R Kala, a 22-year-old member of the Jenu Kurumbar community, was nursing her newborn baby in her mud and bamboo hut in Vazhaithottam village in Tamil Nadu on the morning of August 10 when she heard a commotion outside. She felt the walls of the hut shudder. The next thing she knew, it had collapsed on her.

Kala’s hut was among 60-odd huts that were demolished in the village that day by the local administration as part of an eviction drive ostensibly carried out to protect elephants.

“They [authorities] did not even realise that there was a mother and a just-born child inside,” said N Nanjundan, Kala’s neighbour and a member of the Irular community, whose hut was also demolished. “Kala got into such a shock, she was rushed to a nearby hospital only after which her condition stabilised. It has disturbed her so badly, she still can’t talk about it.”

The evictions were carried out in violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The law bans the forced resettlement of any Adivasis from forestlands till their claims of the patch being their traditional home have been settled. In this case, the state government has refused to settle their claims since last year.

Vazhaithottam village lies on the northern slopes of the Nilgiris plateau, about 8 km from the perimeter of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve’ core zone. About 85 households of Irular and Jenu Kurumbar Adivasis live in this village. Both communities are counted as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups by the Indian government.

Nilgiris district collector Innocent Divya said that the demolition was carried out on the basis of a court order. “We are just following the high court’s orders,” she said. “The court has stated that the land on which the huts stand is encroached government land, and it is also classified as an elephant corridor and needs to be reclaimed.”

She was referring to an order by the Madras High Court on August 4 asking for evictions from the specific plot of land that the Adivasi community inhabits, in the name of protecting an identified, but not legally demarcated, elephant corridor – a strip of land that the animals use seasonally to pass through.

This is not the first time the Madras High Court has passed such an order. In April 2011, it had passed a similar order that encompassed a wider region around the tiger reserve. This order required several resorts in the region – which attracts tourism to the tiger reserve – to also be demolished.

But in July that year, some resort owners went to the Supreme Court and got a stay on the implementation of the high court order. The Supreme Court directed that no one could be evicted from the identified elephant corridor till the matter is settled finally.

However, in August, in a fresh case, another bench of the Madras High Court ordered the eviction of encroachers from one specific plot out of the originally identified elephant corridor. The resort owners survived and the Adivasi families fell victim to the order.

Kala and her newborn.

Evicted but not resettled

The Adivasis refute the claim that their settlement stood on encroached land. They say that they live on land that their ancestors inhabited, and accuse the local administration of selectively targeting their homes while ignoring other nearby constructions, such as a school and resorts.

N Karthik, an Irular resident of Vazhaithottam, asked: “If only our huts were on the elephant corridor and the school, which is adjacent to our settlement is not, then it means the elephants would have to take a sharp turn where the school walls begin and continue on their journey. How is that possible?”

Divya said that the local authorities were making “appropriate arrangements for their resettlement”. She did not define the word “appropriate”.

CR Bijoy, member of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity which was at the forefront of legislating the Forest Rights Act, said: “There is no single policy with regard to such resettlement and rehabilitation. It all depends on under which law or order the people are being evicted. In this case, the district authorities should have asked for a clarification from the court before proceeding.”

The homeless families are now relying on the goodwill of their relatives whose homes remain untouched by the authorities so far. “We do not know how long we can continue like this though,” said Nanjundan. “That land belonged to our ancestors, so I don’t understand why it’s a crime if we continue to live there.”

The eviction site. (Photo credit: Sibi Arasu).

The abode of their ancestors

The 2,565 sq km Nilgiris district is home to seven indigenous tribal groups that are spread across various parts of this region. Ancient cave paintings and excavation sites where pre-historic artefacts have been discovered point towards the fact that the tribes living here have a millennia-old ancestry.

“Our ancestors were originally living in a place called Goburakadavu, just a few hundred metres from here,” said Karthik. “There are even remnants of the ancient tools that they used there.”

