Tensions are high between residents & forest officials as livelihood becomes a question mark
“To be honest I have ample land which should be enough to provide for my family. But because of the wild animals, I now work as an auto-driver.
Earlier I worked as a bus conductor to keep things moving. This is the situation of most other farmers here,” says Siji MB.
Siji, 36, hails from a Kannada Chetti family who are said to have historically migrated to Wayanad centuries ago in the pre-colonial times and have occupied the same lands albeit at a lesser scale compared to the Thonder Nairs like Padmanabhan Nambiar.
“We used to cultivate paddy up to 2008. After that we have left the field as it is,” he says pointing to the vast tract of paddy fields lying fallow opposite to his house. Across the paddy lies the forest land which although fenced minimally, does not stop the animals in their tracks.
“This is the same land where my father, my grandfather and his grandfather all raised and lived off the lands,” says Siji.
“If there is anyone who has gone broke because of rice, I am one. We used to cultivate rice and rice alone in the 17 acres of ours. But year after year, the animals would destroy the crops and we have been forced to stop cultivation altogether.
Nothing can be done about monkeys, but elephants, deer and boars can be and should be stopped within the boundaries of the forests. Government should do the needful,” he says.
“As it is, nobody wants to marry off women to farming families because of the situation of farming here. If the situation continues, farmers will be forced to leave these lands forever.”
“Many of these elephants are no longer afraid of crackers nor of the sounds we make to scare them away. They just stay put and stare back at us. It is like they have understood we can’t do anything.
If the government gives us market rates, we are willing to shift even,” he says. “Else the forest department should clearly demarcate forest land from the village lands. Nobody from the village would go to the forest and similarly no animal from the forests should be allowed to stray outside either. If anyone goes into the forests, let them be shot dead. But give us the protection we need for our crops,” he says.
The move away from rice cultivation has also affected soil moisture and summer droughts have followed according to Siji.
“Rice by maintaining standing waters used to keep the groundwater recharged. With people giving up rice cultivation, we are seeing water scarcity in the summer months.
While the government keeps telling us to grow our own vegetables, whatever we produce is being destroyed by the animals,” says Siji’s mother, 62 year old Vilasini Balakrishnan.
“We can’t go out after nightfall, we can’t grow crops to feed ourselves. What are we to do?” she asks. “When I came here after marriage 37 years ago there were no stray animals here. Why is nothing being done?” she asks.
“Earlier when the problem started, we used to stay atop guard houses in the night and protect our crops. But later, elephants started attacking our guard houses, tearing them down and we were forced to give up keeping vigil.
Now they walk right up to our house in the night and are no longer scared of humans,” says MC Vellan, a landless agricultural labourer belonging to the Paniyar Tribe.
Vellan who owns no farm land and farmed on leased lands says that the situation has turned grave in the last 10-15 years.
“We are Adivasis. Earlier people here used to keep a large number of cattle. Small houses would have 20-30 cattle while bigger ones would have more than a hundred.
We used to take these cattle into the forests during the day. The sounds of the bells around their neck used to scare the animals deeper into the forests. First they banned entry of cattle into forests. And now the animals have lost fear of humans and are emboldened enough to raid settlements for our produce.
It is not only about hunger. Even when bamboo is available in the forests, these animals come here. They have taken a liking to the tastier produce like coconut, jackfruit and mango which are only available here,” he says.
In spite of the instances of elephants grounding coconut trees, Vellan still keeps planting newer ones. “I have grown habituated with it. We are poor people, we can’t afford to buy everything so I keep planting them,” he says.
“Farming is the only thing we know to do for a living. If the government wants us to relocate, we are willing to do that,” says 51 year old Radha Edaparambil.
Belonging to the Paniyar tribe, she too was born and brought up in the vicinity of the forests but finds it impossible to continue living in the area.
“There is no point in us living here. Where we should go to is not known to us. It is for government to decide,” she says.
“Forest officials have till date not visited the fields to assess the damage animals have caused,” says 52 year old Vijayan NP who belongs to the Wayanadan Chetti community around Neikuppa near Nadavayal town. Although his family has lived there for generations, he has no explanation for the sudden spurt in animals in the area.
