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Southern India's 'tribals' take future into their own hands

Traditionally marginalized tribal communities in Southern India continue to fight discrimination - and wide-spread alcoholism. Despite this, Kerala’s first female tribal leader, Narayani Nanu Kolpara, remains hopeful.

The first time sixty-year-old community leader Narayani Nanu Kolpara walked into a government office, her hands shook.

"I was terrified," Narayani smiles. "There were so many rooms and so many people."

Narayani recalls that she was hardly able to sign the document a government official handed her. The color of her neat white sari and its red trim mark her out as a member of the Katunayaka, one of the many tribes of Southern India.

The tribals, or Adevasi - which roughly translates as aboriginals - have long been marginalized in India. Until the mid-20th century, many Adevasi were forced to work as bonded labor and even today many tribes remain impoverished.

There are eight Adevasi tribes in Kerala, making up almost a fifth of the South Indian state’s population. While several are still officially described as "backward," lacking access to education or health services, some have prospered.

A man walking down a rural lane

Many tribals live in areas that are remote, with few services

The most prominent figure among them is probably P. K. Jayalakshmi. The 29-year-old was appointed Minister for Tribal Affairs last year, making her the youngest minister in the Keralan government - as well as the first tribal one. She is symbolic of the fact that many of the Adevasi have managed to progress in recent years.

Forced evictions

Narayani, who grew up in a remote tribal community in the forest in Kerala’s mountainous Wayanad district, has also enjoyed a degree of political success. Her parents were day laborers, occasionally working for the local landowner. They would often venture into the forest to find roots, honey and wild fruits. "We were very poor," she recalls. There was no school and no health facilities. There was not even a road to the next town.

One day, they were forced off their communal lands to make way for a coffee estate. But the small were allowed to stay on and work on the coffee plantation. Today, she says, the pay is fair.

During the monsoon season the bumpy, pot-holed track to Narayani’s village is almost impassable. The village is tiny with some 32 concrete and stone bedroom huts scattered among the vegetation. Hidden amid a sea of pink blossomed trees is the community’s small thatched temple, dedicated to a local tribal Goddess. Non-Adevasis are not allowed to enter the dark little room.

‘We were afraid to leave our village’

Narayani moved to the village, which was then a collection of tiny huts, when she got married and joined her husband’s family.

"Back then, we were afraid to venture outside of our tribe, we never left the village," she says.

However, Narayani recalls one rare occasion when she took a bus back from the nearest town, Kalpetta. She had been selected by a local NGO working in her community to take part in a training course, but had been too scared to ask the bus driver where to get off. Narayani ended up walking for hours until she finally reached her village. Her husband was furious and told her she would have to stay at home.

Two Adevasi women

Despite stifling poverty and discrimination, some are making advances

She didn't. Instead, she attended another training course and learnt to read and write. She was put in charge of distributing government-subsidized rice and in 1989 was elected leader of the small community of some 30 families, followed as a stint in the panchayat, the smallest administrative unit in India. It made Narayani the first tribal leader in both her community and the region. At first, her husband and family were against her political activities. Many were skeptical.

An old, frail man in a green, striped dhoti and beige shirt is dozing on a plastic mat on the shade of the porch of his small stone two-room house, built with the help of a government subsidy that Narayani helped him organize.

The man on the porch grins a toothless smile. "First I wasn’t sure, I mean she’s a woman. But then she got things done – and that’s good." He says he doesn’t really remember all the things she did. "But I remember she got me this house," he says. "Oh, and the school," he adds.

Shortage of school places

Narayani spent her first months as tribal leader knocking on people’s doors, drinking their tea and persuading the community that they needed a school. With their consent, she went back to the government office to ask for the permission to build a kindergarten.

The school, a tiny one-room hut, is surrounded by lush-banana leaves, built and maintained by the community with the support of a local NGO. Only the teacher’s salary is provided by the government. Children sit on colorful plastic chairs under bright posters of the Malayalam alphabet, eating their midday meal of rice and daal.

Not all children living nearby are so fortunate. "There are not enough schools for tribal children in the area," says community leader Krishna C.K. While some parents send their children to neighboring districts, many schools have only limited places for tribal children, he adds. Krishan shrugs when asked whether he feels that the government is not doing enough to help. "It’s not in our culture to complain," he says, diplomatically.

Battle with alcoholism

Narayani helps families fill in forms to get government scholarships to send their children to secondary schools and on to college, but finding a job once they graduate is not so easy. Five or six boys have just returned from their secondary studies and have problems settling back in. “They have no other world than alcohol,” says Nayarani.

She points to a small, fenced-off vegetable patch where two drunken youths trampled the bean stalks to wilted, brown stubble. "I don’t know what to do," she admits.

A tribal girl during a religious festival in Southern India

Only some of the tribal children are able to receive an education

The police had been unable or unwilling to help and Nayarani believes the government is partly to blame. Alcohol sold in so-called wine shops in the nearest town is cheap and easily accessible. "We used to make our own alcohol for religious ceremonies, but now people drink it every day."

Hopes for the future

Narayani, too, is hopeful. A luxury resort overlooking the lush meandering valley below is set to open this year. "We will be given jobs and that will be good for our young people," she says optimistically.

While there is a huge tension among those in favor of development and who believe that the solution to the continuing impoverishment of the Adevasi is more development and traditionalists, Narayani isn’t particularly concerned about any possible negative impact of the resort on their way of life.

"I hope they build a proper road for the resort," she smiles before taking her leave. It’s an almost two-hour walk to the nearest village and Narayani needs to take some documents to the government office there. She waves a last goodbye with her umbrella, then marches off, purposefully, towards the next village and her bus stop.

Author: Naomi Conrad, Kerala
Editor: Richard Connor

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