Schooling at the Kollihills
The Kollihills are one of the seven hill ranges constituting the Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu, in Namakkal district. It lies west of the Pacchaimalais (Green Hills), with a total area of 503 km2. The altitude ranges from 180 m to 1,415 m above sea level. The tribes who live on the Kollihills and the adjacent hills such as the Kalrayan hills, the Shevaroy hills, the Javadi hills, the Pachamalai hills are all the ‘Malayalis’ or the hill-dwellers. The Malayalis of Tamil Nadu were a total population of 357,980 in 2011 Census with nearly 51 per cent were men and boys and nearly 49 per cent women and girls.
Of the scheduled tribe population of 38,678 in 2011 Census, 21,073 were literates and schooled both inside and outside of the hills. While the literates constituted 54.5 per cent of the tribal population, a very low literacy in comparison with the state of Tamil Nadu, 58.1 per cent of the literates were men and boys and 41.9 per cent of them were women and girls. Among the Nadus of the Kollihills, Vazhavanthi Nadu had the largest of the literates (3,020) with men and boys accounting for 55.4 per cent of the literates and women and girls accounting for the rest, 44.6 per cent.
And so, a considerably higher proportion of the tribal people of the Kollihills were not schooled and that is a great disadvantage today in their development. However, among the literates of the hill villages, there are several graduates employed locally as well as away from the hills. Men and women of the hills are found in many of the cities and towns of the state, studying in schools, colleges and universities and also employed in places such as Chennai, Coimbatore, Tiruppur and other industrial towns. There are women graduates among them and girls are increasingly schooled in the Kollihills as well as in other places of the state.
The system of education in the Kollihills is constrained with inadequacies, teachers, schools, infrastructures and amenities. Out of the total enrolment, the dropout rate is alarmingly high, touching 60 per cent after middle school due to lack of awareness on education. There are 43 elementary schools, 14 middle schools, 2 high schools and one higher secondary school (statistics of Education Department in Kollihills). The people are however beginning to realize the importance of education and the tribal parents now support their children to achieve a very decent level of education. Their sight is on urban jobs and accompanying comfortable life for their children. The future will be brighter for the tribe.
The Forest Ecosystems and the Hills of God of the Kollihills
Forests are critically important habitats in terms of the biological diversity they contain and the ecological functions they serve. The number of described organisms of the world totals some 1.75 million species and it is suggested that it is just 13 per cent of the true total (Secretariat of the CBD, 2001). That is, the actual number of species may be 13.6 million. What fraction of this uncertain total lives in the forests of the Kollihills is quite unknown.
It is well known that perhaps half of all known species reside in tropical forests alone. It is also conjectured that the majority of yet-to-be discovered species are in tropical forests. This means that there could indeed be an enormous number of species that we deal with when we talk about the forests of the Kollihills. Whatever the precise number, forests of tropical areas such as the Kollihills are major locations for biological diversity.
The values of forests therefore embody the values of the biological diversity they contain since it seems unlikely that the vast majority of the biological resources could occupy non-forest habitats (Secretariat of the CBD, 2001). The need to understand the values that reside in forests arises also from the estimated rates of loss of forest area and, hence, in biological diversity. Loss rates, in fact, run into thousands per year.
Forests of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats (Kollihills inclusive) are continuously affected by large scale uncontrolled forest fires. Fires adversely impact on the forests worldwide, causing a loss of biological diversities in, and ecological services from, 20 million hectares. While fire is a vital and natural part of some of the forest ecosystems, and humans have used fires for thousands of years as land management tool, natural as well as man-made fires cause severe damage in the Kollihills. At any given time, there is a forest fire raging on the hills primarily because someone has been careless or he/she has been deliberate in setting fire to the forest. Human greed knows no bounds and the tribals of the Kollihills are no exception just as the plains people, who have moved up the hills over the decades, who occupy most lands on the hill slopes, whether pepper plantations or the endless tracts of forests that are quickly being destroyed.
In the Kollihills, there are several hill areas which are designated as Samimalai (a hill of God) and there are restrictions to use resources of this patch of the forests. One can see the variations, immediately, in the density of the vegetation compared to the other forest patches of the area. There are annual festivals performed in the temple on the top of the hills. Even during such festivals the tribes do not use even a stick from that forest. Firewood is also carried to the temple to cook food for the festival. Any deviation in the restriction would invite punishment from the Community Council. There are recent reports of offenders being fined to the tune of Rs 3,000. The Samimalai can be regarded as the sacred grove of the area.
The Hamlets and Nadus
The hamlets and Nadus (Nadu in Tamil means ‘country’ or at the lowest level a ‘village’) of the Kollihills are a homogeneity of population in terms of clannish organization. The hamlets, though small in size (of area and population), for all practical purposes may be considered as individual settlements having intricate social relations among the people and with each other.
