In December 2019, 23 families of the Kadar Tribe were residing in the cottages of tea-estate workers in the Valparai region of Tamil Nadu.
The Kadar tribe is one of 33 tribes who live in and around the Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR).
The families were waiting to return to the forest: the only home they’d known for generations. They’d been informed by the forest officials who had evicted them that their stay would be temporary, and they would be allowed to return to the forest in a few days. Four months had passed.
That’s when Naresh Balusamy, a Tamil Nadu-based multimedia journalist, traveled to Valparai to meet them. With support from an EJN grant, Balusamy sought to highlight the threats to this tribal population.
In March 2021, he produced a documentary on the traditional lifestyle of these Indigenous Peoples and their struggle for land rights amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Kadar Tribe is one of the ancient tribes of India; the families that remain are a living source of traditional knowledge. The Kadar live in the forests and do not practice agriculture, instead they eat roots or tubers foraged from the wild and make use of bamboo to build their shelters and cooking utensils. They believe that the forest — Kadu — and their Kadar tribe are the same and they regard themselves as the forest’s ancestors and protectors.
Balusamy learned that they’d been struggling to exercise their fundamental right, their ‘right to reside in the forest’ since August 2019, when a landslide in the monsoon season destroyed their ‘Kallarkudi’ settlement in the forest, leaving them homeless.
At the time, the tribe had written a letter to the forest and the police department informing them that they would be relocating to a new settlement, as their old village settlement had been severely affected by landslides. Then, the tribal families moved to ‘Teppakulamedu’ in the core area of the tiger reserve and resettled there, building seven huts in which to shelter.
But, one week later, in August 2019, their homes were demolished by ATR forest officials as they were said to be in violation of the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act of 2006; communities cannot reside inside the core tiger reserve area and they [tribes] are not allowed to occupy forest land without prior permission from the forest department.
The Anamalai Tiger Reserve, earlier known as the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary (IGWS) was declared a tiger reserve in 2008 to protect Bengal Tigers from extinction. Critics say it failed to ensure the rights of the tribal population inhabiting the forest areas.
“When the Wildlife Protection Amendment Act 2006 came into effect, the Anamalai Tiger Reserve was expanded, leading to more forest laws and fewer tribal populations,” said S Thanaraj, state coordinator of Ekta Parishad, a tribal rights organization, who documented the Kadar tribe's long struggle in this report, published in Vikalp Sangam in January.
The tribe maintains that despite the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, the rights of the forest dwellers should not be affected. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 preserves their right to be in the forest.
“Now they’re quoting some laws to prevent us from our living rights,” said Rajalakshmi, a leader of the Kadar tribe. “For us, living inside the forest is the only way of living.”
“We were feeding our children. One of them had a fever that day. The forest officers were forcing us to get out of the forest just like forcing cattle with a stick,” said Sundari, a community elder, while narrating the incident to Balusamy.
“I’m born and brought up in a small village near Thirumoorthy hills where my life was intertwined with the forest; I felt connected to nature,” the journalist said in an interview with EJN. “But when I moved to the city for my studies, I could not even see a frog, that connection with nature was lost.”
Balusamy journeyed to Kadar Tribe’s tea estate cottages and walked with them inside the forest, documenting their protests, the threats they faced and the offers of compensation they received from forest officials to abandon their claims and move out of the forest. He immersed himself in their environment, producing an empathetic visual story which struck a chord with many.
Documentary recounts long battle
Per the Forest Rights Act 2006, the Kadar tribe should have got their land rights for their old Kallarkudi settlement which was destroyed by the landslide. The FRA recognizes the rights of the forest dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources, on which these communities were dependent on for their livelihood, habitation and other socio-cultural needs.
Still, forest officials insisted the Kadar people provide documents to prove that three generations lived in the forest at the Kallarkudi settlement. In an interview with EJN, MG Ganesan, Deputy Director of Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR) said, “As per the FRA 2006, if the three generations of a tribal population lived inside the forest before December 13, 2005, then, the heirs of that tribal population are eligible for forest land rights and can inhabit the same place which their ancestors occupied.”
“Kadar’s land rights issue was a special case for us because as per law we could not grant them entitlements until they provided proof that their three generations were living at ‘Teppakulamedu’ before 2005,” he said. Of course, the tribe had only just relocated there after the landslide in 2019.
On the incident of tribal eviction, Ganesan added, “It was our duty to protect the whole settlement when they are under threat [as a result of the landslide] and it was ‘protection’ not ‘eviction’ as eviction can only happen when they have land rights, as per law.”
Ganesan explained it usually takes six months to understand the case and develop applications for land entitlements which must pass through the three levels of state departments: Gram Sabha (an elected general assembly constituting the people of a village), the sub-divisional level and the district level. “And if any problem persists, it takes time, which happened in the case of Kadar Tribe,” he says.
Apparently, the details of this special case weren’t communicated to the community; they were just informed they didn’t have rights to be inside the tiger forest reserve.
