As someone who worked as the head of the Integrated Tribal Development Project in Attappadi over three decades ago, trekked to almost all the hamlets, conducted research on local development, mentored several programmes in the area, including the Japanese-aided eco-restoration project and the latest livelihoods project to strength the network of self-help groups of tribal women supported by the Government of India, I was stunned by the explosive mixture of powerful feelings — sadness, outrage, disillusionment and a dangerous despondency — on hearing about the inhuman lynching. Over the years, there has been hardly any cheering news from Attappadi. Similar feelings were aroused when the implementation of the act to prevent alienation of tribal land was stalled in the late 1980s by local violence and, more recently, when there were a series of infant deaths due to malnutrition. The Government of Kerala shockingly rejected a generous offer made by the then Union Minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh, to set up state-of-the-art national-level institutions for livelihoods with a focus on tribals and eco-degraded areas in Attappadi, using the idle infrastructure of the closed Japanese-aided project.
Certainly, the latest incident of the brutal killing of a youth, from a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), who was suffering from mental illness, by people in the neighbourhood who knew him and of his condition, has set a new low. To prevent this being repeated, there is a need for prompt justice seen, understood and felt by everyone. The exploitation of tribals in Attappadi has been ruthless but, fortunately, if this word may at all be used, bloodless. The sight of one set of poor people riding roughshod over the rights and entitlements of another mocks at theories of class and the ideals of village swaraj — and certainly puts off politicians from seeking basic solutions.
Before the feelings ebb away, it is necessary to reflect on the real situation in Attappadi. It has been the graveyard of every development innovation and the killer of every progressive intention. It was in 1962 that Attappadi was declared as a Tribal Development Block, with a higher staff component and a series of measures were initiated, particularly creation of infrastructure. Alas, this opened up the tribal lands for settlers to rush in, reducing the Adivasis from nearly 90 per cent of the population in the 1950s to less than one-third in the 1970s. In the mid 1970s, using the newly-introduced concept of the Tribal Sub-Plan and substantial funds from the Western Ghat Development Programme, the Integrated Tribal Development Project came into being. Large cooperative farms were set up to commercialise tribal agriculture in the belief that the tribals could leapfrog from the stage of primitive communism to the stage of socialism, bypassing the dangerous and difficult stages of feudalism and capitalism. But the tribal cooperatives managed by corrupt bureaucrats soon collapsed. It is worth mentioning that in the early 1980s, a future panchayat president constructed a road in one of the farms and claimed Rs 20 lakh after spending less than Rs 2 lakh.
The notification of rules to operationalise the act to prevent alienation of tribal land in 1985 after an unpardonable delay of 10 years raised hopes among the Adivasis and their supporters. But cold-blooded vote-bank politics prevented even a rational discussion. This, for the first time, truly alienated the tribals and they lost trust in the system.
In the late 1980s, hope revived briefly through the outstanding work of community resource persons from among the local tribals in the form of health guides. For the first time, a common vision of development started emerging among the tribals. But vested interests struck back, conjuring a conflict between Adivasis and settlers which would mar “the dance of harmony in the hills of Attappadi”, as a senior politician put it. In the mid-Nineties, a massive eco-restoration project with Japanese assistance was initiated. Though it focused largely on combating land degradation, towards the end it helped to institutionalise the most successful tribal housing programme in Kerala.
The two state-level development innovations, People’s Planning and Kudumbashree, both acclaimed internationally, for people’s participation and empowerment of marginalised women, respectively, fell flat in Attappadi.
In the aftermath of the infant deaths in 2013, a centrally-supported livelihoods programme was initiated and seems to be striking root and sprouting the first green shoots in this wasteland of development. I understand that there is a concerted attempt by local politicians of all hues, in combination with different interests, including some from within the project itself, to strangle the scheme in its infancy. It would be a great service to Attappadi if the crisis of conscience induced by the murder could open the eyes of political leaders, senior officials, the media and activists to join ranks to save this project and nurture it.
Learning from the continuous failures, the conclusions are stark but simple. Funds are in surplus. There are several institutions in place — anganwadis, schools, hospitals, cooperatives and so on — but what is missing is the “subject” of development, namely the Adivasis. Attappadi needs empowerment of Adivasis and now there are several proven methods, the most promising of which is the network of women self-help-groups, supported by a string of community resource persons, taking up development from its rudiments, that is, through participatory analysis, collective reflection and concerted action — the only way out for the oppressed as taught to us by Paulo Freire, years ago.
A committed young IAS officer could facilitate this if he/she is suitably empowered to be the head of every department for the Attappadi area, supported by a team of young professionals and dedicated officials, particularly teachers and doctors specifically selected, preferably from among volunteers. The way out is to operationalise development rights, focusing on the right to work, the right to education, the right to food, the rights of persons of disabilities, all rooted in deep social accountability. This can be mentored by a small group of dedicated people drawn from different sections of society within and outside Kerala.
In a newspaper, I saw a photograph in which the agriculture minister of Kerala, V S Sunilkumar, of the CPI, A K Balan, minister for SC/ST development of the CPM and V M Sudheeran, former state Congress chief, were standing together near the dead body of Madhu, the tribal youth killed in the incident with their faces expressing genuine distress. If they could persuade their respective parties and reach out to other parties, to ignore their local party functionaries and officials of different unions, then Attappadi can look forward with hope — not for some depoliticised development but for a full-blooded supra-partisan politics of participatory development. If this tragic death can motivate a change of mindset, then Madhu would be a martyr.