Children in these villages refuse to walk six to nine km a day to reach the nearest school as the roads pass through dense forests where they may come face to face with a wild animal. Consequently, Sathyamangalam, Thalavady, Anthiyur, Ammapettai and Nambiyur regions are the most educationally backward areas in the state. While schools have been sanctioned in Kadambur, Thalavady and Hassanur, under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan scheme, they have failed to begin operations because of opposition from the forest department.
Recently, Bhavani Sagar MLA P S Sundaram led a group of residents in repairing a village road leading to a primary school, defying the ban imposed by the forest department. During the first week of September, a group of tribal children from Vilamkombai forest village met Erode district collector Dr V K Shanmugam, seeking release of their school van which had been seized by transport authorities for violations.
The van was the only mode of transport available for these children to reach their school at Vinobha Nagar in Kongarapalayam. For the last three years, the van took them through a 12-km stretch through forest area daily. The presence of wild animals on the stretch meant that the children could not walk or cycle to school. It was the forest department that gave the village the van three years ago to enable children to get an education. A local youth who knew driving was entrusted with the task of driving the children to school and back daily. However, two months ago the RTA seized the van because the owner had not paid road tax or insurance. The collector eventually made alternative arrangements for the children but the episode indicates how difficult it is for children in forest areas to get an education.
Education activist N Nataraj, who works with the NGO Sudar, said that the RTE Act is not being implemented consistently in Erode. "The Act ensures free and compulsory education to all children, but the hill regions remain devoid of schools because of sheer apathy of the department. Children in remote areas must also be given the opportunity to study," he added. "Many children who are denied primary education now go to Kerala and take up coolie jobs. Others work in brick kilns and sugarcane fields in Coimbatore,'' said B Gunasekaharan, a tribal leader.
One third of Erode district is hill region. As the government has withdrawn the hill area allowance for teachers working in the hills, even villages with schools find it difficult to hire teachers. The government must immediately take care of the educational needs of the region,'' said Murali Kasinath, project manager of Aide et Action South Asia in Sathyamangalam.
Irked by the move, over 10,000 tribal residents of Thalavadi, Thiganare, Thinkalur, Panakkalli, Naithalpuram, Igalur, Thalamalai, Bainapuram, Hassanur and Germalam village panchayats have rallied behind Pazhamkudi Makkal Sanghom, a tribal outfit supported by CPI, that plans to organize a series of agitations in this regard.
"These tribals are the most neglected in the state. Their rights over the forests were curtailed long ago due to the Veerappan crisis. After the encounter death of Veerappan, the forest department had constituted several tribal forest protection committees and they functioned well, collecting and selling minor forest produce till now. Twenty seven such bodies had together made a profit of Rs 64 Lakh in the last few years. Now the committees are in crisis as the forest authorities have denied them access to the forests as it is a tiger reserve,'' says P L Sundaram, MLA of Bhavani Sagar Constituency.
"We were the pride of the forest department till they mooted the tiger reserve project with the support of Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. We depend entirely on live stock and there is no land for us to graze them. The department is now forcing us to sell our goats and cows,'' says Pazhamkudi Makkal leader P Dorai.
According to tribals, the forest department has told them to engage in lending of shamianas and crockery for marriage celebrations. The department has promised them funds to buy the infrastructure for the lending business. "Other than rearing cattle and collecting forest produce, we know no other means of livelihood. Some of us cultivate raggi, makkacholam and gingelly we are at the mercy of wild animals. As there is no irrigation water available, we are not able to cultivate the more profitable sugarcane, plantain and water melon,'' says M Mahadevan, a Soliga tribal of Alapurdoddi tribal hamlet.
"We are not against tigers or any other wild animals. But denying tribals their right to depend on the forests is beyond logic. I will take it up with Chief Minister J Jayalalithaaa,'' says Sundaram. Traditionally, tribals collect honey and gooseberry from the forests.
"Such decisions should not be made unilaterally and forest protection must not be at the expense of tribals. The move is a clear violation of forest rights act,'' says C R Bijoy, a Coimbatore-based activist. Erode Forest Conservator D Arun confirmed when contacted that there would be restrictions on entering the forests after they are declared a Tiger reserve. He said the department strongly recommends the tribal folk to take up alternative means of livelihood.
We were the pride of the forest department till they mooted the tiger reserve project.We depend entirely on live stock and there is no land for us to graze them. The department is now forcing us to sell our goats and cows
A story of filial loyalty and political ambition in which ‘Hitler’ doles out biryani to counter Stalin
It happens every 30 January. Traffic in Madurai is thrown out of gear, and about 700 hoardings spring up, some of them in vain competition with the city’s temple shikhars for skyline domination. Nobody can miss the birthday of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s elder son Azhagiri. The comparisons range from melodious to odious. This year, he was variously depicted as US President Obama, legendary Tamil kings Raja Raja Cholan and Pandya Nedumchezhiyan, the Dravidian reformer Periyar and Adolf Hitler ‘who overcomes challenges’ in some supporter’s fervid mind.
But then again, that fervid mind might have had a point. Azhagiri, too, has been outmanoeuvred by a man named Stalin. In this case, it’s his younger brother, with whom he has had to forge a peace pact to boost his career. At 58, Azhagiri is at an age when most men retire, but he has just begun his electoral career in politics. He has been granted a Lok Sabha ticket, his first ever, from Madurai by his father.