He added: “It was my grandfather and village chief in his time, Pujari Bandan, who tamed and began farming on the land that is now Vazhaithottam. It was also him and his tribesmen who built huts and established a full-fledged settlement here. All of his descendants are living here in the same place since then.”

Some of the displaced Irulars and Jenu Kurumbars of Vazhaithottam. (Photo credit: Sibi Arasu).

The Tamil Nadu Co-operative Milk Producers’ Federation Limited, which goes under the trade mark, had set up a farm for cattle fodder here in 1982. The Irulars claim that Pujari Bandan and others came to an oral agreement with Aavin, which then set up an establishment in the area. They claim that Aavin did not fulfil its part of the agreement.

“There was no patta or formal sale of land to Aavin here,” said Nanjundan, who is also the village chief. “They were promised jobs but hardly any of them were given any. Our grandfather and others were basically cheated out of this land.”

The Aavin establishment has fallen into disrepair since and shut down in the early 1990s.

“For us, this was the land of our ancestors,” said Nanjundan. “We have been asking the government for decades now to give us patta [document for land ownership] through the FRA [Forest Rights Act] or otherwise so that we have proof. They are only keen on relocating us though. We’re all born and brought up here, it will be impossible for us to survive anywhere else.”

Residents at the eviction site. The wall of the GRG Memorial Tribal School is right alongside it. (Photo credit: Sibi Arasu).

Violation of Forest Rights Act

The evicted Adivasi people had filed claims under the Forest Rights Act in 2016.

The Forest Rights Act is meant to give back traditional forest dwellers their rights to access, manage and govern forest lands and resources within village boundaries. Under this law, forest dwellers can apply for both individual rights as well as community rights, which the Adivasis here had done. But even after five years the authorities have not settled their claims. The law clearly states that no person can be evicted from forests till their rights and claims are settled one way or the other.

The district officials could have appealed against the high court order in light of both the earlier Supreme Court stay as well as the potential infringement of the Forest Rights Act. But these officials were to process the claims of the Adivasis under the Forest Rights Act in the first place.

Selective targeting?

At Vazhaithottam, the huts that were demolished adjoined the only private school in this region, which is owned by the Coimbatore-based GRG Group of institutions. The group owns nine schools and higher educational institutions in Tamil Nadu.

D Kumaran, the headmaster of the school, who has overseen its operations ever since it was set up 26 years ago, said that it was not in violation of any law. “Our school has proper land documents and was built long before this region was declared as an elephant corridor,” he said. “Also since it is run for tribal children of this region, we’ve also been allowed to continue our establishment.”

He added: “I don’t know the status of the hutments nearby, but the school is here legally and we have not been asked to leave by any authorities.”

The High Court order dated August 4 based on which the villagers were evicted states that 17 acres of land that falls under Survey Number 395 should be cleared.

“In this survey number, there are not even 17 acres,” said N Suresh, another resident of Vazhaithottam who was displaced. “Our huts and the school together are spread across three survey numbers actually. So, if 17 acres needs to be cleared, surely the school falls under that area as well.”

Srinivas Reddy, a veteran in the state’s Forest Department and currently field director of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve said that the land under the spotlight in Vazhaithottam was part of an elephant corridor.

“That region is definitely part of an elephant corridor,” said Reddy. “In fact, it is only a small part. There are many other regions here which have been taken over by resorts, other establishments and local people which need to be cleared. This is the only solution to avoid recurring human-wildlife conflicts.”

The Adivasis point to the injustice of evicting forest dwellers in the name of wildlife conservation while resorts – which have allegedly encroached on land and thrive off the rich forests – have survived the axe.

“The government doesn’t do anything to all these big resorts that are all over here,” said Nanjundan. “Most of us are coolie workers. Every day we do not work because of all of this [disruption] is a day when our families go without food.”

He added, “When people from Bengaluru, Chennai and everywhere else are allowed to build big establishments here, why can’t we build small huts in the land that our people have been in forever?”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in the Nilgiris. His Twitter handle is @sibi123.

Signboards to several resorts and cottages near the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. (Photo credit: Sibi Arasu).