The hamlets and Nadus become important in that the social system is spatially organized and its operation is spatially structured. And since an important goal in the operation of a social system, and also in individual behaviour, is efficiency, the vur, in their evolution and operation, express this efficiency in the way they are located with respect to economic system that coordinates production, consumption, and exchange of goods - agriculture related commodities and services - which facilitate development of hamlets and Nadus and also influence the locations of functions and the interactions among these functions.
The settlements of the hills show two features that are significant: (a) their small size; and (b) the ecology of the sites with which they are associated. The site areas are such that they offer livelihood for groups of 20 to 100 households, though there are mother - villages with more than 200 households. It appears that the size is an expression of the carrying capacity or load, determining the pattern of the hamlets and nadus. This means that the system of nadus and the tendency towards intensive exploitation by the tribe of limited environmental riches of the hills are an ingenious adaptation to environment, based on a remarkably complete knowledge of local ecology and soil potential.
Critical Population Density of traditional subsistence agriculture is 8 to 9 persons per km2 and in shifting cultivation it is 4 (Kumaran, 1983; 1998). The hamlets therefore remain small communities so that the exploited area is limited and the crop lands do not move too far from the homesteads, though distance from home to land is not an absolute constraint. The general pattern of hamlets is of ' nucleated variety' with a parent village from which segments have split off to form more or less distant hamlets of a few families. There are however small family homesteads beside or within the farm, from preference and for convenience. While the former is determined by the tribe who need to live together for social reasons, the latter is determined by human preference, needs and family traditions, and then by the environmental ecology. And the gregarious live in nucleated hamlets, and those who prefer some measure of domestic privacy live in individual farmsteads.
In this community there is a tradition of worshipping prehistoric Celts (axe-like instruments), stone implements and images placed in huts within the forests. The reverence towards such sacred groves has resulted in the preservation of the flora and fauna within such areas.
Each village of the settlement is called vur. A group of ten to fifteen vur constitutes a nadu. Each vur has a chief called vur goundan or muppan. While the nadu comes under the jurisdiction of another hereditary chieftain called nadu goundan.
Cropping Systems and Rotation
The diversity in the tribal farmers’ fields has been enhanced by the practice of multiple cropping and mixed cropping in both space and time. The rotation of crops helps in maintaining the soil health and meeting their multiple needs. Based on the amount of rainfall, soil types and farmers' preferences, different cropping systems and cropping rotation are followed, ragi based mixed cropping system is extensively practised with or without rotation, depending upon the rainfall, normally semmotchai (Panicum vulgaris) or coriander can be raised after the mixed cropping system.
The continuous cultivation of tapioca in the same field results in absorption of nutrients from the same soil depth leading to fall in yield in subsequent years. This effect has been experienced by the tribal farmers and so, to combat this effect, they have started to follow crop rotation with minor millets and upland paddy in the middle geomorphic units (terraced fields).
Traditional Mixed Cropping Systems
Mixed cropping is defined as the growing of two or more crops simultaneously intermingled with each other without definite row pattern. This system is a traditional method of multiple cropping and the cropping intensity is often more than 100 per cent. The main objective of this system is to meet the food requirements of the family. The system involves the combination of crops with different food values, maturity periods, input requirements and capacity to withstand natural calamities and also results in minimising risk and thereby help in stabilising the food supply.
This unique practice is complemented by the use of crop varieties having wider genetic base. This wider genetic base is acting as a risk averting mechanism in this undesirable environmental condition. Based on their experience, the whole system is designed in such a way that it acts as an insurance agent against biotic and abiotic stresses. It also satisfies the diverse needs of the farmer and efficiently utilises the space and time to a greater extent. It effectively protects the soils from run-off and moisture from evaporation by covering the soil throughout the crop period.
Common Crop Rotation Practices
Field Visit to Kollihills January 25-27, 2019
The Kollihills (Box 1 for landscapes of the hills) are a really beautiful place, full of varied and enjoyable landscapes. Every visit the Team makes brings some new perspective on the landscapes. There are indeed so many places that show up narratives that are an unspoken pledge to the visitor to present factually accurate account of themselves, in a deeper and sometimes in an entertaining way.
As the Team travelled down to Paravaaru hamlet of Ariyur Nadu for a meeting with the people, the people of the villages around were engaged in paddy transplantation work. The entire Paravaaru valley was very active, with farmers and labourers plucking the seedlings and women transplanting them in the fields prepared for it. Elsewhere some workers were involved in ploughing, harrowing and levelling; further away some others were involved in basal dressing. The valley looked a beehive of activities, keeping people seriously engaged in their work.
