Interview with a Jenu Kuruba Tribe Leader

heraldDo most of us caught in the gridlock over the issue of relocation of tribals living in reserve forests and national parks concede the simple Right to Life to people who seek it the most? Tribal leader J T Rajappa shoots the question at us on our visit!

A tribal from the Jenu Kuruba community, J T Rajappa belongs to the honey gathering ethnic group living within the forests of the Western Ghats in Karnataka. In the year 2010, 143 families voluntarily moved out of the forest, readily accepting the government sponsored relocation package. A brighter future was promised and hopes were high but the fear of the unfamiliar dogged them. In the discomfort of not knowing what lay ahead, they made the transition.

Today, J T Rajappa has come a long way from the fear and isolation. He is now an active member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India, a district relocation committee nominated member in Mysore and is the president for the Shettalli Relocation Committee and a proud father who sees his three boys off to school each day.

Before the migration, for Rajappa and his community that resided deep within the forests of Nagarahole, in Kallalla Range, forests were an intricate part of life. Their lives started and ended within the forests. “We may have moved in pockets to different places, but we always remained isolated, deep in the forest. I worked as a forest watcher from 1983 for six years for three thousand rupees a month,” says Rajappa, who later made it to many photographs captured by international donors who visited their shelters accompanied by local NGOs, assuring support. “Most of the NGOs who visited our homes always encouraged us to live inside the forest. I took part in many such protests against eviction during the time.”

But as they say change is inevitable. The turning point in Rajappa’s life came in 1993. “In the year 1993, I accompanied a few people to the fringes of the forest, to oppose the construction of a hotel. I realised I was being taken seriously! I could exercise my rights and bring more value to my community by moving out of the forest.”

However, Rajappa was in for another shocking revelation – he found that someone else had taken it upon themselves to speak on their behalf. “After interacting with many villagers living on the fringes of the National Park, I realised how a few social-welfare organisations were exploiting our rights to live in these forests. They were depriving us of our rights by arguing that we tribals don’t connect with forests as much as our forefathers did and that we are not completely dependent on the forest and a majority of us were not happy with this life.”

Despite him wanting to believe the contrary, deep down Rajappa felt it was true. It was only a decade later that the truth hit home. In 2005, Rajappa was witness to his neighbour’s child being taken away by a tiger.

There were other challenges too, but they had battled through it all – up until now. “Repeated man-animal conflicts, poor living conditions, lack of basic living amenities and no health care available close to home – it was only logical for us to opt for relocation. But a lot of us were apprehensive – leaving behind our land, ridding what we knew, unsure of what lay ahead.”

A new journey

Five years after the incident, in 2010, under the government sponsored scheme, every family agreeing to relocate from Nagarahole was offered Rs 10 lakh (cash and land value). The Forest Department with assistance from Living Inspiration for Tribals (LIFT), a partner NGO of Wildlife Conservation Society-India, helped over 147 families from Nagarahole move to Shettalli in Hunsur taluk in November 2010. As a result, these families are enjoying their new found freedom from intense human-wildlife conflicts, while at the same time Bogapura, Murkal, Ganagur, Madenur and Kallalla areas in Nagarahole National Park, which are inviolate today, are benefitting from their move.

So, what brought this change in attitude? “In the year 2009, the Forest Department, with members from LIFT, took us to Bhadra on an exposure programme to meet relocated tribals, to understand and witness the lives they were leading post relocation. This interaction opened our minds,” he explains.

Quiz Rajappa on life outside the forest and he says, “I am a different man today. My three boys are studying and my wife is working as a health assistant. We have a new house, we are free to practice agriculture, I have fixed deposits in the bank, hospitals and schools are accessible and I have been offered many responsibilities – I am very proud. I have visited Delhi twice to attend NTCA meetings. I am getting to do and experience things I never knew were open to people like us. Many handicapped tribals and those with chronic diseases who stood no chance of survival, are able to live and work because of effective post-relocation efforts. Today, people know we exist and we are not forgotten. We, as a tribe, are respected.”

And he exclaims, “No tradition or culture was slighted or forgotten during the transition. In fact, we are all happy ‘tribals’ living in better environs today. In our hearts, we are who we are, and that’s what matters.”

Over 700 tribal families living within Nagarahole today are waiting for relocation. “The forest department should come forward and take action with the sincere patronage of the government. Along with my community and many others, we are garnering support and more steam to help my fellow tribals lead the life they deserve.” The question is do we, who enjoy the comforts of today, have the privilege to deny those living in the forest our way of life – even if that’s what they chose?

The story of J T Rajappa is not an isolated one. There are many such tribals today, who are presidents of committees, whose children are studying in the city and whose community itself has grown in leaps and bounds. And they are not complaining. As Rajappa puts it, “This is only the beginning. There are scores of tribals living within the forest awaiting this freedom and the future holds hope.”

– The article has been published in Deccan Herald newspaper: Link



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