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Disquiet in Gudalur valley

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Change is rushing into the adivasi communities of the Gudalur valley of Tamil Nadu's Nilgiris district. The imposition of land deeds, the arrest of adivasis if they collect forest produce, their dependence on work on tea and coffee plantations and 'ecotourism' are introducing a new gender divide and affecting women's work

In Gudalur valley, in Tamil Nadu's Nilgiris district where I live, adivasi women of the Paniya, Bettakurumba, Mullukurumba, Kattunaicken and Irula tribes are, in some ways, better off than women from other communities and religions. In other ways though, they are much more vulnerable.

The male-female ratio of many tribes in India is better than the national average of 927 girls for every 1,000 boys. Female foeticide does not exist among the adivasis of the Nilgiris. Starting from birth, there is still no hankering for the boy-child; baby girls are welcomed with equal joy. The practice of "bride price" and the matriarchal system of inheritance in some tribes ensure that girls have equal (and sometime greater) value in the community. Both men and women cook and fetch firewood and water -- that is, they share chores that are "unpaid" labour. Among hunter-gatherer communities, women traditionally went fishing and gathered wild mushrooms, tubers, roots and other food, while the men hunted or trapped wild boar, deer, rabbits, birds, etc.

This has changed in the last few decades, with the forest department arresting tribals found gathering food or collecting minor forest produce.

Change is rushing rapidly into what was once pristine adivasi territory. In 1985, I had observed that Paniya men cooked, cleaned and massaged their pregnant wives' feet with great tenderness and concern. At that time, the tribes lived in isolated hamlets away from their non- adivasi neighbours. Now, the adivasi team members of ACCORD, an NGO in Gudalur, and the Adivasi Munnetra Sangam (AMS), the local adivasi movement started in 1988 to protect the community from exploitation, say that their new non- adivasi neighbours often mock and deride adivasi men who are seen fetching water, firewood, cooking or doing any activity deemed to be "women's work". This interaction with non- adivasis is bringing about an indelible change in adivasi gender equations in the Gudalur valley.

Adivasis in the valley have always treated land, air and water as communal property, owned by no one and everyone. Individual ownership of property was an alien concept. Adivasis rarely, if ever, had land documents. However, the imposition of patta or title deeds, land documents and ownership by the outside world of officialdom is brining about a virtual colonisation of the adivasis' land.

Land documents were introduced by the British but became necessary in the Nilgiris in the 1960s, when settlers, mainly from neighbouring Kerala, came to the area encouraged by the government's "grow more food" policy. The settlers were allowed to stake a claim on any land, both revenue and forest, to grow food. This was when massive deforestation in the area and a systematic usurpation of adivasi lands began.

The question of ownership has brought into existence the question of inheritance. Will men inherit the earth, as they do in most parts of the world, or will adivasi women enjoy a different status from other women? This unsettled question will definitely influence the status of women, the nature of women's work, and the way adivasi women are viewed in the not-too-distant future. In areas such as Jharkhand, women's groups have raised these issues; in Gudalur, a dialogue initiated by AMS has just begun within the community. It focuses on sorting out land disputes without resorting to the legal or police departments, which only bring discord within adivasi villages.

When adivasi women go for coolie work outside the community, their status is the same as other local women. Wages are paid according to the rules of the Plantation Act, which prescribes a minimum wage of Rs 60.50 per day for both men and women. However, men almost always receive higher wages than women by virtue of the fact that their jobs -- spraying fertiliser and pesticides, clearing land, etc -- are deemed more difficult. Women are never promoted from the labourer's category. The job of supervisor, guard, or other senior position is reserved for men. These jobs receive higher wages than the minimum.

However, jobs like tea picking are reserved solely for women on some estates because women are considered faster and better pickers than men. When women pick leaves during the flush season they are paid according to the weight of the leaves, instead of daily fixed wages, and consequently they may earn more. For the rest of the year, their wages are lower than the wages of their male co-workers. Over the last few years, many workers have not been paid for months, even years, because of the supposed slump in the tea industry. This has forced them to live on borrowed money, while paying interest to moneylenders. I was part of a study group formed by ActionAid UK that confronted Unilever on this issue. The workers were starving, but the shareholders were getting their dividends.

Women on small farms, and on small tea, coffee or food gardens, often get paid lower wages than regular plantation workers. There are flush and lean seasons. So when there is no work, both men and women sometimes work for less than the minimum wage and remain unemployed for some months of the year.

Adivasis are not usually considered ideal employees or given preference in hiring on big plantations because they tend to lead less routine lives, are more independent and less amenable to control than workers used to timetables and attendance rosters. On plantations, workers are expected to be at work on time, when the attendance muster is called. If you are absent, you will not get work that day. A divasis tend to get less employment here and are therefore more vulnerable. Still, they try to hurry to get to the big plantations because they have been banned from the forests and forced to abandon their hunter-gatherer work. This, in spite of new forest laws and the Common Minimum Programme that state that forest-dwellers' rights should be protected.

Due to factors such as these, many adivasis , mostly men but some women too, go to work as coolie labour on coffee plantations in nearby Coorg, where they then encounter many of the problems of migrant workers. Almost all of them have no savings when they return because of usury or miscalculations by contractors. Away from their families, men often form temporary liaisons, which break up their primary relationships with partners, leading to instability, distrust, alcoholic violence and domestic crises.

One of the most vulnerable areas for adivasi women is the sphere of sexual exploitation. Adivasi women all over India have always been targeted for sexual exploitation by non-tribal men. Traditionally, many tribal societies allow women and men equal sexual freedom. Studies of adivasi communities (in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal) have observed that the influx of outsiders has disturbed the adivasi social system, making the women vulnerable to HIV and other infections. In the Gudalur adivasi hospital, it is known that there are almost no sexually-transmitted diseases or HIV/AIDS among the adivasis of the valley. Only one case has been reported from the tourist-infested sanctuary area of Masinagudi.

"Eco-tourism", which the government is now aggressively pushing, is a disastrous invasion not merely of the environment but also of adivasi privacy, and a destruction of their way of life. At times, tourists who enter sanctuary areas in Bandipur (Karnataka), Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu) and Muthanga (Kerala) offer money to adivasi women. With no prospects for employment in these sanctuary areas, and with the forest department having taken away the people's ancient rights to fish, hunt, and gather food, some women accept the money.

In Wayanadu, which neighbours Gudalur, a number of unmarried young adivasi women -- some of whom come here to work as domestic help -- are sexually exploited by their employers. Nothing has been done to protect these women. Estate supervisors on small farms also extract sexual favours from adivasi women workers; others are paid for sex. In many instances, the sexual exploitation cannot be classified as rape. But women's groups and anthropologists have discussed this brutalising of a socially and culturally different people, together with the need to protect adivasis from exploitative outside influences. If they become pregnant in such encounters, in most cases the women do not push for maintenance for the child. There is disapproval but no long-lasting stigma attached to unwed mothers among the Gudalur tribes. The women look after their children as best they can, with support from their families. The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act could be used in such cases. The Act specifies that sexual exploitation of vulnerable employees is an offence punishable by law.

At the time of Independence , Nehru remarked that development did not mean making the once-proud, independent adivasis cheap pale imitations of the dominant sections of Indian society. Sixty years after Independence , however, India 's adivasis are a colonised, exploited and vulnerable people.

(Mari Marcel Thekaekara is co-founder of ACCORD, an organisation working with adivasis in the Gudalur valley, Nilgiris, and Just Change, a cooperative of producers and consumers. She has been writing on social issues since 1980 and contributes regularly to The Hindu , the New Internationalist and other papers)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007