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Sustainable development is a buzzword in all contemporary development discourses. The most challenging aspect of sustainable development today is how to ensure an overall betterment of people and communities, alongside the preservation of their economic, social and environmental matrix. These are important to eco-sensitive regions and the people inhabiting forests and hills. Problems of subsistence and livelihood are vast and varied insofar as the Adivasis (tribals) are concerned. A tribal economy is generally concerned with providing such things as are necessary for their livelihood. These activities and programmes are, by and large, determined by the geographical locale of the Adivasis. However, governments either often ended up in failure or would not make any genuine efforts for ensuring a holistic development. The case of Attappady, a protected forest area in the Palakkad district of Kerala, is an example of how successive governments have failed to ensure sustainable development of the region and, thereby worsening the livelihood security of its indigenous Adivasis.

The transformation of Attappady

The study has been carried out through a field investigation in Attappady by visiting select tribal hamlets. The methodology employed is participant-observation, staying within the Adivasi area during June-July 2017. The responses of the beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of various Adivasi development programmes have been recorded, with the help of a semi-structured schedule, for generating qualitative data.

The detrimental effects of external influence on Attappady:

Census data suggested that more than 90 per cent of the population in Attappady was indigenous in 1951. By 2001, it had reduced to almost 40 per cent. It was observed that the demographic transition of the Adivasi population was caused by the massive influx of non-indigenous people from low and midlands of Kerala and Tamil Nadu into Attappady, thus creating a vast community and land pressure on the region.

A tribal society which is inherently, and historically, a self-sufficient, need-based economy, is the most sustainable way of living as per the modern definitions which draw a line between the ‘sustainable’ and ‘non-sustainable’ ways of living. A society that depends mainly on land for their livelihood relies solely on natural resources and follows sustainable patterns of consumption, and production is deemed to be sustainable. However, the Adivasis of Attappady can no longer be called a self-sustaining community because, over the years, their human ecology has been primarily influenced by external factors, which largely contributed to their state of affairs—having their culture and unique agricultural foundations crippled gradually, and their ecologically harmonious lifestyle almost vanished within a short period. The social solidarity of the Adivasis broke down and most of the Adivasi lands were taken forcefully, leaving them disempowered and dispossessed. Until the twentieth century, Attappady remained a land inhabited exclusively by the indigenous tribes. It had remained mostly unknown or mostly unreachable as there was limited access to transportation then. But the outside interference was mainly driven by the motive of agriculture and farming.

Due to periodic migration, the livelihood security and sustainability of the Adivasis in Attappady stood affected. It also led to the exploitation of the environment, mainly through the reckless cutting of forests. The respondents said that all this affected the Adivasi life in its most essential aspects and even their social power dynamics have changed over the years. The Adivasis whose primary source of livelihood used to be hunting, gathering and farming were now struggling to find alternative means, and they would often end up becoming low paid wage labourers working under several development-oriented projects, which were mostly worthless for the local populace. The government interventions in Attappady claimed to have improved the sustainability or living conditions of the Adivasis. But the development projects, instead, changed their human ecology altogether, thus bringing them under structural pressure, causing multiple risks of marginalization from their habitat. This created a sort of aversion towards the culture of the Adivasis and made them feel that they were too backward for an ‘advanced progressive’ state. Manikyan, a school teacher from the tribal community told me that it was disheartening to see the kids mocking their classmates who were from the tribal communities and making fun of their languages and culture, thus making them disinclined and nervous to even acknowledge their roots.

‘Development’ projects (Adivasis’ side of the story):

