How heaven turned into hell – the story of Chettyalathur (Part 1)
There is a village inside the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary that has been sheltering tribals even before India became independent. Around 165 acres of natural beauty near the tri-junction where the forests of Muthumalai in Tamil Nadu and Bandipur in Karnataka share its borders with Kerala.
A three kilometre detour through the rough forest path on the Wayanad-Ooty route will take you to Chettyalathur which comes under Noolppuzha village panchayat. Even to this day, there is no electricity in this village; but there are solar lamps.
Uprooted trees and damaged houses greet those taking a stroll through the village. While the trees were uprooted by wild elephants, the houses were demolished by the residents themselves.
About two years ago, around 100 families were living there. Now there are only 27; among them 20 are tribals belonging to Kattunaykkar and Paniyar communities. The others have moved out under a voluntary relocation programme. The remaining families are either stuck due to problems in receiving the benefits of the relocation programme or have decided to move out only a few days ago. Because of the ever increasing wild animal menace and fear for their lives.
Chettyalathur is an agricultural village. The residents cultivate paddy, coconut, arecanut (betel nut), banana, vegetables, tapioca and coffee. Now the paddy, tapioca and banana fields are lying vacant as deers, wild boars and elephants have made it impossible to cultivate. While solar powered electric fencing could keep the deers and wild boars and elephants at bay, there is nothing that can keep the monkeys away. And they eat anything and everything; plants, fruits and vegetables. When over two thirds of the villagers moved out, the wild animals became frequent visitors and started destroying crops.
Encounters with elephants
Now, Chettyalathur is full of uprooted trees. Earlier, wild animals attacking humans or agricultural lands or crops were nominal. The villages recollected only one incident of an elephant trampling a resident to death several decades ago. But now a days, elephants, wild boars, deers and monkeys are frequent visitors of Chettyalathur.
On February 3, 2019, Sukumaran (49), one of the residents came out of his house after dinner around 8.30 pm. He was shocked to see an elephant in front of his house. The jumbo chased him. Sukumaran started running and screaming for help but fell down and fractured his left leg. The timely intervention of his 70-year-old mother Kalyani and other villagers saved his life.
Sukumaran was first taken to Pazhuvil, then to Sultan Bathery and then to Kozhikode for treatment. While forest officials paid for his transport to and from Sultan Bathery and his hospital bills, Sukumaran has been unable to go to work ever since. He was discharged the next morning and was brought back home.
Every other day, Sukumaran had to travel to a health care centre for dressing and spends about Rs 800 for medical expense. Rs 4,000 is a considerable amount for a man unable to go to work.
This reporter also encountered an elephant on the way to Chettyalathur on a two-wheeler. The lone male tusker was on the forest path that led to the village. This reporter waited for two hours to see if the elephant would move away from the road but in vain. Along with three persons from another village, who were going to Chettyalathur on two bikes, this reporter was forced to turn around and come back to Chettyalathur the next day.
The villagers said it was normal to find elephants on the road and that they would keep their distance. Two-wheelers were prone to attacks as elephants tend to chase bikers more than those travelling in four wheelers. Also, the rough road makes it difficult to gain speed on a bike and more likely to cause an accident. It’s much easier and safer to travel in a jeep, the vehicle preferred by villagers and forest officials alike.
How it all started
Speaking about the history of relocation Badusha, president of Wayanad Pakriti Samrakshana Samiti said, “There are many enclosures inside Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary where people reside. Chettyalathur is the most populated among them. Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1973. Even then we had demanded that the farmers and other people, who live in villages, which will become part of the sanctuary be relocated. These villages were facing several problems such as man animal conflict, loss of access to forest etc they also needed education, health and other facilities. Most of all, these villages became isolated. That’s what triggered the movement seeking relocation.”
Despite the efforts, the man animal conflict inside the sanctuary has intensified every year. However, none of the political parties, the Left, the Congress or the BJP have came out in support of this movement, lamented Badusha. The state forest department appointed the Kerala Forest Research Institute to study about the relocation of villages in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in 2010.
The KFRI conducted a study and submitted a report to the government in 2010. The report stated that there were 8,000 people living inside the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in 110 settlements. It pointed out that they were facing several problems and sought relocation. The study also identified 14 villages which needed immediate assistance and requested the state government to relocate them using the voluntary relocation criteria set by the Tiger Conservation Authority of India.
