Hills of Shame: Up into the Highlands to See the Tribal Peoples of Wynad, and Another Kerala Altogether

By Baird, Vanessa | New Internationalist, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Hills of Shame: Up into the Highlands to See the Tribal Peoples of Wynad, and Another Kerala Altogether


Baird, Vanessa, New Internationalist


THE bus driver is an even - handed psychopath. As he speeds up through densely inhabited areas or around mountain - clinging hairpin bends his hatred seems to be equally distributed between pedestrians diving for shelter and passengers mentally preparing to meet their Maker. If only he seemed to be enjoying himself one might take some vicarious pleasure in that. But no, his face expresses nothing but surly rage, pathological fury. The countryside flashes past, beautiful, tantalizing at all angles. We wind upwards through rubber plantations -- the light - barked trees with their little cups attached -- proof of the common Keralite complaint that land is being turned over to cash cropping.

We are travelling up into the highland forest area of Wynad, in the Western Ghats, which reaches as high as 1,200 metres above sea level. As we climb the temperature drops and wonderful cool wafts hit our faces every time we pass one of the many streams pouring down the rock - face just a few feet from the bus window.

It's this sort of thing that gives Wynad the name 'the Kashmir of Southern India'. But Wynad has other characteristics. It is a pocket of poverty, inequality and deprivation in a state that prides itself on its social programmes. The literacy rate, for example, is low compared with the rest of the state -- estimates range from 40 to 58 per cent as opposed to the 90 to 100 per cent elsewhere.

Why have the people of Wynad missed out? The main reason is that 25 per cent of the population are the indigenous or 'tribal' people of Kerala, squeezed onto marginal land by settlers over the years -- and up until recently ignored by the state government. In spite of land reform and distribution elsewhere in Kerala, 30 per cent of tribal families are still landless. Among certain groups -- such as the Paniyas -- land - lessness is twice as high.

The uncomfortable reality is that over 90 per cent of tribal people in Kerala are living below the poverty line. It is this record that gives Wynad another name -- 'Africa in Kerala'. And it's no coincidence that it was here -- in what was densely forested highland that Ajitha and her fellow Naxalites hoped to start a revolution in the late 1960s. Wynad has yet another identity: Kerala's Siberia. This is the state to which incompetent, corrupt or simply unpopular officials are sent. 'It's a form of punishment,' says Lukose Jacob, an activist for indigenous people, who have not been helped by this one bit.

We are not stopping in Wynad right now but going a bit further to Gudalur in the Nilgiri Hills just over the border in Tamil Nadu. We -- that is freelance photographer Gaelle Roux and me -- have planned to meet up with activist and journalist Mari Marcel Thekaekara. It is from this region that she used to write her Letter from Tamil Nadu column for the NI. Mari and her husband Stan run a project called Accord for adivasi or tribal people. As we cross the border into Tamil Nadu the physical change is dramatic. The asphalt road from Kerala gives way to a deeply rutted, potholed gesture of a road. The countryside looks different too. Suddenly we are in a region of truly vast tea plantations (some owned by Brooke Bond) fringed with rough temporary - looking shacks in which plantation workers live. Gone are the proud little painted houses of Kerala, each with its garden growing coconut trees, tapioca and bananas; looking established, settled. Here instead are people dependent on the great estates; people who are insecure, expendable, and whose passage on this earth is particularly transient. Thin, undernourished women make their way back at dusk from work in the tea plantations -- to another day's work at home.

Night has fallen by the time we reach Gudalur and are met by Mari and Stan at the Adivasi Hospital they helped set up. That evening we hear about the situation of tribal people in Tamil Nadu, we listen to tales of ruthless exploitation and cruelty towards a people who are innocent of devious ways. …

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