Adivasi women in Attappady tribal block in Kerala’s Palakkad district are protesting against what they view as attempts by the state government to scuttle a poverty alleviation programme that was launched in 2014 with financial assistance from the National Rural Livelihood Mission.

Since July 2, braving heavy rain and inclement weather, women have been assembling at a spot in Agali town both day and night to protest against any move to bring the Attappady Comprehensive Tribal and Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups Development Project under the control of gram panchayats by delinking it from the National Rural Livelihood Mission.

“Gram panchayats will take away our rights and will destroy the goodwill generated by the four-year-old project,” said 57-year-old Maruthi, secretary of Thai Kula Sangham, a women’s collective that was formed in 2001 to curb alcoholism among the Adivasi community but later got involved in environmental activism. “It will affect the livelihood of thousands of Adivasi families.”

Though the state government has, so far, not announced any plan to delink the project from the National Rural Livelihood Mission, Local Self-Government Minister KT Jaleel hinted at the possibility on Saturday. “The government will change the name of the project if it decides to bring it under the control of gram panchayats,” he told Scroll.in. “The government is keen to improve the conditions of the Adivasi community. It is a top priority.”

A special project

Attappady, a hill station, was once known as the land of the Adivasis, who constituted 90% of its population (1951 census). But their numbers started declining with the advent of settlers from across Kerala and Tamil Nadu. According to the latest census in 2011, Adivasis comprise just 34% of the population now. In absolute numbers, 30,658 Adivasis live in the three gram panchayats in Attappady.

Adivasis in Attappady mainly belong to three tribes – the Irulas, Kurumbas and Mudugas – each with their own distinctive lifestyle, culture and food habits. The Kurumbas, who live closer to the forests, are classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Each community lives in colonies of 60 to 100 families known as oorus or hamlets. At present, Attappady has 192 Adivasi hamlets.

The Attappady Comprehensive Tribal and Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups Development Project was launched in 2014 after 58 infants died in Attappady the previous year due to malnutrition. The Union government promised to allocate the project Rs 52 crore in seven years. Kudumbashree Mission – the Kerala government’s women empowerment and poverty alleviation programme – was roped in to implement it.

The special project for Adivasis was modelled on the lines of other Kudumbashree projects in the state. It aims to make Adivasi women financially independent by providing them with loans and encouraging them to get involved in farming. It provides nutritious food, healthcare and education to them and aims to eradicate child marriage, domestic violence and trafficking.

Prior to the launch of this special project, very few Adivasis were involved in the activities of Kudumbashree in the Attappady panchayats, because these are controlled by non-Adivasi settlers who dominate the region. Adivasis now fear if the special project is handed over to gram panchayats, they will lose control of its activities, and lose out once again.

Adivasis protest in Attappady. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).
Adivasis protest in Attappady. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

‘Bring back head of project’

The protests began after the Kudumbashree Mission relieved the special project’s Chief Operating Officer Seema Bhaskaran of her duties at the end of June. She was on deputation from the National Rural Livelihood Mission. “We cannot afford to lose Seema Bhaskaran, who built the network of Adivasi women from scratch,” said Maruthi. “That is why we are asking the government to bring her back.”

Their other demands include action against officials who they say have been working against the special project and the interests of Adivasis, measures to employ educated Adivasis in the project, and a vigilance inquiry into the utilisation of funds in various projects in Attappady.

Before launching their agitation, Adivasi women travelled 400 km to Thiruvananthapuram to submit a memorandum to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. “We launched the protest after we realised that the government had ignored our complaints,” Maruthi said. “The protest completed 22 days on Monday. No government official has called us for a discussion. The government should resolve the issue soon.”

Kudumbashree Mission’s executive director S Harikishore agreed that Seema, who prefers to go by her first name, did a wonderful job, but said he had no power to bring her back. “She works with National Rural Livelihood Mission. We cannot do anything when her parent organisation recalled her on June 31,” he said.

Harikishore added that the Adivasi women were not willing to come for talks with the government. “We invited them three times,” he said. “But they are not ready for discussions.”

But Maruthi said they had not received any invitation for talks. “Harikishore is lying,” she said. “We have been waiting for calls since July 2.”

Harikishore said that the National Rural Livelihood Mission had reduced its allocation this year but added that the state government will continue with the project. “We got full funds from NRLM [National Rural Livelihood Mission] in the last three years. This year NRLM will provide 60% of the allocation while 40% will be borne by the state government.”

He added: “However there will be no change in the project’s implementation.”

Another tussle

Adivasis say that the special project has transformed their community in just four years. The project divides the community into four tiers – neighbourhood groups, ooru committees, panchayat committees, and a block committee. Attappady now has 663 neighbourhood groups , 126 ooru committees, four panchayat committees (one each for Agali, Puthur, Sholayur – the three panchayats in Attappady – and a fourth for the Kurumba tribe) and one block committee. Elections are held every year to pick the office bearers of these committees, which are responsible for the distribution of funds allocated to them under the special project for Adivasis. The block committee, which is the topmost tier, distributes funds to panchayat committees, which in turn allocate funds to the hamlet committees and neighbourhood groups.

This year, the panchayat committee elections have run into trouble because the Kudumbashree Mission decided to hold polls to them without finding a solution to the ongoing protest. Its first attempt to hold the election on July 20 – with police protection – failed because there weren’t enough voters. On voting day, only eight of the 252 voters turned up. Despite this setback, the Kudumbashree Mission said it would hold the election again on July 25.

“How can the mission conduct the election when all the voters are protesting against it?” asked Maruthi. “They tried to frighten us by deploying large number of police personnel on July 20. But we continued our protests peacefully.”

VS Murugan, vice-president of Attappady Adivasi Action Council, which is supporting the protest, alleged that officials of the Kudumbashree Mission want to take control of the panchayat committees so that they can manipulate the distribution of funds. “It is a ploy to systematically exclude Adivasis from the organisation and swindle the funds.”

The funds involved are sizeable. Last year, Agali panchayat committee distributed Rs 3.44 crore to hamlet committees and neighbourhood groups. Puthur distributed Rs 2.38 crore while Sholayur disbursed Rs 2.86 crore.

Economic and social benefits

The highly efficient neighbourhood groups are the backbone of the special project. Each group comprises 10 to 15 women living in a locality.

“They have been running community kitchens that provide two meals daily for women, children and elderly,” said Seema. “Neighbourhood committees meet regularly to discuss problems in hamlets, make internal lending and repayments and allocate funds for health, education and livelihood needs, such as the purchase of goats, cows and agriculture,” she said.

The project began to show results in a short time. For one, the community kitchens it runs have proved vital in ensuring pregnant women get nutritious food, helping reduce the infant mortality rate in Attappady. In 2013-’14, as many as 58 infant deaths were reported in Attappady. By 2017, infant deaths were down to 14.

It has also helped empower the community economically. “Now Adivasi women sell millets and vegetables cultivated in their own land and sell goats and cows they reared [without middlemen],” said Seema. “They also sell non-timber forest produce, such as medicinal plants and honey directly to the companies. They do not face exploitation by middlemen.”

Besides this, the project has also seen success on the social front. “The interference of neighbourhood committees has curbed child marriages, domestic violence and alcohol abuse,” Seema said.

Maruthi said that middlemen were the biggest losers when Adivasis began to sell their vegetables, millets and non-timber forest produce directly in the market, thanks to the project. “They have now joined hands with Kudumbashree Mission to scuttle the special tribal project,” she alleged.