Residents of several tribal colonies in Wayanad district say that they have been neglected by authorities and there has been no rehabilitation after the 2018 floods.

Wayanad vaishyan colony photoThe News Minute
Delve Human Rights Wednesday, August 18, 2021 - 14:14

A small stream runs through vast paddy fields on one side and plantain fields on the other. Women and children are seen taking a bath in the water and washing their clothes. They belong to a tribal settlement called Koovana colony, near Tharuvana village in Vellarada panchayath, which is around 15 km away from Mananthavady of Kerala’s Wayanad district. As one moves through the mud, struggling to walk through the soil with extra soft clay, some structures are visible in the distance. These are what the residents call home, just blue and gray sheets on top of tiny houses.

A cabin-like shed, which is covered with sacks and plastic sheets, at first glance, seems to be an extension of the muddy field. But this is where the Koovana settlement — a group of tribal people who belong to the Paniya community, live. Around 80 people from 15 families live here. There are just two houses with concrete roofs in the colony, which have three rooms including a kitchen. But even as these homes are prone to leakage, the people living here use only one room, to sleep and to cook.

The remaining 13 families live in the cabin sheds constructed by the panchayath after floods devastated the area in 2018. “We had grass and bamboo huts earlier. Two families bought three cents (around 1,300 square feet) of land after they got some money as compensation, when one of their family members died. After the floods, except two houses, all other huts were destroyed. Authorities then built us this shed, where we live like animals. It was a few days ago that they built a cabin toilet. Until then, for the last three years, we were defecating in the open,” says 70-year-old Chedan, the Mooppan (community head) of Koovana colony.

A number of families sleep and cook inside the single rooms of the cabin, built out of tin sheets. "Authorities have been telling us for years that they have found some land for us. We even went to see the land, but we haven't got any title deeds yet. We are not sure when we will have a proper roof over our heads," Geetha, another resident, says, adding that they did not get any compensation after the floods in Kerala in 2018 and 2019.

Dismal living conditions

The people in many tribal settlements in Wayanad face a similar plight when it comes to their living conditions. A large percentage of Kerala's tribal population live in Wayanad. There have been several estimates over the exact figure. As per the 2008 Socio Economic Survey of the Scheduled Tribe Development Department, 45.51% of total tribal settlements in the state are in Wayanad. A research paper by Professor Damoradan Rajasenan and Rajeev Bhaksar of Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) and Augusto De Venanzi of Purdue University Fort Wayne, Estados Unidos, which was published in 2020, pegged the figure at 31.2%.

"The setbacks associated with insufficient support from housing schemes shows that only 4.5% of the government funded houses are pucca (solid and permanent). Pucca houses are to be found mainly in areas belonging to the forward Kuruma tribe," the study states. As per the research, 56% of the Kattunaikkar community, 53% of Paniya community and 33% of the Kuruma community in Kerala live in kutcha houses (makeshift structures), that are in need of repair. The study further said that 15% of the Paniya community, 12% of the Kattunaikkar community and 8% of the Kuruma community live in kucha houses that are battered beyond repair. The research was conducted in 2016 and 2017 and the results were published in 2020.

A family in Koovana colony

Around 30 km away from Koovana colony is the Chegadi Adiya settlement, on the banks of the Baveli river, where the Baveli and Kabini rivers meet. The area is known for high quality paddy cultivation. Sitting in front of her hut, 65-year-old Uppa is busy cutting bamboo shoots to cook lunch. "It has been several years and people have constantly visited us. Some ask about our troubles here, while some come here to study and shoot our lifestyle. We haven't got any help from any of them. We have been living in leaky houses for many years. Holding our children tight, we spend the whole night in one corner without sleep, so that they don't get wet," Uppa says.

The houses in the colony were built 10 years ago when the government gave the residents Rs 1 lakh each for construction. There are 30 houses in the colony and residents say that none of them are good enough to shelter in during the rains, due to leakage. "They were leaking already and the floods made it worse. Every year, we buy plastic sheets to put on the roof, but it doesn't last. Clothes, beds, and everything else get drenched. The rainy season for us means sleepless nights," says Kuliyan, the Mooppan of the colony. All of them belong to the Adiya tribal community.