The increasing number of animals intruding into farmlands are not limited to the areas which border the forests. Even places like Thazhe Karani and Karani with no forests in the vicinity are seeing a spurt in incidents.
“While elephants have not been spotted on the farms here as yet, wild boars, monkeys and peacocks have become regular sightings. The damage they cause has been devastating,” says Poulose, a farmer in Karani in Kaniyampeta panchayat.
“Ten years back there were no wild animals here,” says Poulose. “But last week I saw three wild boars in broad daylight,” he says pointing to their increasing numbers.
“I first saw the footmark of one adult wild boar. Then after a few months appeared smaller footmarks. Now there are wild boars in my property every night,” he says.
Wild boars multiply very fast and bears litter of 6 to 8 every three to four months. In habitats devoid of their natural predators, they multiply faster. But being a protected animal, their killing is prohibited.
“Today they have become a common sight,” says Poulose. He no longer grow any crops and the few cocoa that do stand are frequently nicked by the monkeys who visit in the night and leave late in the morning.
“Uncontrolled multiplication of animals are to blame,” he says. “There are not enough carnivores to keep a check on these animals,” he reasons.
Speculations abound as to the exact cause of the sudden spurt in animals intruding into human settlements in the past 10 years. But no one has definitive answers.
The wildlife warden of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Assif PK brushes aside the claims of increasing animal attacks in farmlands as just normal-human animal conflict.
“This is normal across all areas where people live on the borders of forests,” he says. “The issue here is very simple. There are a hundred settlements within the sanctuary. They are all interspersed between forest lands. That is the reason why there are intrusions,” he says.
Apprised of the concern of farmers who claim that never before in their multi-generational existence had their lands faced intrusion of animals, he says, “The earlier generations used to keep vigil through the night for their crops. That generation is no more. Today’s generation of farmers want everything to be done by the Forest Department.
They have come to believe in the concept that somebody else has to come and protect their property. How is that possible?” he asks. “We can’t do everything.”
When pointed out that in earlier times, the farmers’ hands were not tied and they had the freedom to attack intruders, he says, “I am not advocating hunting of animals in any manner. They call the Forest Department for each and everything. They don’t even try to scare the animals away from the fields by themselves.”
The counter argument that the farmers raise though is that when their hands are tied, to expect them to tame the beasts with bare hands is something only Forest Department officials will have the audacity to think of.
One farmer pointedly said, “It is not like we don’t know what to do. If we decide to poison these animals, there is no way anyone can find out who did it.
It is our compassion for the animals that stops us from doing so. If they think of us as smugglers and illiterate freeloaders, we know how to answer that.”
In general forest officials are not held in high regards by the people living in the peripheries of forests. In their attempts to take ownership of the forests, they have so alienated the common populace that the relationship has moved beyond reconciliation. But the forest officials seem to be blissfully ignorant of this fact.
“The Forest Department has been doing its duties well. Whenever we get calls, we reach out and do the needful. The department has also given a total compensation of Rs 85 lakh to Rs 1 crore to the farmers for the damages incurred,” says Assif PK.
When pointed out that the meagre rates that the department gives in the name of compensation is not adequate he says, “It is compensation, not replacement. So naturally the rates will be low.”
“Those rates are decided by the governments of the day. It is the elected MLAs who decide the rates. We as officials have no say in it whatsoever. For it to change, there needs to be movement from the government’s side through the politicians.”
One of the Forest Range officers who spoke on condition of anonymity has an explanation for the increasing intrusions.
“In most areas, the borders are not demarcated. With forests spread across the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, elephants migrate towards the wetter forests of Kerala in the summer months. These elephants could be part of the problem. Moreover, during summer months all animals come out of the forest owing to shortage of green foliage.
As for the claims of overpopulation, we don’t have any figures as of now. Studies need to be conducted to ascertain the truth behind such speculation.
Claims of bamboo shortage in the forests resulting in elephants moving out is not a credible explanation as elephants don’t eat bamboo alone. It is just one of the many things it eats.
With fences coming up in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu their movements may be affected, which might also be a reason behind increased elephant related incidents,” he says.