In February 2020, infuriated by their long wait, tribespeople started a non-violent protest based on Mahatma Gandhi’s principles in the Valparai region, where they were joined by another 300 Adivasis, other tribal welfare organizations and a few political parties from the city.
VP Gunasekharan of the Tamil Nadu Tribal People Association (TPA), Communist Party of India, spoke about the provisions of forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act 2006 and their importance for forest management at the street protest rally in Valparai. “Kadar tribe’s land rights issue started in 2019 and it had been nearly 13 years since the law [Forest Rights Act 2006] passed. The people didn’t reap any benefits from it, and it was time to support them in their fight [for their rights],” said Gunasekharan.
On India’s Independence Day, August 15, 2020, the tribe held another protest, this time a sit-in inside the forest.
Then, a month later, a land survey was jointly conducted by three departments – forest, revenue, and the land survey department – to demarcate the land area for their new settlement and to approve that the new land area is safe. By that time, the tribes had been living in the tea estate cottages for a year, waiting to receive the forest land rights promised to them.
The Kadar tribe believed that the process of land demarcation would speed up the granting of their homestead patta (legal land rights document), but there were no further signs of progress for another 14 months.
Balusamy’s work documented this struggle. When it was first aired on Kalaignar TV news, he recalled many people shared it widely. “I got calls from fellow media houses, journalists and bureaucrats when it got broadcast across Tamil Nadu,” he said.
“This is the only documentary that recorded the year-long fight of the tribe and it stood as visual evidence for all the struggles and hardships of these people,” said Thanaraj. The tribal activist explained that very few regional language newspapers had covered the issue in much depth until Balusamy’s documentary. “None entered the forest to document them so far, but it was Naresh and his team who put their lives at risk to document this journey inside the forest,” he added.
Balusamy’s work helped draw more attention to the Kadar tribe’s fight for land rights, and local media coverage increased.
Then in late 2021, eight months after the documentary was aired and two years since their struggle began, the Kadar people won their land rights back inside the forest. A ceremony was held on November 7, 2021, where V. Senthil Balaji, Minister of Electricity, Prohibition and Excise issued the ‘patta’ (a legal land rights document) to the families, granting them rights to inhabit the new settlement ‘Teppakulamedu’ and exercise the rights of an indigenous community under the Forest Rights Act 2006. It marked the first time ever that a tribe in India has been granted land rights within a tiger reserve.
“This is our forest and our land”
When the Kadar tribe finally received their patta in November last year, they returned immediately to the forest.
“Now, this is our forest and our land, my son! You can come with us inside the forest without any fear and forest officials won't evict or threaten us now. We won, we won!”, Rajalakshmi, a leader of the Kadar tribe said to Balusamy. The Kadar community believes that Balusamy’s documentary played a crucial role in amplifying their voices and helped them win the battle for their land rights.
“After his story was re-published by EJN, the authorities got more attentive as their state’s issue was now in the international media,” added Thanaraj.
When Balusamy met the minister, V. Senthil Balaji, a few weeks after the patta ceremony, the minister asked about his previous work and the journalist mentioned his documentary on the Kadar tribe’s struggle for land rights. “The minister watched the complete documentary from EJN’s website and then said, ‘Oh! it was you who did it, congratulations!! That's a great work to be shared,’” he recounted.
Balaji had said he’d be happy to speak to the documentary’s impact, however, EJN was unable to secure an interview with him despite multiple attempts.
Efforts to sustain reporting on Indigenous issues
As a young journalist, Balusamy feels proud that he produced the first documentary ever made on the Kadar tribe’s lifestyle and hardships, which, along with the sustained efforts of local activists, civil society organizations and media, helped draw attention to their struggle for forest land rights.
He says he will continue to report on tribal populations and wants to encourage his fellow journalists to be solution seekers. “Being a tribe is the first evolution of humankind and they are literally the last thread of our ancestral knowledge, the primitive conservationists of the society,” said Balusamy, adding it’s important to “document their [indigenous] lifestyle, because once the tribal knowledge is wiped out, there’s no chance to get back what we once had on our Earth!”
The Kadar tribe is now better represented in the Tribal Welfare Department as Leelavathy Thanaraj, an Indigenous woman who supported their long struggle, is a newly elected member. They also have a more structured communal rights body led by Rajalakshmi.
For now, they are back in the forest, but their vulnerability persists, driven by changes in wildlife protection laws and state laws pertaining to forest lands, and climate change. As activist Thanaraj points out, the Anamalai ranges are inhabited by many tribal communities who face the constant threat of displacement and harassment. He notes there's much more to be done to safeguard Indigenous rights in the region, and so their struggle continues.
Climate extremes – and the increased risk of landslides – are another source of fear, as Indigenous Peoples are not equipped to deal with these impacts in the forest. Rajalakshmi told Balusamy they are afraid for the future of the next generation, and they want to ensure their children are educated so they can move out of the forest and live safely in a city if they choose to. What will happen to the forest if its stewards no longer consider it home? Balusamy worries we may find out sooner than we’d like.
Banner image: The indigenous Kadar community consider the Anamalai forest their home / Credit: Sharan Chandar.