Voters, going by past experience, are preparing for a feast of money, muscle power and chicken biryani. The Election Commission has already had to step in to put a halt to attempts by his followers to enroll 90,000 new names onto the voters’ list. The EC has also got complaints that Azhagiri forced a local TV channel to scroll his appeal for votes over the live telecast of the annual Kumbabishekam festival at Meenakshi temple, and is distributing cash coupons directly among women voters of the constituency, scraps of paper that can be exchanged for Rs 100 at any local DMK office later. CPM candidate P Mohan has submitted a petition along with these coupons and a video clip to substantiate the charge.
Such tactics have helped the DMK leader’s son ensure victories for the party in three successive assembly by-elections from Madurai Central, Madurai West and Thirumangalam—marginal seats once for the ruling party. “Those were not by-elections but ‘buy elections’,” alleges AIADMK leader O Panneerselvam, “Voters were lured with money and biryani. The state machinery was misused and poll officials remained helpless in the face of intimidation and false voting.”
Azhagiri’s backing by way of money and muscle is so strong that the CPM had even tried to slip away, asking its alliance partner Jayalalithaa (of the AIADMK) to allot it a safer seat to contest instead. Neither partner was keen to represent Madurai in the Lok Sabha, and not only because of shortcomings in appealing to the electorate’s culinary tastes.
It is hard to believe it now, but Azhagiri began his political career as a man noted for simple living. This was in the early 1980s, when he was deputed to look after the DMK mouthpiece Murasoli's Madurai edition. “He was never allowed by the party to interfere in editorial matters of the publication,” recalls K Muthuramalingam, a former associate who’s now with the AIADMK, adding that his lifestyle was indeed Spartan, with a Lambretta scooter and a rented house.
That changed soon enough. By the end of the decade, he was a cash-rich Madurai entrepreneur, dishing out entertainment through Royal Video. Now, his business empire includes a TV channel, cable service provider, big wedding hall and huge showroom of silk textiles. His son Dayanidhi has emerged as one of the topmost film producers in Kollywood with a number of hits to his credit. Through all this, Karunanidhi kept his elder son at a distance.
It was in 1996, when the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu with a huge majority, that Azhagiri gave in to the temptation of throwing his father’s name around. This caught Karunanidhi unawares, and caused friction with Stalin, the favoured son and presumptive heir (both sons, though, are of Karunanidhi’s first wife Dayalu Ammal). The sibling rivalry began to spill on to the streets, with occasional clashes between their supporters. In 2000, an article by Karunanidhi in Murasoli urging party workers to stay away from Azhagiri provoked a fierce response from the latter’s followers, who vandalised government offices and set transport buses on fire. In 2001, Madurai was thrown into violent disorder when the DMK denied Azhagiri’s nominee C Kaverimanian a Rajya Sabha ticket, giving it to Stalin nominee Tiruchi Siva instead. In the Assembly election that followed, the slighted son’s forces worked against DMK candidates in a swathe large enough to give the AIADMK an edge. Prominent DMK leaders like Palanivelrajan and Velu Swamy lost, and Kiruttinan was allegedly murdered by his loyalists though a trial court exonerated the accused later.
By 2003, Azhagiri had his father’s attention. In a reconciliatory move, he organised a grand function to release Karunanidhi’s book Tholkappia Poonga (a critical study on the Tamil classic Tholkappiyam). Copies worth Rs 28 lakh were sold at the function. The father was pleased.
In between, the sibling rivalry went into another height when Dinakaran, the Tamil daily owned by his uncle's sons Dayanidhi Maran and Kalanidhi Maran, condcuted an `opinion poll' in which a huge majority of voters preffred Stalin as successor of Karunandihi. Azhagiri lagged far behind in the poll and that infuriarated his followers to set ablaze Dinakaran office in Madurai. Two of the newspaper employees were charred to death in the incident.
According to party insiders, it was Azhagiri’s mother who finally brokered peace between the father and prodigal son. But Stalin was a cabinet minister and DMK treasurer by then, and seen clearly as the successor. “Now, an aged Karunanidhi wants to see his family united. He is also ready to do anything to please his children,” says a top DMK leader, talking of Azhagiri’s candidature. There are rumours doing the rounds that the elder son had threatened suicide if he wasn’t allowed to contest at least a single election.
But within the DMK, the ticket is also an acknowledgement of Azhagiri’s ability to ‘inspire’ the cadres and ensure victory even in difficult terrains. After 40 years of shunting him around, the party finally had to make him its South Zone Organising Secretary after the series of by-election wins he pulled off. Ecstatic crowds now assemble outside his TVR Nagar house these days, where he lives with his wife Kanthi Azahagiri.
“There is no challenge to his hegemony over southern districts. Leaders like PTR Palanivel who can check on him have passed away, and he has succeeded in making the party leadership here a pack of his sycophants. Dissenters were either sidelined or expelled,” complains a senior DMK leader.
Tales around him are not about to die down anytime soon. Madurai traders accuse Azhagiri of sending goons to collect protection money from them. Others allege that he holds kangaroo courts, takes his own slice of real estate deals and runs other extortion rackets. “People fear him because he acts as an authoritarian local king,” says Vadivelu, an auto driver.
Meanwhile, CPM state secretary N Varadarajan puts up a brave front. His party, he says, is open to the challenge: “We will face the election without fear. And also write an obituary to all high-handed political activists, who dream of an easy Madurai win.”
For his part, Azhagiri boasts, “I will win by a margin of not less than 3.5 lakh.” It is only the ageing father who seems a little lost in all this: “I presume his life may be under threat. Why does the CPM fear my son so much?”