thekaekara, the researcher-conservationist from the Shola Trust, said that the elephant population had increased significantly over the last decade. “Ten years ago, some event drove the elephants to Gudalur, we don’t know from where,” he said.

It is the males, known as tuskers, that are usually aggressive. Thekaekara said that young male elephants are driven out from their herds by the matriarchs after they reach puberty, to avoid inbreeding. Most of these young males find solitary older males, from whom they learn how to fend for themselves, before setting off on their own. During this period, he explained, a large number of elephants in the region “end up coming to Gudalur”.

In a 2019 paper on elephant-human interactions in the region, Thekaekara estimated that about ten people died every year in the Nilgiris as a result of “negative elephant-human interactions”.

However, Thekaekara said, in Gudalur, as in many places, these negative interactions are exacerbated by conflicts between different groups of humans. “This limbo that we are in with the Section 17 lands is what is causing these problems,” he said. He explained that while there was no way to stop the elephants from coming to Gudalur, ordinarily, people could protect themselves better with electric fences. But because the status of the land is undecided, people are forbidden from putting up electric fences around their homes. “At least 80% of the conflicts can be prevented with electric fences,” he said. “But people are not allowed to protect themselves.”

Even on the one occasion where a member of the Tamil repatriate community managed to occupy an elected position in the administration, he was unable to resolve the residents’ problems. Kamaladasan, who is in his forties, was elected as a ward councilor of the O’Valley panchayat in 2011 and served till 2016. “Even though I was a councilor, I could not even get a road constructed for myself and my neighbours,” he said. “My children continue to suffer because of this.”

He argued that the government had done nothing to protect their rights to basic facilities. “I walked 16 km everyday to school. Why do my children have to suffer the same fate?” he said. “The truth is that we continue to be oppressed, even in our motherland.”

The residents of Athoor are relatively fortunate compared to those of Aruttuparai, 16 km away. Here, residents said they would consider leaving, but that they were not being provided with patta lands. Thus, they had no way to shift, since all their savings had gone into setting up their homes and agricultural lands. “We cannot even sell this to anyone and leave, because now everybody knows that these are Section 17 lands,” said a shopkeeper.

Tamil repatriates are not the only community who fear displacement in Gudalur – Adivasis, who are indigenous to the region, are also at risk of losing land that they live on and cultivate, because they have been classified under Section 17, as well as Section 53.

According to Sobha Madhan, an adivasi rights activist from Gudalur, these communities, specifically, the Paniyas, Irulas, Kattunayakans, Mullukurumbas and Bettakurumbas, lived as hunter-gatherers, and also practised some slash-and-burn cultivation, well into the 1990s – then, as these lands began to be settled, Adivasi families, too, came under pressure to occupy pieces of land. According to the members of the communities that spoke to, they were unaware that the government had assumed control of much of these lands with the passage of the 1969 act.

Ramakrishna S, a member of the Kattunayakar community, said that his family had lived in Gudalur for generations. The land he has settled on, in the village of Kottaimedu, is now designated as Section 53 land – that is, land that a settlement officer can decide is forest land. He remains confused about when land that his community had used freely for generations was carved out by the government into different categories.

“Suddenly, during the last two decades we began to be told that we cannot cultivate crops after we’ve been doing exactly this for generations,” he said. “We have the right to stay here, because this is where we belong.”

The 48-year-old said that he was still making a living from farming ginger, coffee and chillis; he also did odd jobs now and then. But the problems of land continue to occupy his mind. “We are unaware of the status of this land,” he said. “We don’t completely even understand what all these sections mean.”

Ramarakrishna and his three children, along with their spouses live in a small one-room house. It was built by the government for the family, in response to a 2017 Supreme Court order directing the state government to provide basic facilities to Adivasi families who had settled on Section 17 lands. “But they only built one single room. How can seven of us stay in one room?” he asked. “We are not being allowed to build anything on our own now either.”

The Adivasi family relies on solar energy for their electricity needs, since the government has not provided them with a connection. The village has been unable to procure a proper water connection, or even a road, because the lands are demarcated as Section 17 land.

In another Adivasi settlement, called Padanthorai, Madhan Kalan, a member of the Bettakurumba community, is worried that he may be asked to leave his home. He bemoaned the fact that during the period when land in the region was rampantly encroached, “People from other states came here and bought large estates – but we are not allowed to live in our own homes.” Kalan said his family had been forcibly moved out of a patch of land near the settlement to the place they stay today, after someone bought up the former area to set up a tea estate.

He said the government had built homes for them in Padanthorai, but that they had not received pattas. “How will the next generation live here if we don’t have pattas for our land?” he said.

A road near the Adivasi settlement of Padanthorai. Many Adivasis also learnt that their homes were on Section 17 or Section 53 land. This made obtaining facilities such as electricity, an enormous challenge.

The community members also said they were unable to apply for any benefits that they could receive under the Forest Rights Act, which recognises the rights of forest-dwelling communities over forest resources.

“Because these lands are yet to be declared reserved forests, we are unable to claim any rights under FRA,” Kalan said.

Lakshmi, a feisty young Adivasi woman who is a social worker in the area, argued that rather than individual pattas of land, it was important that Adivasi communities be granted titles under the FRA, which would recognise a larger set of rights of individuduals and communities over the use of forest land and resources. “Only we can safeguard the forests, we need to be here to do that,” she said. “Under FRA, we are recognised as the protectors of the forests and that is what we are.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.