Travelling 38 km from here, to Venniyode in Kottathara, one can again see plantain fields. A board stands out, which says, ‘Vaishyan colony road. Tarring work by Kottathara Panchayat. Construction cost: Rs 10 lakh.’ The Paniya colony, with 17 families, has one of the most pathetic living conditions in Wayanad district. Only one proper house is present in the entire settlement. All others are made of tarpaulin sheets with just one room, which is not more than 100 square feet.

House in Chegadi colony

Lack of funds, corrupt contractors

Whether it is Mananthavady, Sulthan Batheri, Kalpetta or Meenangadi, what the Paniya, Adiya and Kattunaikkar tribal settlements have in common are their leaking roofs. In these colonies, not a single house is seen, without a tarpaulin sheet on top. Residents and observers say that the two main reasons for this are corruption among contractors and a lack of adequate funds from the government.

“Many times, these poor people are cheated by contractors. The government will provide them with money, and local ward members or tribal promoters will convince them to give the contract to a person of their choice. These contractors then deceive the tribal people by not using proper building materials,” alleges C Manikandan, a teaching assistant at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University. He holds a Masters degree in Business Administration and hails from Wayanad’s Paniya tribal community.

Vaishyan colony

Even people in the community have a similar opinion. “They don't use enough cement or any other materials. They just take up the contract to loot our money. In our colony the houses were constructed by the relative of a ward member in 2011. The leakage started in 2013,” says Kuliyan, the Mooppan of Chegadi colony.

However, one of the tribal promoters in a colony that TNM spoke to, said that the money given by the government 10 years ago was not sufficient to construct houses. "They gave just Rs 1 lakh to construct houses. How is it possible to construct good quality houses with that? Now, the government is giving Rs 6 lakh, which is sufficient. Before 2010, the amount was very less," he said.

However, Wayanad District Collector Adeela Abdulla told TNM that contractors cheating the tribal people was a common issue in the district. "In many areas, there were complaints received about contractors deceiving the residents. We have been looking into the issues," she said.

A house in Vaishyan colony

Another issue with government housing provided to tribal people, is that there are no follow ups. “Once they provide a house 10 or 20 years ago, they think that their duty is over. But within a year or two, we start sleeping under a leaking roof. After providing Rs 50,000 or Rs 1 lakh for construction, no other help is provided. We don't understand where all the money announced for tribal welfare goes," says Kelan, the head of one of the communities from a colony near Meenangady.

No proper rehabilitation

In 2018, Kerala witnessed massive floods in the month of August, said to be the first of its kind in a century. It was touted to be one of the worst flooding events in the world reported between 2015 and 2019, as per reports. There were 433 deaths and the total economic loss was estimated at Rs 31,000 crore. Some of the worst-hit people, included the tribal communities in the state. M Geethanandan, state coordinator, Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (AGMS), says that in a majority of settlements, proper rehabilitation was not done after the floods.

“Many houses were partially or fully damaged. Those are yet to be repaired. Their houses were leaking already and the floods had damaged them more. In many settlements, the situation is really pathetic as they live under temporary sheets, as their houses are completely damaged,” he added.

Balan (60), and his wife, Jaanu, live in a shabby shed made of some bamboo sticks and tarpaulin sheets in Vaishyan colony, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Kottathara Panchayat in Wayanad. They have two bunk beds inside the shed for the husband and wife and their two children. In one corner, they cook food, while another corner of their home is dedicated for storage. The floor is muddy and watery in the monsoon season and though the structure looks like a temporary tent, they have been living here for a decade.

"After the floods, authorities had offered to build houses for us. The work has started now, but we are not sure when we will be able to shift. We have been living in such a pathetic condition for as long as I can remember,” says 68-year-old Velichi, another resident of the colony.

Many of the people in the tribal communities told TNM that they did not receive any compensation after their house was damaged. "My house, as you see, had a tiled roof and mud walls. It was good and it did not leak like the concrete houses here. My husband built it with money we earned, but it got destroyed in the floods and we did not have money to repair it. Now, we live in this shed," says Leela who lives near Baveli.