Chettyalathur has an anganwadi and a government lower primary school. There are 19 students in the GLP school which was established in 1981. The students belong to scheduled tribe and reside around one kilometre from the school. There are seven staff in the school including four teachers. The school additionally provides computer training besides breakfast and lunch for the children. The head master, Muraleedharan, who was posted here in June, 2018 has been staying inside the school building. He goes home only on weekends.
Elephants are frequent visitors to the village, testifies Muraleedharan. “There is a stream near the school. Elephants and other animals come there to quench their thirst. I have seen elephants at night and some times in the morning. They come to eat the banana plants. Some days I wake up at night hearing the villagers making noise to scare away elephants. Now-a-days, the villagers, whose houses are not made of bricks or stone, spend their nights in the school due to elephant menace,” said the head master.
Eldhose, who has been working at the GLP school since 2005 says no student has dropped out of the school following relocation. “The general category students moved to schools outside the village as their elder siblings started going out for higher education. The parents arranged a jeep to take them to the high school and back, so their younger siblings were also admitted to those schools,” says Eldhose.
“Until last year, there weren’t many incidents of elephants coming to the village this frequently. After many families relocated, the number of residents reduced. This made it easy for elephants and other animals to enter the village and at the same time difficult to chase them away,” says Eldhose.
Eldhose comes to the school on his two -wheeler in the dry season and on foot during rain. He has encountered elephants, wild boars, deers and wild buffaloes several times. There had been incidents where Eldhose was chased by elephants. “Once I had to leave my bike on the road and run for my life for over a kilometre. That was a close call. My wife and eldest son have stayed in a quarters arranged in Chettyalathur for about three years. They know what it is like to come to work every day and stay in this village,” he said.
Eldhose, who at times brings food items and supplies to the school on his bike, has nothing but praise for his students. “They are very active in studies, sports, art and all other activities. We have a very friendly relationship. I take pride in seeing my students pursuing higher studies. One of them scored A+ in all subjects for SSLC examination recently,” said a beaming Eldhose.
In February, 2019, the panchayat built a compound wall for Chettyalathur GLP school spending Rs 4 lakhs. Recently, the panchayat has also resurfaced (tarred) about a kilometre of the road inside the village. However, the school compound wall and road has been a matter of dispute between the panchayat and forest department and environmental activists.
The panchayat sanctioned the compound wall to offer protection to the GLP school, its staff and students. Forest officials and environmental activists, who requested anonymity, said the panchayat is wasting its time, money and resources by constructing a compound wall and road at a time when the entire village is being relocated.
According to Wildlife Warden Sajan, 97 eligible families have been relocated from Chettyalathur and the government has spent Rs 9.7 crores. They expect to relocate the remaining families within a year or two.
“As such, the forest department is against any constructions or developments in the village. The panchayat built a compound wall for the school and the road was tarred. We had sent a letter to the panchayat asking them to refrain from developmental activities in the village. However, as soon as they got the letter, the panchayat completed the works on a war-footing. This raises a moral question; why build something new at a time when the entire village is being relocated? It is the panchayat’s duty to provide villagers with facilities, but is this the right time for such development works? Asks Sajan.
Badusha, president of Wayanad Pakriti Samrakshana Samiti and has been working for preserving nature for around 40 years, says the panchayat built the compound wall due to pressure from a contract lobby.
Noolppuzha panchayat president K Sobhan Kumar said the development works were undertaken to help the villagers and 27 of them refused to relocate. “It’s a voluntary relocation project. If they chose to stay in Chettyalathur and nobody can force them out. The panchayat is also responsible for helping the families relocate if they wish to. However, the panchayat is obliged to provide all necessary facilities to those who chose to stay. The school is on Panchayat land and is run by the government. The compound wall was constructed for the protection of staff and students. It is for the government to decide if the school should run or not. The forest department has no say in the matter,” he added.
It must be noted that the school is situated in the middle of a paddy field. To one side there is a long stretch of bamboo, a favourite food of elephants. Close by is a stream that never runs dry even in the harshest of summer days. It is the same spot where the elephants and other wild animals come to drink.
The major problem with the voluntary relocation programme is that it does not take into consideration the amount of land owned by an individual or family. This makes it extremely difficult for farmers who have been cultivating in acres of land to move out. Moreover, once relocated, they could struggle to survive through agriculture.
Another reason suggested by Badusha is that several of these villages are local strongholds of political parties. Once relocated, they would become scattered and the political parties were not in favour of that. There is a psychological reason as well. The simple, calm and quiet lifestyle of Chettyalathur is unlike anywhere else. The residents, who were born and brought up in Chettyalathur would struggle to fit in to their new surroundings, as is the case with relocations.
According to Noolppuzha panchayat president K Sobhan Kumar, the villagers, who initially chose to stay, have been forced to relocate due to the increasing wild animal menace. “When there were 100 families in the village, wild animals scarcely attacked humans or crops. But when over two thirds of them moved out, the animals started entering the village frequently. This has forced th villagers to rethink.”
Moreover, around two acres of Chettyalathur village, including where the government school is located, belongs to Noolppuzha panchayat. “It is my understanding that once the entire village is relocated, Chettyalathur will be made into a forest. However, the forest department has not said anything about what will happen to 1.63 acres of panchayat land inside the village. The panchayat should be given a fair compensation,” said Sobhan Kumar.
Around seven families in Chettyalathur were not willing to relocate under the voluntary relocation programme. They belong to the Chetty community and possess a significant amount of land ranging from 5 to 20 acres. They have sought a special package from the government so that their land will be acquired or brought for a reasonable price.
Appu master, a retired school teacher is one of those who refused to move out under the voluntary relocation programme. He is a farmer and own around 23 acres of land. But with the wild animal menace increasing every day threatening agricultural activities, he is seeking a special package where he will be given a fair compensation for his land.
According to him Rs 10 lakhs was a significant amount back in 2006. “When the forest officials offered Rs 10 lakhs back in 2006, it was tempting for most of the families as they could relocate and quite possibly start everything from scratch. However, the process took years and now the same amount is hopelessly inadequate.”
Badusha said that environmental activists have been trying for a special package for these farmers. The matter is under consideration of higher officials, said Wildlife Warden Sajan. Noolppuzha panchayat president K Sobhan Kumar also demanded a fair price for the land.
If they get a fair price for their land, villagers like Appu master are willing to relocate. Even then this retired teacher feels that if the government can provide facilities such as road, electricity and healthcare, Chettyalathur is heaven on earth. A place from where he would not even dream of relocating.