“As for animals like wild boar and deer, the disappearance of foxes could be a reason behind their increasing numbers. Wayanad and its many plantations also gives easy places for these animals to hide. There are no fast solutions for the problem.
There is no doubt that incidents have been increasing but it has never been raised as a political issue as yet.”
A new issue threatens to exacerbate the existing problem.
“The Supreme Court recently ruled that alternate routes be sought for travelling from Bathery to Mysore. The roads were already closed for night traffic since 2009.
The issue is about the closure of night traffic through the portion of NH 212, now renamed 766, that passes through Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Wayanad National Park,” says Sashidharan Nair, senior journalist living in Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad.
NH 212 connected Kollegal in Karnataka with Kozhikode in Kerala via Mysuru. The length of the highway is 272 km, and 34.6 km of this passes through the Bandipur and Wayanad national parks. The road was till now the artery of trade and commerce for the northern parts of Kerala.
“The night traffic ban was introduced following a senseless directive from the Mysuru Deputy Commissioner in 2009 based on issues raised by environmental activists,”, says Nair.
Now the Supreme Court has ordered alternative routes to be established. Earlier, the High Court had also sided with closure.
It was this which started the animal problem for the likes of Padmanabhan Nambiar and many other farmers in Wayanad.
Suneer PP the CPI leader who stood as the candidate against Rahul Gandhi and lost, says, “I don’t know much about the issues in Wayanad. I just stood there for elections. I am not from there.”
Asked why the issue never featured prominently in the parliamentary elections he says, “There were bigger issues at stake in the election. Moreover, increasing animal intrusion was the 5th or 6th issue and did feature in our list of problems.”
While OR Kelu, MLA of Mananthavady constituency agrees that the situation is dire. “But there is nothing much that can be done.
We have surrendered our policies for the interests of foreign countries by entering into international agreements as per their convenience. All our policies are wrongly oriented against our own farmers. It is in the developed countries’ interest that we maintain forests as asked by them.
“There is no denying that forests have to be preserved. But this has to be done by keeping humans at the centre.
The present situation is that if a deer or lion dies in an accident, forest guards immediately reach the spot and even official funerals are arranged for. But if it is a human being whose life is lost, officials are apathetic to the needs of those affected.
It is high time we as a country changed both the forest and agricultural policies to reflect the needs of the people involved. There is not much that state government can do.
I don’t see any positive movements in this direction in the near future either. When all paths close, people will create their own paths. Widespread protests or picking up of arms may be the result.”
“None of the leaders ever come to meet us,” says a farmer’s wife on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted when asked whether they raised the issue of wild animals damaging their crops to the candidates who stood in the elections.
Her property is infested with monkeys.
“This is not a forest area, nor is it anywhere near a forest - real or classified. But we see wild pigs, monkeys and peacocks everyday now,” her husband chips in.
“If we tell them anything during canvassing, the local workers will make note and whenever they get a chance, they will exact revenge just to teach us a lesson,” they explain how representative democracy works on the ground.
“If we get a chance to talk directly to our MP maybe he will push for a solution. But every time he comes here, he is surrounded by all these party people wearing white and white. In between, how will small farmers like us ever reach them?” they ask.
According to Census 2011, Wayanad, with a population of 8.2 lakh, is Kerala’s least populous district. With a forest cover of 83.3% Wayanad also has the highest forest cover amongst the 14 districts of Kerala.
With most of its population concentrated in the smaller towns, animals outnumber humans in the rural areas and have come to have an overbearing say in determining the frontiers demarcating forests from the settlements.
While its namesake parliamentary constituency gained national and international acclaim in the recently concluded parliamentary election owing to its celebrity candidate - Rahul Gandhi now MP from Wayanad, the issues that were of most relevance for its constituents were never discussed, neither by the candidates nor by the experts.
While psephologists and partisans leaned deeply on the percentage of Muslims, Christians and Hindus in the constituency to decide what was important for the voters and why, the increasing human-animal conflicts worrying the constituents was given a miss.
At the altar of a greater political narrative, the common voter and their existential concerns were conveniently sacrificed. This is thus a story also of the dysfunctional democracy that India has come to be.