On reaching Paravaaru, the Team found people, men and women, boys and girls, gathered around a community hall for a feast after an engagement. Men were eating and some men and women were serving. One of them even served liquor tin plastic tumblers to the guests at the eating tables. Near the temple, some youth and children were playing volley ball even as some men and women engaged in cooking for the guests. There was celebration in the air and animated conversations among the guests filled the air.
After spending a few minutes talking to the guests of the occasion, the Team moved away to meet with the women of the self-help group that goes by the name Thamarai. The Team had a very useful discussion with a small number of women. The President (Ms. Yogalakshmi) and Secretary (Ms. Chitra) of the SHG asked for a coffee pulper which could be used for generating income for the households of the SHG. The women suggested that the pulper could be hired out to people in their as well as neighbouring hamlets during the season to make some income for the group.
As the discussion was still on about what development activities we could arrange for, Mr. Rajagopal of Paravaaru showed interest in mushroom cultivation (the hills are a veritable haven for several edible wild varieties of mushroom) and offered to gather a few people from about the hamlet for a training session.
About lunch time, the Team moved to Thegavoipatti and met with three women. In the discussion about what could possibly provide them sustainable livelihood as well as other members of the SHG, they hit upon the idea of a flour mill (rice, wheat, ragi, millets), which could be similarly used to make some good income for the SHG households. They further said that the members could take turn to operate and maintain the mill, if the mill could be set up. In the end they promise to discuss the project with the other members of the SHG and get back to the Team through our local support Mr. Prakasam.
The Team then moved to Kulivalavu, by about 2.30 pm, and met with Ms. Vanitha of Ilamthalir (Tender Leaves) SHG and her husband Mr. Nehru who is employed at the taluk e-service centre. Ms. Vanitha elaborated on her accountant work with the Pudhu Vazhvu (New Life) programme of development for several months and was involved in a scheme known as Amudhasurabi (literally, a bowl of unending supply of food). It was a scheme of development credit to the women’s SHGs of the Kollihills. The loans with a 40 percent subsidy involved various amounts of credit: Rupees 20,000 as initial credit, followed by Rupees 40,000 on clearing the initial loan without default and finally Rupees 50,000, for generating income for the livelihood of the member-households. She was also involved in a subsidy scheme for unemployed people of the Kollihills under the same programme of development. Mr. Nehru, the spouse of Ms. Vanitha, is employed at the e-seva maiyam (e-service centre) at Semmedu, the Kollihills’ administrative headquarters. He narrated his work at the e-service centre and a slew of services the centre offers to the people of the Kollihills.
In the evening, the Team visited several families in the hamlets to get to know what they would prefer to do for sustainable livelihoods, working in non-agricultural occupations, if they wished to make a decent living. The individual and groups discussions centred round the resources they could wield and be happily engaged.
The next day, January 27, 2019 Sunday, the team travelled the ups and downs of the Hills to acquire an appreciation of the landscapes and the agriculture. The visit was very rewarding, as the Team stopped at several interior villages to have informal discussions with the people, especially women and girls and men and boys of the villages to listen to and understand about their varied and practical ideas of development they think and care about.
Cognitive Knowledge of Rainfall Pattern
The Malayalis of Kollihills are basically agriculturists and hence are more dependent on the rains for their livelihood. By virtue of the long association with the monsoon patterns and understanding of the vagaries of climate, they have been able to classify the rains received every month and the resulting pattern of agriculture and yield for the season.
After the harvest festival, Pongal, in January, the agricultural season begins with the onset of south-west monsoon. The rains normally begin to fall in the Tamil month of Chittirai (April-May) and the same is called Chittirai mahai (rains of Chittirai). The rains of the first fortnight of the month is called Ashwini mazhai (rains of Ashwini) and the rain occurring in the second fortnight of the same month is called Bharani mazhai (rains of Bharani), Ashwini and Bharani being the stars.
The rains of the first fortnight are not preferred because it is believed that it would setback five spells of rains to follow. In the next Tamil month of Vaigasi (May-June), rains are referred to with reference to dates: the rain on the 4th, 5th and the 6th days of the month are said to be very productive. On the other hand, the rains that begin on the 7th or 8th of that month in the season is believed to be unproductive. The understanding is that, if it rains on the 10th of the (third) month of Aani (June-July), it is believed then that paddy would grow even on the rocks (parai ellam nel vilaiyum). Generally, the 8th of Aani is considered to be inauspicious and if it rains on the 8th of any month, it is believed to have negative impact on agriculture. Likewise, for every month, the tribal people have identified dates of rainfall and related beliefs are also spelt out clearly for them by their ancestors.
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.
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