Attappady has witnessed, over the last few decades, a proliferation of development projects and programmes which seek to make many promises to the Adivasi community. However, these programmes and projects tended to widen the scope of land encroachment by the outsiders. Besides, the development activities launched by the government from time to time could only overturn the structural conditions of a self-sustained community. Instead of empowering the Adivasis — to become a self-reliant community that could help the cause of sustainability — the projects virtually transformed them from the status of cultivators to dependent wage labourers who could easily be exploited by anyone, including the authorities. The projects formulated and put in place from time to time became a fertile ground for corruption. Respondents pointed out that the funds flowed from various national and international sources but were diverted for purposes other than the adivasi development. P.R.G. Mathur, former director of Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (KIRTADS), said that “the transformation of the Adivasis — from cultivators to wage labourers — resulted in a situation when the indigenous community lost its self-reliant character”. The ‘development’ projects were executed haphazardly and the money was being channelized into influential individuals’ hands. Officials and other interested sections were involved in this corruption nexus, and they were, in effect, indifferent towards the Adivasi cause and the sustainability of their livelihood system, respondents indicated. According to the Adivasi leaders and experts working among them, even one-third of the total funds received for various projects were not required for the overall empowerment of the indigenous people. K.A. Ramu, Convener of Thampu, an organization working among Adivasis in Kerala, says: “Politicians became contractors, contractors became politicians, and they became the people’s representatives. They did not have any empathy for the tribal communities” (Ibid). According to the respondents, a good majority of the Adivasis remained impoverished and illiterate despite all the efforts of the government through various programmes. Adivasis lost their sense of livelihood, and began forgetting their own human ecology and culture and thereby ended up being the victims of this whole nexus between the politicians and contractors, who reaped the windfall of the projects worth millions flowing in from various government sources, according to the respondents.

The current situation in Attappady

Currently, a lot of them are content with the free food and other benefits they are getting as part of the development projects, and this has led to a more complicated situation where the perception of the Adivasis and their ways of earning a livelihood are influenced considerably by the mainstream agencies and their viewpoints. For example, a young government clerk from a tribal community whom we interacted with was surprisingly unaware of the government projects like the Attappady Wasteland Comprehensive Environmental Conservation Project (AWCECOP) or the Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) that were not only namesake projects that led to widespread corruption and exploitation but also counterproductive to their traditional practices, values and customs and she even went on to appreciate the benefits that government is offering them(Official records indicated how the projects, over the years, has deviated from its original objective of empowerment of Adivasi community and turned towards building of houses, roads, bridges and pipelines, which were largely irrelevant for the Adivasi cause). When further questioned, it was revealed that she did not have any idea of the history of deprivation that the tribal community had to go through as she had studied in residential government schools and was sort of bought into the mainstream and singular view of development. So in a way, the outsiders have started using the tribals for their benefits while being indifferent towards what their actual needs are. Various government missions have tried to tackle this problem, and have done this with limited success. Therefore, the Adivasis still, evidently, remain a highly vulnerable group being subjected to the changing pattern of the human ecology.

It is evident from the responses of the tribals how the new projects like Attappady Comprehensive Tribal Development and Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group Development Project (ACT-PVTG) are largely questioned and seen with mistrust. While visiting several hamlets, especially the ones in remote areas, it was clear to me that a large proportion of Adivasis was disoriented and still living a separate life from the majority population. The chief of one of the clans, Rangan Mooppan was of the opinion that the government would only help those who are willing to live by their dictates and that they are trying to assimilate the tribals through charity and free benefits. So, a conflict of interest is evident and most of the Adivasis have sought to cooperate with the projects just because they had to, and the idea of any port in a storm seems to be introduced and well executed in the Adivasi populace. Therefore, it is not surprising to know that a majority of the Adivasis still remain impoverished due to the actions of the government and the people in the past and that the younger generation is largely unaware of all this.

It is clear that there is a dire need to reinvigorate the tribal economy and community as well as to rebuild the social solidarity in those communities. The government should be more receptive to the opinions and needs of Adivasis to help them develop in their own terms while sustaining or preserving their traditions, culture or language. In the age of rapid modernization and globalization, where the societies and economies are assimilated into a single market structure, the government should at least ensure that tribal communities are not thrown under the wheels of capitalism and thus forgotten about completely. They need to be given the right orientation while preserving their own characteristics and livelihood, which is quite simply, the most sustainable and natural.


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(AHADS) Attappady Hills Area Development Society (2003): National Review on Attappady Wasteland Comprehensive Environmental Conservation Project, Agali: AHADS.

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Census of India (2001): “The Scheduled Tribes,” New Delhi: Government of India.

Census of India (2011): Primary Census Abstract-Data Highlights, Kerala, Series 33, Kerala: Directorate of Census Operation.

India, Ministry of Tribal Affairs (2014): Report of the High-Level Committee on Socioeconomic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India, New Delhi: Government of India.

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World Commission on Environment and Development (1987):  Our Common Future: Brundtland Commission Report, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Image Credit: Kudumbashree

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Written By Nikhil Seethi

Economics Graduate. Pursuing Masters in Development Studies.

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