Divided in deprivation

B.Tilak Chandar

Arasaradi: A total of 220 people were brought to the Meghamalai Hills in Theni District to develop the forest by the officials. Half a century later they are termed as encroachers and face eviction.

“We were brought in by the Forest Officials to grow trees now they want to chase us out”, said Kuruvayya, a scheduled caste farmer who is now seen as an encroacher.

Located 50 kms from Theni in the picturesque Western Ghats is the Meghamalai Hills. Driving about 10 kms from the checkpost nestled on top is the Arasaradi village, now deemed an illegal settlement after the forest was declared a Reserve Protected Forest.

Arasaradi village has about 500 houses. The people of Arasaradi were brought in from Theni and nearby places about 50 years ago to grow trees and develop the forest. Now about 600 families live in the village.

The village lacks basic amenities like access electricity and drinking water. The only access to electricity is solar panels erected along the houses.  People get access to the town through the government bus service, which makes five trips daily. Even the local school lacks the required infrastructure.

A little into the village is a partially constructed bridge that divides the village. Walking further for another 2 kms from the village are broken down houses. These are made of mud/clay without a proper roof. There is no access to the solar panels like the houses upfront. The only source of water is the stream nearby which has completely gone dry due to lack of rainfall.

All the families that live on this side of the bridge belong to the scheduled castes and remain cut off from access to the minimum facilities that are available in the village on the other side.

Kuruvayya, one of them is originally from Kerala. His late wife’s grandfather Sangayya who is more than 80 years was among the 220 people who were the first batch to be brought to the forest for development by the officials.

Sangayya said that it was Oombothu Kootu Ramaswamy who was instrumental in bringing them here. “We sowed the seeds for the trees”, said Sangayya. They were living near the check post when they began work. “We kept sowing the seeds and now we are here at the top”, added Sangayya.

He said “It is a shame that I am born as a Human”. Sangayya and Kuruvayya have written to the government about their plight but they are yet to get a response. Even the government freebies have not reached him.

They work as labourers in the coffee and pepper estates nearby for their livelihood. Kuruvayya has lost all hope. He said he would have gone back to his native village in Kerala if not for Sangayya whom he has to look after. Sangayya’s son has disowned him and lives separately with his wife and children.

Even during election the campaigns the political parties who reach out to the people of Arasaradi do not come as far as the scheduled caste settlement. “We have nowhere to go. We cannot leave the forest. Where would we go from here? We do not know anything else”, said Kuruvayya.

They do not interact much with the other backward castes as they feel the unity among the people comes with the caste they belong to. “It is a lot easier for them to get their work done”, said Kuruvayya.

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