Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary, as a hard core Tiger territory is an excuse the Forest Dept. is cooking up to drive out the Kaanis from their traditional homelands. A campaign of terror is being launched on the poor, landless & living-in-the-forest Kaani tribesmen, their women and children by Kanyakumari’s forest guards, claim the Kaanis. Last week a few forest guards pulled down a Kaani house in Thachamalai, and it went unreported in the local media.
Human-animal conflict is nothing new in the Western Ghats. Conflicts arose as humans stepped into animal territory and began inhabitating the forest fringes to build their towns and cities thereby permanently blocking many thousand year old animal corridors. Yet, the Kaanis of Kanyakumari District and the Tigers, though not always on friendly terms, are still inhabitants of the same forest and have remained so without much conflict in the Westerns Ghats in the recent past.
Recently, a big cat carcass was reportedly found in the Pechipaarai range. According to the local newspapers, the Leopard is said to have died from a bleeding wound caused by the horns of a wild boar that had made its way to the Cat’s belly as a meal but eventually tore its way out of the stomach somehow; a bit weird, previously unheard-of and cartoonish way to die, after all. POOR Leopard Vs WILD Boar! So how is this connected to the Kaani tribesmen?
Though the Kaanis had nothing to do with the animal’s death, citing “Tiger protection,” the Forest Department of Kanyakumari has intensified its vigor in harassing and tormenting the Kaanis to a new high. The Kaanis as the enemy of the Tiger Project has arrived, as that is how it has to be perceived now. A sustained campaign has been set in motion by the Forest Dept. of both Kanyakumari & Tirunelveli to turn life miserable & unbearable for the Kaanis so that they pack their bags and vacate their traditional homeland for somebody’s love for Tigers.
Fact is, the Kaanis need to be vacated from the Western Ghats to gift it away to Mining Conglomerates, which are ready to step into previously uncharted territory, Kanyakumari, in the guise of a Plantation Companies. After having met with many failures in its use of the dreaded word “resettlement” the planners are cautious and calculative with their every move. They just want the Kaanis out, silently though at first, and finally, at any cost!
According to the 2011 census there are over 7500 Kaanis earning their livelihood from the reserve forests of Kanyakumari district spread around 47 forest settlements in Kadayal, Pechiparai, Thadikarankonam, Ponmalai and Surulodu Town Panchayats. The Central Govt., as part of the implementing the big mining partner’s goal, has entrusted the Forest Department with the task of kicking the Kaanis out off the mineral rich Western Ghats, which the mining companies will soon occupy (forever).
Modus Operandi - Targeting One Family at a Time
The secret campaign of the Forest Department is active in all Kaani settlements of Kanyaumari and Tirunelveli Forest Ranges. The preparatory move was set off some time ago by extending the Kalakad-Mundathurai Tiger Sanctuary into Kanyakumari’s Kalyal and Velimalai forest ranges. With the new Tiger Sanctuary spreading into Kanyakumari’s Reserve Forest range, the Kanyakumari Forest Department it is trying hard to fool the Kaanis into believing, that their own traditional land is in fact, new Tiger Territory. And because they fail badly in this discourse with the tribals, they resort to violence.
The Modus Operandi of the Forest guards is to target one Kaani family at a time and shut out the neighbours and whoever comes in support of the tribal. Simply turn them voiceless by stepping on their rights with an iron sole. In Thachamalai, a 15 year old Kaani hut (made of Bamboo & beaten-into-shape mud walls with a thatched roof) was brought down by the forest guards who also wielded knives and sticks while threatening the Kaanis to quit the forest at the earliest as the Government had now declared the once Kaani homeland as Tiger Territory.
Are Kaanis being corrupted by dirty locals and forest stake holders?
The Kaanis, who live off the forest produce have also been accused of leasing out their land to outsiders with business interests in the forest produce. These outsiders are local traders from Kanyakumari towns as well as across the border from Kerala who in some cases lent money to Kaani familes and either take their land for cultivation or collect the produce of the Kaani land, much like what still exists in the Palmyra/Jaggery economy.
These middlemen exploit the Kaanis to the hilt and get away with Kanyakumari’s rich forest produce for the least of prices. They are now well established in their network and process that exploit these naïve Kaanis folk and rob away the humble richness of their forest livelihood. This on one side and the Forest guards breathing down their neck, is only adding up to the Kaani’s daily owes under another spell of a rainless Summer.
Lately, they have even been banned from cutting leaves to roof their houses which in turn has affected the livelihood of the Kani tribals as they are directly dependent on the forest produce for their living in these fringe villages of Kalyal, Kulasekaram, Velimalai and Azhagiyapandiapuram forest ranges. Shankar Kani, an otherwise silent man, opens his mouth to gems of wisdom. He asks, “Aren’t Kaani lives any worthy of your respect? Do you know how much a Kaani life fares against that of the Tiger’s? We score very poorly now! We are shamed to accept that we have not raised ourselves enough even to assert our basic rights to our traditional habitat.”
“In the anti-poaching, anti-naxal Forest Dept. campaigns, we as Kaanis have always been supportive of the Forest department efforts by notifying them whenever we spot poachers or other suspicious activity in the reserve forest ranges that we reside in. We play their eyes and ears throughout the year even when they aren’t around. We know what they call as threat is means actual threat to us too. In fact the forests are a protected space because of us and we worship the trees as Mother Kaali. Our association with the forest is not just physical but spiritual too. Our life-time association and daily interaction with the forest is a mutually benefitting relationship. We are a part of the elements that contributes to the balance of life in the forest, which many can’t even imagine, laments Sankar Kaani on being asked about the transitions happening within the Reserve Forests of Kanyakumari.
“Inspite of all this, somebody somewhere want us out of our homelands because somebody somewhere made a decision to own it up and occupy the land our Gods and our forefathers live in. They say, our land has more to offer than what we can see or care about. They have visions of the millions buried under the ground that caresses out feet. The Kaanikaran might be a naïve man; but I think he know enough of what is required of him to know, about himself and the nature he exists in. But beyond that, we don’t know how to stand up against this faceless and distant foe, who is the reason for the sudden spike hatred by the Forest department of Kanyakumari on the Kaani community.” Last week, the Kaanis petitioned the Collector who responded by making a quick visit to hear out the petitioners. What was lost in translation, we don’t know!
WILL WE GIVE UP ON THE OLDEST INHABITANS OF KANYAKUMARI IN THE NAME OF THE DEVELOPMENT FARCE?
In Tami, Kaani means a measure of land & ‘Karan’ is suffixed to form the word ‘Kaanikkaran,’ which means “The owner of the land through successive generations”. They are also referred to as Malyarasar or Malayarayan in Tamil and have been around since the time of Saint Agasthiya and the tigers too.