Agricultural Development of the Past
Our knowledge of agriculture and its development in the Kollihills cannot be described with any exactness. The tribe, who claims to have come from Kanchipuram in the 16th century, were essentially plains people who knew agriculture of particular value. However, the fact is that, until the beginning of the 19th century, the agricultural operations in the hills were anything but shifting cultivation, known as 'Podu' or 'Kumari' cultivation.
The First Malayali Cultivators, Prior to 1900:
Prior to the advent of permanent settlements and agriculture, some 300 years ago, the landscape of the Kollihills presented a picture of gently rolling, forest-covered slopes, but not since then. The transformation from food gathering before the 18th century and hunting to shifting cultivation during much of the 18th and 19th centuries, and then to settled agriculture in the early part of the 20th century occurred in the Kollihills in a combination of ways.
In some instances, the Malayalis thought, when hunting became hard because of difficulty in finding the game, it might be possible to grow crops on cleared forest patches. In other instances, an intelligent Malayali or a group of them might have suggested the possibilities of growing food crops, on a smaller scale, in the fashion of the plains. Or a few Malayalis had brought, and carefully preserved, ideas from their ancient parentage on lowland acquaintance which, when they put to practice, proved successful in satisfying their day-to-day subsistence requirements. By these various means, it would appear then, that the cultivation of crops was introduced.
The estimation for this activity was undoubtedly a mixed one. In the first instance, it stemmed from the constant internal pressures generated by the value system and the rule that everyone of the group should be fed by all means. Or it came about by the Malayalis who caused continual pressures to be exerted against the prevalent economic milieu within which they were housed.
And whatever the population pressure, and conversely the need to go in for food production, exerted influence, the tribe felt that the food situation could be improved by economic functions similar to those with which the people of the plains, the tribe's own, ancient parents, were rather familiar. Thus, factors both internal and external to the tribe provided the basic motivation for economic ventures, mainly cultivation of food crops, within the by-now innovative social system.
A second and associated motivation was the desire of many Malayalis to gain economic subsistence and self-sufficiency. This was certainly a two-fold desire: First, there was the wish to be in greater control of their individual and family economic future. Second, there was also the feeling of risk and uncertainty associated with food-gathering and hunting, and the attendant wish for lesser dependence upon a nomadic way of life, probably grazing cattle, and shifting cultivation.
The overall desire was for an independently owned economic enterprise, and even a small place of forest-cleared land: a subsistence farm was within this category. The tentative planting of a handful of grains, where a spring supplied water, was a start towards this end. Finally, there was some motivating force in the simple desire to 'work with the land', in the sense of a desire of individuals of peasant origin.
Adivasi (Indigenous People), A Strong Sense of Self and Place
The land, forests and rivers of the Kollihills yield just enough to live by, and in bad years, not even that. Modest crops of paddy and tapioca, millets and fruits of all kind, pepper and coffee are the products of unremitting toil of the Adivasi families. If the rains are plenty, then they are happy because they will have better yields. But if the rains fail, then they are unhappy because they will have a food insecure situation in most families but those involved in activities other than agriculture or labour. In bad times, however, the forests stand the Adivasis in good stead. There are minor forest products, the leaves, herbs, nuts, roots, wild and edible fruits and so on, to fall back on, to be collected. But not many people appear to be doing this because of the forest department restricting their foraging to only those areas they have legal access to, which is for all we know are limited in extent.
So much so, the effects of an uncertain and inadequate livelihood are seen in the wrinkles of their faces and their hard lives. Without food, three square meals, and sometimes without vegetables and fruits, and medical care, people do suffer entirely avoidable illnesses. The absence of schools, or schools at long walking distances, especially to those living in the interior hamlets, denies children a chance to learn and improve their lives. The residential schools – just two of them – for the Adivasi children are not enough to accommodate all of them can be seen from the fact that most children go to private schools and the parents often struggle to pay. Of course, there are some families in each of the 261 hamlets who can afford the private education.
Poverty and hunger put the people, especially women and girls, for the adivasis have more or less the same cultural milieu as the plains people, men and boys are made much of, at the mercy of a callous government bureaucracy and rapacious plains people who literally devour the Adivasi land and water and all other resources, to whom the adivasis do not matter. The adivasis are to be exploited and plundered. There has been an invasion of the Kollihills by the plains people that the rightful owners of the Kollihills have become over the years alienated from their lands and resources. But the life goes on for the Adivasi, despite the state’s refusal to recognize Adivasi rights to lands and forests. Worse still, the Supreme Court in 2019 has given a verdict in a case for vacating the adivasis from their traditional abode, the hills and the forests. It is almost a total failure of the welfare state in the region.
Despite its hardships, this life is all there is for adivasis and I know it for a fact that they value it. In the midst of the vicissitudes hunger, malnutrition, exploitation and alienation, what keeps adivasis going are the certitudes of community, their cohesive social and ethnic system, their faith in the bonds of kinship: the knowledge that relatives will help out in times of troubles as they always have. And the adivasis also have a sense of self, pride and place that leaving the hills and forests never arises in their minds. They are bound to the nature and multitude of their place of living. What the plains people and the bureaucracy do not understand is that the fear and the hardships the Adivasi faces generate a courage that could defy death or the threat of annihilation, leave alone persecution.
Welcome to our new blog. We've teamed up with our colleague in India, Thangavelu Vasantha Kumaran, to publish updates on his humanitarian work in southern India. Updates will first be published in our newsletter, followed by more detailed updates here on our blog, for those who want to learn a little bit more!