P Aruvi is angry. “For centuries, our women haven’t gone to Agasthyakoodam. It is a pilgrimage for us. You people have turned it into a mere trekking site, insulting our faith,” she says.
It’s 1.30 pm at the Kani tribal settlement of Chemmankala in Vithura village, at the foothill of the Agasthya hills in Thiruvananthapuram district. Aruvi comes out of her un-plastered house, mopping her brow. In the nearby huts, a few women are squatting in their courtyards. Aruvi’s husband Mallan is away.
Only a day earlier, a woman had climbed up to the Agasthyakoodam peak in the Western Ghats after the Kerala High Court recently lifted a restriction on women undertaking the annual trek. The Kanis, a tribal community numbering around 20,000 members, had opposed the Forest Department’s guidelines, framed over a decade ago, on women going up the peak. The Kanis worship an idol of Agastya Muni on the hill and, according to them, permitting women beyond Athiramala, a base station of Agasthyakoodam, would interfere with their traditional rights of worship.
Once a nomadic tribe that subsisted on forest produce, including medicinal plants, Kanis are now settled on forest land in the southern districts of Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam.
Now that a woman has gone up and 99 others are in the queue during the current trekking season, Aruvi fears misfortune will descend on the Kanis as well as the whole state. “It is not a coincidence,” she says, referring to the recent entry of women to the Sabarimala shrine. “I am against young women going to Sabarimala temple. I had gone to Sabarimala at the age of eight. Now, I cannot walk long hours. So I don’t plan to go again,” says Aruvi, aged 53.
But unlike Sabarimala, that has cleaved the state over the right of women to go up to the shrine, here in Agasthyakoodam, the Kanis aren’t protesting. Mohanan Triveni, president of the Agasthyakoodam Kshetra Kanikkar Trust, had said they would “go by the High Court’s order”.
Aruvi says she and the others have bigger battles — of livelihood, access to education, absent toilets.
At Chemmankala, there are 18 families who live on forest land. Though the local administration had constructed houses for a few of the families, none has possession rights over the land. Although the Forest Rights Act has come into effect, Aruvi and other Kani community members are yet to get rights over forest dwellings and agricultural land. Aruvi and the others cultivate tubular crops and banana on forest land near their dwellings.
It’s 4 pm now and Aruvi’s husband is still to return. As her daughter-in-law Arathi comes over with her child, Aruvi says, “Nobody from our settlement is employed with the government. My son-in-law Raveendran works as a security guard at a government institution in Vithura (7 km away). All the others in our family depend on MGNREGS for survival. When there is no MGNREGS work, we till the land near our homes and cultivate for our domestic needs. But our tapioca and other crops are mostly eaten by wild boars, who raid our land before the crops ripen.”
Arathi, a graduate, is jobless while Aruvi’s son Vishnu is a farm hand. He lives in a separate hut nearby.
Earlier Aruvi’s husband would go to the jungle to source forest produce, such as medicinal herbs, and hunt animals. “But now the forest laws are stringent and nobody dares go deep inside,” she says. “Also, people have lost faith in tribal medicine.”
There is a PDS shop in Vithura, but it’s not easy for Aruvi to make the trip. “I haven’t gone so far to get this month’s ration. I would have to spend Rs 300 on a three-wheeler to bring the provisions home. That is a lot of money. My husband got only two days of work under the MGNREGS this month,” says Aruvi.
She rarely travels outside the settlement, she adds, having stepped out last two weeks ago. “There is one bus in the morning and one in the evening. But even that bus starts a kilometre away because the road to our colony is unmotorable.”
The children use the bus service to go to school, the nearest of which is 7 km away.
As dusk falls, Mallan, 63, returns empty-handed, his trip to nearby forest unfruitful. A sickle-shaped blade is hanging from the waist of the wiry man. “There is nothing to source from forest land these days. Due to the threat of wild animals, I don’t go too deep in,” he says.
Leaning against a wall of the house, Mallan adds that he has only distant memories of going up the Agasthyakoodam peak. “I have gone there thrice, but before I turned 30. Those days, women would remain at the settlement, praying. With women going there now, the sanctity of the peak would be destroyed, as it happened in Sabarimala. Now, the peak of our muni has become a tourist place.”
Aruvi has decided on own way to protest. “I am building a temple for myself in my backyard. A Shiva-Parvati temple,” she says.