When the MoEF agreed to the plan submitted by the Kerala government to relocate the villages, a registered committee was formed in Wayanad seeking relocation. This happened at a time when villages in other tiger reserves were against relocation. After several petitions to the state and union governments, protests and hunger strikes, the MoEF on November 29, 2011 sanctioned 5.5 crores to relocate 55 people from two Golur and Ammavayal villages in Kurichyad range.
However, the relocation project was not welcomed by the political parties or village panchayats. They demanded more money for the villagers. According to the MoEF, it Rs 10 lakhs given to an eligible family was not sufficient, the state government should find a solution to provide the remaining amount.
There is a state-level monitoring committee to oversee the relocation programme. The state chief secretary is the chairman of the committee while the chief wildlife warden is the member secretary. There is a district-level monitoring committee as well. District collector will be the chairman and the wildlife warden will be the secretary. This committee includes the panchayat president, heads of other departments and environment and social activists, said Badusha.
Around 450 families from Kurichyad, Golur, Ammavayal in Kurichyad range, Vellakkod, Kottankara and Arakunji in Bathery range and Nerimathikkolli and Eeeswarankolli in Tholpetti range have been relocated. The process is moving at a snail’s pace. Funds are a problem. Even when they are granted, it is not distributed properly by the revenue officers, Badusha added.
Initiated by the central government in 2006 to preserve wildlife and reduce man-animal conflict the voluntary relocation programme offered Rs 10 lakh to an eligible family.
However, the scheme does not consider how much land an individual owns. A villager who has only his house and another who owns 30 acres of land would get the same amount under the scheme. Even 13 years later, the amount remains unchanged, said Noolppuzha panchayat president K Sobhan Kumar.
Moreover, most of the families who completed relocation are those who moved in to Chettyalathur quite recently. Almost all the 27 families remaining in the village were born and brought up or moved in after marriage.
According to the villagers, the relocation amount is credited to their bank accounts in two instalments. After submitting the forms stating readiness for relocation, the documents are submitted and verified. Then Rs 6 lakh is credited. The remaining amount will be credited after the residents demolish their houses.
Even then, there are several villagers like Sudhi or Sinod who are yet to receive the relocation amount even though their siblings, relatives or neighbours have got it. All of them submitted the forms at the same time.
The curious case of Manju
Indira has been residing in Chettyalathur for the last 40 years. She had submitted the forms for relocation along with other villagers. However, when the officials held a survey in 2017 her daughter Manju was 17 years and 10 months old. She was deemed ineligible for the relocation amount as she was below 18 years of age. Indira received the first installation of the amount, Rs 6 lakh, in the end of the year 2018. But by then her daughter was well over 18 years old.
She approached the forest officials and submitted a new application seeking relocation amount for her daughter. The officials have said that her request must be considered by a committee, chaired by other officials including the MLA. As the MLA was reportedly too busy to chair the meeting, Manju’s request is still pending.
Indira has brought a piece of land for Rs 8 lakhs after borrowing Rs 2 lakhs. She feels that the villages, who were born and brought up in Chettyalathur, are being neglected by the officials.
Manju is pursuing her graduation. It is both difficult and dangerous for her to travel through the forest road on a regular basis, especially in the evenings. So Indira made Manju stay with her aunt from where she goes to college. Manju comes to Chettyalathur only on weekends. The family is unable to move out as they fear that doing so would create further complications or make Manju ineligible for the relocation amount.
For 77-year-old Madhavan, Chettyalathur is his native. He grew up there. He was living in a joint family including his children and grandchildren. His children received their relocation amount and moved out. However, Madhavan, a widower, has not received any benefit so far. He lives alone in a partially demolished house near the Tamil Nadu Kerala border.
Two years ago, Madhavan fell into a trench while collecting firewood and sustained injuries. As he did not have money to go to a hospital, he underwent local medical treatment but has not recovered completely. Age related ailments are troubling him as well. Madhavan’s daughter, who lives outside with her husband, provides him with necessary supplies in the weekends. Madhavan cannot move in with his daughter as it would make him ineligible for the relocation amount.